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Sunday, April 1, 2012

STAR OF THE MONTH: Rita Hayworth

Margarita Cansino ~ Rita Hayworth

In encountering or examining the true life of a hero, one is confronted with mixed emotions, depending on the subject. At times, one crumples in laughter; at times, one jumps to the defensive. One is occasionally met with disappointment; one is sometimes filled with almost welcomed envy. After "The End," one wants to move mountains, right wrongs, or reverentially pay tribute. In reliving the life of Margarita Cansino, one wants to do nothing but weep. The problem with adoring Rita Hayworth, who is so easy to adore, is that there never was a Rita Hayworth. Never, in all cinematic history perhaps, has there been a performer who so resolutely was able to draw a thick, impenetrable line between her screen persona and herself. The duality of Rita/Margarita is something that continues to beckon fascination and curiosity. As thoroughly and intelligently analyzed by Adrienne L. McLean in her book Being Rita Hayworth, the construction of Rita Hayworth the movie star was something that was not hidden, but sensationalized and avidly participated in by all concerned-- except for Rita herself. Rita was a sex kitten and the girl-next-door. She was dangerous; she was harmless. She was dominant; she was passive. The one thing that she was consistently was malleable: she was whatever everyone wanted her to be. This is why she remains one of Hollywood's greatest movie stars and actresses of all time.

~     ~     ~

Rita Hayworth's childhood was stolen from her in every conceivable way. A naturally shy girl, she was already at a disadvantage in jumping into the social whirlpool. Whatever chances she had of shedding her protective exterior were annihilated by her unfortunate, inherited circumstances. Her father, Eduardo Cansino, had achieved a measure of acclaim on the vaudeville dance circuit, where he and his sister Elisa-- both non-English speaking imports from their native Spain--  enchanted audiences with their exotic and graceful movements. After he and showgirl Volga Hayworth married, they quickly birthed their first child, Margarita Cansino, in Brooklyn, NY on October 17, 1918. Two sons would follow-- Eduardo, Jr. ("Sonny") and Vernon-- but neither showed the natural penchant toward the family trade like Margarita. Thus, after the original "Dancing Cansinos" went their separate ways, the silent and obedient eldest girl became Eduardo's newest dancing partner. As a sad and embittered Volga increasingly disappeared into alcoholism, Eduardo took on the role of the violent patriarch, coaching Margarita in grueling dance instructions and taking her on tour after her originally chubby, adolescent body started to form into that of a well-crafted athlete. She had no childhood friends, mostly because she received little formal education. She was pulled out of school to work. Neighborhood kids would pass her on their own way home from school and see her silently staring from her porch. If one was so bold to talk to the bashful statue, she would perhaps offer a few sparse words, before she was inevitably called indoors by her controlling father.

The distant Hayworth gaze: one can imagine that this is the same look
she held as a little girl on that front porch.

By now, the family was living in California. Eduardo had intentions toward a career renaissance in the new medium of film. If he worked Margarita hard enough, she could perhaps be his way in and his struggling family's salvation. She put up no argument against his tyrannical and abusive practice sessions, and more and more she became a mere dancing puppet-- seemingly hollow and lacking in identity. She did as she was told and hid her inner sadness behind a stoic, obedient face. The worst was to come in Tijuana, known as "Sin City," because it provided a pleasing outlet for those escaping prohibition. Eduardo claimed to be protective of Rita when they toured here, dancing their routines as "husband and wife"-- because it provided a better front-- but he had no qualms about parading her before the drunken, drooling men who looked at her gorgeous figure and face like starving men looking at a meal. While the thirteen-year-old danced nightly and exhaustively on stage-- usually forced to go out afterward and catch fish for dinner, because Eduardo had, of course, gambled all of their money away-- her brothers went to school and enjoyed comparatively normal childhoods under their caring but distant mother's watch. Volga was not there looking out for Margarita when Eduardo, at this point in the young innocent's life, started repeatedly raping her. As always, Margarita internalized, compartmentalized, and went on with the show. The thick, impenetrable veil she was building up would later become the most intriguing part of her characterizations. In later years, no one would know that the scintillating heat brimming beneath the beauty's cool surface was the burden of pain and shame.

When father and daughter returned, Volga was perhaps the only one who noticed a change in her daughter, and though she never stood up to her husband, she did begin sleeping in Margarita's room, joining the duo on tours, and leaving them alone together as little as possible. Unfortunately, the damage had been done. Despite Margarita's natural sweetness and passivity, inside she was a silent tiger pacing in its cage, waiting for the chance to get out. Ironically, Eduardo's solution of a cinematic career would allow her to escape through one trap door into another prison. But at this point, what choice did she have? A screen test, thanks to Fox production chief Winfield Sheehan, won her a contract with Fox, and soon she was dancing onscreen with Gary Leon in Dante's Inferno- choreographed by Eduardo, of course. Due to her dark features, she was typically cast in Latin roles or as other "exotic" types, such as her turn as Nayda in Charlie Chan in Egypt. Despite potential, she failed to break through to a place of real recognition. Enter the second manipulative man in her life-- Eddie Judson, who was a thirty-nine year old con-artist keen on turning the vulnerable sixteen-year-old into his meal ticket. After Fox dropped her, Eddie was able to land her a new seven-year contract at Columbia, headed by "White Fang" Harry Cohn. Columbia was the "hack lot," always borrowing other stars, because they had none of their own. Little did Cohn know when signing "Rita Cansino" that he had just grabbed a hold of his first, true movie star. Eddie Judson already knew, but he had to build her up before anyone else would see. 

Rita Cansino as she appeared in Dante's Inferno.

Thus began the transformation of Margarita Cansino to Rita Hayworth-- a much more American sounding name. Rita eloped with the man she hoped would be her release from Eduardo in May of 1937, but Eddie Judson proved to be as much of a taskmaster and, in effect, pimp as her father. He submitted her to ruthless diets and workout regimens, dyed her hair red, and forced her to endure months of painful electrolysis to heighten her hairline and create a widow's peak. Papa Eduardo thankfully no longer had a hold over his daughter, but this was sadly because she no longer existed. She belonged to another Ed, and he had total control. Judson initiated press releases about his young bride, keeping her in the public eye and pushing her into meetings with well-to-do executives and filmmakers out at the clubs where, dressed glamorously, the still shy woman ineffectually tried to hob-nob and schmooze. Due to her soft-spoken demeanor and lack of pretense, it was not an easy thing for her to do, and her nightly failures sent Eddie into rages. He even went so far as to tell her not to shy away from opportunities to use sex as a tool-- aka sleep her way to the top. Consider it a business investment. Just how much she listened to these suggestions remains debatable, but with such a soft backbone, one has to admit that in Rita's case, the worst is not only possible but likely. Slowly, Eddie's plans started to work. Rita started catching on in Only Angels Have Wings-- a big coup-- and gained a reputations as a hard-working, diligent actress who was equally welcoming of the press. She was labeled "The Most Co-operative Girl in Hollywood." Unfortunately, this did not make her the happiest. On set, she was silent. She would sit and wait for her scenes, perform, then retreat back inside herself. It was the only way she could hold herself together.

Rita performs with James Cagney and Olivia DeHavilland in
The Strawberry Blonde.

Success and notice grew in The Strawberry Blonde and Blood and Sand, during the latter of which she met close friend and choreographer Hermes Pan. The sensuous, confident, even malevolent women that she was able to craft onscreen were so vastly different from her true self that when people met her after seeing her films, they were shocked. She was a shy violet, a wallflower, and definitely not the man-eating glamour vixen Hollywood had painted her to be. She did possess enough fight to extricate herself from her sadistic husband, a decision that resulted after he tried to push her into a sexual relationship with Cohn. Rita refused. The results were one step forward and two back. While she gained her independence, Eddie walked off with nearly everything, and Cohn would develop an unsatisfied obsession with her that would lead to a complete invasion of her privacy and a possessive stranglehold over her life. Cohn even had wire-taps placed in her dressing room-- a fact that Rita's inner child enjoyed, for all she would talk about in this sacred area was how much she hated Cohn. Still, Cohn was right to want to hold onto Rita. Her popularity was growing every day. Her great talent as a dancer was put to use opposite Fred Astaire in both You'll Never Get Rich and You Were Never Lovelier, and a prime photo in Life Magazine became the pin-up item during wartime, rivalled only by Betty Grable's derriere extraordinaire shot. Though Rita fell into the arms of Victor Mature during My Gal Sal, a kind, down-to-earth guy who did much to support her during her divorce, she would soon fall into the maelstrom of another suitor, who had become enamored after seeing the infamous Bob Landry photo. Orson Welles was determined to make Rita Hayworth his (second) wife. As was his way, he got what he wanted.

Rebecca, Rita, and Orson.

Rita would forever recall Orson Welles as the love of her life. Dubbed "Beauty and the Brains"-- flattering to his ego, but bruising to hers-- the publicity surrounding the strange pairing was dynamite. Orson became the only man to whom Rita would confess her childhood abuse or the horror of her first marriage. But trust took time. Orson was intimidating. Embarrassed by her inferior education, Rita was put off by his interest at first, certain of what he was truly after, but  she later was surprised at his genuine interest and the way he could draw her out of herself. On their first date, he used an old mind-reading trick to actually get her talking. Suddenly, and surprisingly, she felt safe. But there was already danger. Was Rita really a full-blooded woman that Orson loved? Or was she a mere sexual experiment? Was he infatuated, fascinated, curious, or did he uncharacteristically hold deeper feelings? Rita adored Orson; the trouble was that Orson had the same problem. Orson Welles was in love with Orson Welles. If anyone ever came close to claiming his heart, it was indeed Rita, whom he remained protective over even after their marriage hit the skids. His affection remains evident as well in the fact that he was the only man Rita ever tried to win back after she had filed divorce papers. But she had her problems as well. Incredibly jealous and untrusting, Rita's insecurity acted as an isolator. She too had an inferiority complex that could only be quelled with sexual attention, a result of the abuse that she had suffered from her father. After having one child together, daughter Rebecca, Orson's philandering and Rita's mistrust finally got the better of them, and they called it quits. Of course, after seeing Rita's performance in the earth-shattering Gilda, Orson certainly must have had his regrets.

Gilda. There are no words, except "perfection."

Gilda remains the eternal Rita Hayworth film. A film noir, Rita is the perfect femme fatale, yet the life and humanity she gives her character makes her an imperfect villain who is still able to walk away with the hero's heart and the audience's approval. Richard Dyer pinpointed this phenomenon thus: "No other femme fatale dances." It was in her dancing that Rita truly came alive, and her "strip tease" sequence, the most famous moment of her career, is both a self-lacerating and a self-empowering act that proves yet again her amazing duality and complexity as a human being. This is no cardboard cut-out villainess. This is a she-wolf out for blood, but, most importantly, out for love. She would have future moments of genius, but no performance she would give would be so perfect. And there were to follow many brilliant moments, including an even more erotic and jaw-dropping strip tease in Salome. Rita's confidence and dominance presented itself always in her dancing: Cover Girl, Down to Earth, Tonight and Every Night, Affair in Trinidad, The Loves of Carmen, etc. These roles and her execution of them both maintain her status as a genuine talent and confuse the mind as to her unhappy personal life. 

One wonders how she was so able to completely draw the shade, to metamorphose from a child of deep sadness to a heroine of power, sensuality, and confidence. While watching her work, I have often caught myself thinking, "Rita, how are you doing this?!" On the screen she is vibrant, alive, and impassioned. In life, she was broken-hearted, used, misled, and constantly disappointed. Her flaws and sorrows would more ably be applied in her later, more mature roles. When Salome is asked to sell her body and dance for King Herod, Rita had a living well of reference to pull from. When Sgt. O'Hara  learns that Sadie Thompson is a prostitute who has given her body to countless men, he screams at her that she is "dirty!" The pain on her face is evident and echoes back into her very soul. And yet even more impressive is the profound joy and humor she injects into her more light-hearted roles. Rita is kind of a lovable ham! She is always beautiful and poised, but too she makes fun of herself. When she chews the scenery in numbers like "Poor John," she is clearly having a riot. The girl was extraordinary in this respect. While she never wanted stardom, she has the ability like few others to completely enthrall the camera and the viewer, and she had the talent to do it. Scene stealing from Gene Kelly is no easy feat, yet it is one she accomplishes simply by standing there and being Rita. 

The erotically charged and bare-footed dance that Valerie Bettis choreographed for Rita 
in Affair in Trinidad caused quite the scandal... and made more money than Gilda!

If only life had been as kind to her as the movies. Her true self continued to be clouded and her innermost desires ignored. A failed marriage to Persian Prince Aly Khan further proved to her the famous quotation-- always worded differently-- "Men go to bed with Gilda and wake up with me." She was never loved for herself. While Rita was adored, Margarita was unknown. Another con-artist, Dick Haymes, too swindled her into the marriage bed in order to escape his own legal problems, and this ended only in another physically abusive relationship and a subsequently shocking claim of child neglect. While battling out Dick's problems, Rita's children were left in the care of Dorothy Chambers in White Plains, NY. Living conditions were exaggerated by a Confidential press hound who took posed photos of the children playing with trash. Both Orson and Aly Khan (whose daughter with Rita, Princess Yasmin,  was too caught in the chaos) testified on her behalf. Rita finally extricated herself from Haymes and would endure only one more brief marriage to and divorce from producer James Hill before she succumbed to a darker master-- Alzheimer's. Despite all of her trials and tribulations, Rita had always been  a professional on the set. Then, suddenly, dialogue became difficult for her to remember, she became paranoid and frightened, and occasionally she would exhibit strange moments of confusion, memory loss, or erratic acts of anger. For many years, she remained undiagnosed, with no one understanding the source of her outbursts nor how to stop them. Her increased drinking only exacerbated the problem. It was as though, for far too long, Margarita Cansino had tried to be too many different people-- the dutiful daughter, the punching bag, the mother, the love goddess, the little girl lost, and the movie star, Rita Hayworth. Not once had she ever been who she truly wanted to be-- a simple wife and mother in a safe and secure home. The life she had had thrust upon her, the multiple demands made of her, and the countless characters she had played, had fractured her psyche to the breaking point. Maybe she finally wanted to escape, even to a place of not knowing herself. She had never really existed anyway. 

Orson Welles used The Lady from Shanghai as a way to diagnose and dissect his 
multi-faceted wife, a point made clear in the great mirror showdown.

Rita gave the world whatever it wanted. She divulged whatever side was necessary: the sex kitten, the hot-dog eating American gal, the exotic siren, the girl-next-door, etc. Her acting and natural gifts were always underrated due to her natural beauty and allegedly her lack of range. Because she came to set and did what she was told and nothing else, it has been recalled that she was merely another talking prop, a claim that many use when diagnosing Orson's nightmarish masterpiece The Lady from Shaghai. These critics do not take into account that the entire movie is supposed to read like a bad dream-- intricate, but unfeeling; authentic, yet hollow. Rita may have acted as a willing puppet to her husband Orson Welles (whom she was divorcing at the time), but if the effect of her performance is lost, the fault lies with him not her. He asked for a vacant villainess, and she delivered. If anyone can observe her dying character, bleeding out like a crocodile, crying with a savage and multi-layered howl-- "I don't want to die!"--  and not see some stroke of brilliance... well, God help you. This woman had no range? This woman was every range. From the ambitious, conflicted show-girl who breaks Gene Kelly's heart in Cover Girl, to the faded beauty and desperately grasping lost soul who comes calling for salvation in Separate Tables, Rita Hayworth was a force to be reckoned with. Had little Margarita Cansino had a chance, perhaps she could have ruled the world. Imagining the possibilities breaks the heart. Fortunately for us, it takes one mere viewing of Down to Earth to mend it again. But Rita Hayworth, Rita Cansino, Margarita Cansino, whoever, does not belong here with us mortals. A Goddess like that belongs in the Heavens with the rest of the stars.


  1. Wow. I knew she had a troubled life, but I had no idea it was that hellish.

    1. I know. Truly a tragic life. She makes me so sad, especially since she brought so much joy to so many others.

  2. Yes, how heartbreaking!! Definitely, she gave so much joy to others and had no joy at all herself. She was so much exploited by all those selfish men which ruined her inner life especially. I wonder how much she had to internalize to keep living and smilling... That is true! Margarita Cansino had never had a life onher own. Everybody wanted Rita Hayworth and left Margarita behind. People around her were so selfish and cruel. At least she had a few loyal friends like Glenn Ford, Robert Mitchum, and Jack Lemmon. Most of all, at the higher point of desperation, she had her devoted daughter besides her, taking care of her, loving her unconditionally whe she was dying of Alzheimer's disease. How strange life is... Rita suffered an illness that made her forget completely who Rita Hayworth had been to be only Margarita Cansino, a "character" who had never had a time to breath. When Rita, the public image died, it was time to Margarita to live in full, but then was too late. Margarita had never had really a chance to be her. How deeply sad!

    1. Yes, so true. I carry a special place in my heart for Rita. I visit her grave from time to time and leave her flowers. <3