I have just had a most upsetting experience and I can’t stop thinking about it. TCM is playing a short clip as part of their Latinos in Film festival featuring a series of stars speaking about influential actors of the classic era. Several classic actors are discussed, Wally Beery, Paul Muni and Anthony Quinn among them. A fourth artist covered by this panel is effervescent Carmen Miranda. Rita Moreno describes Carmen as a “sad lady” who “suffered terribly” for her flamboyant portrayals of the Latino culture. I just about fell off my chair when Rita came out with these remarks. I wondered if she could have been referring to the same vibrant, beautiful woman I was remembering. Unfortunately, she was. Frankly, I took great offense to Rita’s attitude. I have never considered Carmen a sad lady, nor do I wish to remember her as one. Now, granted I am not Latino. I’m just a half Hungarian, one quarter Irish, one quarter German American girl who has absolutely no idea what it is like living as a Latina. Although, I think I am still entitled to my opinion.
So, I did some digging. It doesn’t seem like there is much material on Carmen’s life except for a 1998 documentary made by Helena Solberg called Carmen Miranda: Bananas Is My Business. Several famous stars were interviewed for the show, including Rita Moreno, Cesar Romero and Alice Faye. From the reviews of the documentary that I have read, it seems Solberg was determined to portray Carmen as a helpless, dreadfully “sad lady” who was trapped in the stereotype she created. Solberg reveals the genuine tragedy of Carmen’s failed marriage to David Sebastian, who it turns out, was an abuser. According to Solberg, Carmen signed on for an exhausting schedule of personal appearances in an effort to escape the horror of her home life. In order to keep up with the new hectic pace, she apparently started taking drugs to keep her going. In the end, the amazingly talented Carmen Miranda died of a massive heart attack after performing a strenuous dance number live on TV for the Jimmy Durante Show in 1955. While it is disturbing to discover Carmen was married to an abuser, she was certainly not the only female star in Hollywood to find herself in this position. Lana Turner comes to mind right away. Are we to believe she was a “sad lady” because of this?
I think it’s a natural conclusion to say that Rita Moreno’s opinion of Carmen is based on the information in Solberg’s documentary. That doesn’t seem quite fair, if you ask me. So, I’d like to ask you a question: Is this really how you would chose to remember Carmen Miranda? As for me, the answer is a huge NO! I love the Carmen of those early 40’s technicolor musicals in her amazing wardrobe and stunning hats (many of which she designed herself, by the way). I would gladly wear any of her outfits to a ritzy party, although I’m not sure I could manage the shoes. (And, being 6 inches taller than Carmen, I don’t think the high platforms would have the same effect if I wore them.) But, the point is, the image of Carmen Miranda is not a negative one. She’s adorable in every film and steals all the scenes from the main stars. Whenever she’s on screen, you can’t take your eyes off her. She was a hilarious comedienne. She is in a group of people with Harpo and Groucho Marx, Charlie Chaplin and Abbott and Costello. These people created a film image to make people laugh. Were they tired of it sometimes? Probably. But I find it hard to believe playing these beloved parts which entertained millions for decades made them “sad.” Carmen Miranda’s body of work deserves respect. Just take a look at the Irish scene she does with J. Farrell MacDonald in Greenwich Village – it’s amazing. She does a terrific Irish accent and persuades MacDonald, who plays a policeman, to stop Don Ameche from leaving.
I would like to know why we as classic film viewers are forbidden from remembering the stars in the best possible light. Why do we always have to be bombarded with bad news from people who are reaching back into history and drawing distressing conclusions about events that may not be correct in the first place? Are we supposed to feel guilty because someone now claims Carmen Miranda wasn’t happy with her job? I, for one, am extremely tired of it. Leave my idols be! They aren’t doing anything to you – let them rest in peace.
As an added bonus, Greenwich Village is playing on TCM as part of the Latinos in Film Festival. Check it out on May 21 @ 8pm eastern time. You won’t be disappointed.
(Check out Raquelle’s post for an opposite view of this issue.)