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Brazilian Bombshell: The Biography of Carmen Miranda.

Brazilian Bombshell The Biography of Carmen Miranda, by Martha Gil Montero (New York: Donald 1. Fine, 1989). In the 1930's, Carmen Miranda was the most popular radio star in Brazil, and by the end of the decade she had taken Broadway by storm. She intrigued Americans with her fashion, style and songs. Walter Winchell praised her in his columns. In 1939, the press dubbed her "the girl who saved Broadway from the World's Fair," when she lured crowds back to the theater district from the fair grounds not far away. During the forties and early fifties, Carmen Miranda became one of the most beloved and imitated international stars, appearing in clubs, on television and in films. Even after her star began to dim, she continued to inspire styles in clothes and music, and even today, writes Martha Gil-Montero, "Carmen is profoundly embedded in America's subconsciousness."

In her sensitive, well-researched book, Gil-Montero reveals the real woman behind the icon. Carmen Miranda's flamboyant, sexy, naughty style camouflaged pain and insecurity. The "lady in the tutti-frutti hat" was born Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha in a small town in Portugal in 1909. Her father was a poor barber and her mother, an unschooled weaver. For economic reasons the family immigrated to Brazil when Carmen was a baby. They settled in a slum area that was a meeting place for sailors and prostitutes. However, Maria do Carmo attended a convent school that provided the neighborhood children with the opportunity to escape from the mean streets. The Sister Superior raised funds by featuring her students on radio programs, thereby giving Maria do Carmo her first taste of show business. Curiously, the nun did not find her to be particularly talented at singing, although years later Carmen boasted that her own "little voice" always stood out from the rest.

The sisters did not encourage Maria do Carmo to go into entertainment, a profession they considered sinful. However, from a young age, she felt that show business was her calling. At fourteen she left school to help her mother in the boarding house that the family ran. She also helped her older sister, a seamstress, sew and make hats. Maria do Carmo soon made her professional debut as a singer on radio, and in 1928 was introduced to Josue de Barros, a composer and guitar player who was instrumental in her rise to success. Despite her father's violent opposition, she went from audition to audition, taking the stage name Carmen Miranda and inventing a new personality to go with the name. Yet, Gil-Montero explains, in spite of her meteoric rise to fame, she never forgot who she really was; she never confused Maria do Carmo with Carmen.

In 1939, Carmen Miranda was "discovered" by producer Lee Shubert, who met the Queen of the Samba, already a famous radio star in Brazil, when he was on a trip to South America. Even now, the details of the discovery are shrouded in controversy. The fact is, however, that Shubert offered Carmen a contract. After she had gone to New York and made her mark, she returned to Rio, where critics rejected her new "Americanized" style. The experience left her bitter, and she left again for the United States.

Gil-Montero follows Miranda's career through the years during World War II, when Franklin Roosevelt was anxious to strengthen U.S. ties with Latin America and the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs encouraged Hollywood to produce "good neighbor" movies. Carmen appeared in a number of these films in stereotypical roles. The Brazilian Bombshell was a box-office success, but the image she had created for herself eventually became confining. Carmen found it impossible to break out of the "tutti-frutti" mold and expand her artistic horizons, which caused her great frustration and unhappiness.

Later she became involved in a number of unfortunate projects, such as the Hadacol Caravan, a patent-medicine show devised by Dudley J. LeBlanc. The kinds of audiences the show attracted were not receptive to Carmen's style. This rejection and others, coupled with her inner doubts and anxieties, drove Carmen to despair. Authentic Brazilians resented her because she was "a fake Bahiana and a fake Carioca." The wealthy and cultured were disdainful of her humble origins and the intellectuals considered her an uneducated sambista.

Carmen pushed herself incessantly, and her grueling schedules coupled with her fears and apprehensions finally led to alcohol and drug dependency. In 1953 she suffered a nervous breakdown. In 1955, while taping the Jimmy Durante television show, she nearly collapsed. She finished the show, but died later that night alone in her home.

The star was mourned all over the world. In Brazil, where she was buried, the outpouring of emotion was tremendous. In the country where so many had rejected her, people dissolved into tears upon hearing of her death. "Their collective sin had been disaffection," writes Gil-Montero. "But her return was now forcing Brazilians to reckon with their feelings toward Miranda.... In a way all those tears of shame and devotion indicated that Carmen's posthumous triumph was her greatest: at last she had succeeded in making Brazilians feel proud of her achievements and adore her."

Argentine-born Martha Gil-Montero has imbued the memory of Carmen Miranda with new life. Her enthusiasm for her subject is contagious. She tells that she herself once dressed up in Carmen Miranda costumes, and the reader is not surprised. But Gil-Montero's book is more than a Hollywood tribute. It contains a great deal of interesting data about Brazilian music and popular culture, as well as historical information about U.S.-latin American relations. Soon to be released in Portuguese, Brazilian Bombshell is informative as well as fun.
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Author:Mujica, Barbara
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1990
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