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Helena Solberg unmasks a Brazilian idol.

From the opening sequences of her latest documentary, Carmen Miranda: Bananas Is My Business - showing the massive street crowds at Miranda's 1955 funeral, accorded all the pomp and circumstance usually reserved for a head of state - director Helena Solberg engages her audience with the emotion and wonder Miranda's life story provokes.

It has been Solberg's professional quest to examine the social, historical, and cultural influences that shape the lives of ordinary people and the choices they make when confronted by them. By doing so, she brings a human perspective to the contemporary issues of our time. Those who have followed Solberg's body of award-winning documentaries - from her first film, Emerging Woman, in the 1970s, to The Double Day (which opened the 1975 UN International Women's Conference in Mexico), and Simplemente Jenny (which explores the impact of the media on a Latin American girl's self image) - may be surprised that she chose Miranda for her latest investigative venture. After all, Miranda is a frivolous icon whose image created much embarrassment to Brazilians and other Latin Americans.

Yet, with Bananas, Solberg has once again touched a nerve. Her exploration of the Miranda story has moved critics from media as diverse as the New York Times, the Village Voice, and "Entertainment Tonight" to reflect on the current issues of multiculturalism, and at the Estado de Sao Paulo and Jornal do Brasil, to examine the national psyche.

The documentary had its world premiere at the 27th Brasilia Film Festival in December 1994, where it won the Audience Award for Best Film, the Special Jury Prize, and the Film Critics' Award. In the U.S., it premiered in New York at the Film Forum and has been televised nationally by the Public Broadcasting Service. It has garnered more prizes and critical acclaim at festivals in Chicago, Locarno, Toronto, Melbourne, Yamagata, and London, and closed the year in Havana.

Born Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha in a village in northern Portugal, Carmen Miranda, dubbed the "Queen of Samba" in Brazil, was the first white entertainer to adapt the Afro-Brazilian costume of the Bahiana and samba herself all the way to Broadway and Hollywood superstardom. (A generation later, Elvis Presley would have an equivalent impact in the U.S., and, in a remarkable parallel, his career and life would mirror events in Miranda's own.) In 1945 Miranda was the highest paid female entertainer In the U.S. Yet the pressures of overnight fame and riches took their toll. In her later years, Miranda became a pitiful caricature of herself, and at the age of forty-six she succumbed to pills and alcohol, a singing canary trapped in a golden Hollywood cage.

The first Hollywood film in which Miranda appears as a singer, Down Argentine Way, provoked riots in Buenos Aires in 1940. This was the debut of Miranda's role as the "muse" of the "good neighbor policy" and how she came to represent, for better or worse, not only Brazil but all of Latin America as well, according to Raul Smandek, a Brazilian diplomat of the era. At a time when Brazil was forging its identity as a nation of the Americas, Brazilian president Getulio Vargas said Miranda did more to promote goodwill between the U.S. and Brazil "than any one of my diplomats." Film audiences must be prompted to wonder how - could that goofy clown represent an entire nation? And there's the rub. Miranda arrived in the U.S. promoting a culture she loved and a country that adored her. Glad to promote Brazilian coffee exports along with the samba, Miranda was proud of both her identity as a Brazilian entertainer and her success in the States. Therefore, after her first sensational foray on Broadway in 1939, she was dismayed when she returned home to a cold reception by Rio de Janeiro's intelligentsia. Berated in the press for selling out to the dollar and becoming too Americanized, Miranda left Brazil for the States, cutting herself off from her roots and the source of her inspiration for the next fourteen years. Thus began the unraveling of the artist and the molding of the icon.

The making of the icon is precisely the point of Solberg's research and cinematic journey. Creating a link with the audience through a personal, confiding voiceover, Solberg entices them to put aside their expectations and make the journey with her to understand: What is behind that image? How did it come to be? Who was that woman under all the fruit and bangles?

Growing up in Brazil, Solberg says she was fascinated by Miranda's joy and vitality and recalls feeling how as a young girl in a strict convent school "there was not enough samba, that's for sure." Yet the Hollywood reworking of Miranda into a ludicrous character who always wished she were a blonde "hurt her very much," as Solberg confesses to the audience in her narration. Clearly, Bananas is Solberg's most personal film. Fascinated by the artist and bohemian Miranda, she was also appalled by the tragicomic figure she came to portray in her later years. It is this ambivalence that propelled Solberg, as she reveals in her voiceover: "I always wonder what gets lost through the eyes of a foreigner. Would that have anything to do with what would happen to Carmen?"

Solberg refuses to blame Miranda, whom she believes was a victim of circumstance, expressing great compassion for her: "Carmen knew who she was. If she had stayed in Brazil she would have developed more as an artist. But who would turn down an offer to go to Broadway and to Hollywood? She was an overnight success without knowing a word of English. You have to tip your hat to her. As a Brazilian, you don't quite know how to handle it. Take my mother's generation, for example. When I told my mother I was making a film about Carmen Miranda, she said, "Aquela mulher horrorosa?" [That awful woman?], and a friend's mother sneered, "aquela chapelerinha?" [That little hat shop girl?] Solberg snickers, "Not only was it the fact that she was Portuguese, but how dare this little girl who staged out in a hat shop go to Hollywood and be the hit she was! There was a kind of jealousy among the older elite. But for the poor, she was like Evita, who also came from a poor background and exuded luxury with her furs and jewelry. Carmen represented them and their dreams. She was one of them. The more bananas the better!"

Yet in Miranda's early stage and screen appearances in Brazil and the U.S., she was not ridiculous, but riveting, luminous. In the 1930s, before she even went to the U.S., Brazil's greatest composers vied to write songs for her. As the Brazilian journalist Caribe da Rocha exclaims in Bananas: "She had two huge eyes like the headlights on a car. Two great big green things." But then, as her Hollywood career progressed, things began to change. Solberg says, "The music no longer sounds Brazilian . . . There's too much fruit, and the outfit begins to get outrageous. You can't find her under it all."

Solberg believes that though other stars may have been typecast and controlled by the studio systems, the burden of trying to break through the cultural barrier complicated Miranda's situation. Despite being a major box office draw, she was never given a central character, for example, like another pop icon, Marilyn Monroe. The studio system obliged her to be Carmen Miranda twenty-four hours a day. She had to go to parties dressed in costume, and even in her films her characters are often called "Carmen." Solberg has given a lot of thought to the dilemma of the persona of Carmen Miranda: "It's as though it were glued on her. She couldn't wear normal clothes, let her hair down. She was constantly playing the Brazilian bombshell."

Solberg's husband and producer of Bananas, David Meyer, was amazed at newsclips on the superstar, known as the "Latin Lallapalooza": "Even papers of record like the New York Times would transcribe her comments in dialect. They would write things like 'Men . . . I loft dem.' Today no newspaper would dare do that."

However, Solberg balks at any suggestion that Miranda let herself be victimized, claiming that the actress did try to do something about it. In 1949, Miranda bought out her contract and then produced Copacabana in black and white, a "romantic" comedy with Groucho Marx. Miranda did get to wear her hair down and play a double character, one blonde and one of the usual "Carmen" variety. The film was not a big hit, and Miranda was forced to submit to studio control once again, making three more films. Bananas leaves it to the audience to speculate on why: Did she miss being at the top? Did the studios try to block her success as an independent? Was her creativity stunted? Or, did a greedy, uncaring husband, described as a wife-beating cad by witnesses, push her back into it? The fact is, in just a few short years Miranda appears to have aged twenty.

Solberg recounts indignantly, "In her last movie role in 1953, Jerry Lewis does a really disgusting imitation of her. Some of the early imitations are very affectionate and sweet, but towards the end they're more mocking, and the one Lewis does is just horrible." Meyer picks up the story: "In the last few Years of her life her show was filled with all kinds of grotesque self-mockery." For example, she would take off a platform shoe and limp around the stage or take off her turban and go into the audience and let them pull on her hair. Gone was the twinkle from her eye that Solberg says gave audiences the impression "she was winking at you as if to say 'you and I know this is silly, but let's go for it.'"

As many Hollywood personalities interviewed in the film attest, the price for refusing to continue with her gimmick was not to work - an option chosen by Puerto Rican Rita Moreno a generation later. Moreno did not work in film for seven years after winning the Oscar for her supporting role as "Anita" in West Side Stow because every role she was offered was another "Anita." "Latin actresses all had to be oversexed; we were always left by the guy," says Moreno. "It was expected that the American man or the European would never really be serious emotionally about a Latin woman. All I have to do is use myself as an example. I came here as a very young Latin girl. I quickly found out that the only way to have people pay attention to you was to be vivacious! and fiery! You had to be a very exaggerated caricaturesque person for the American movie people to pay attention to you."

Miranda would have been eighty-six this year, so the interviews Solberg and Meyer conducted with her contemporaries were done just in the nick of time. Since the filming, six among them have died: Aloysio de Oliveira, Cesar Romero, Synval Silva, Ted Allan, Laurindo Almeida, and Cassio Barsante. Making a strong case for the value of film preservation, only eight minutes of footage remain from Miranda's early films in Brazil, and none of the original technicolor negatives of her 20th Century Fox films exists. Hardly any are available on videotape. Largely, thanks to the cooperation of Miranda's family, word of mouth, and even an advertisement taken out in Brazilian newspapers, Solberg and Meyer were able to painstakingly piece together the Miranda riddle.

To fill archival gaps, Solberg and Meyer created powerful, fictional "dream sequences," borrowing a technique from contemporary Hollywood filmmakers. Driving home the point about the imposed fakery that corrodes the ingenuity of Miranda's artistic persona, Solberg hired the best Miranda impersonator in Brazil, a man named Eric Barreto.

To give a feeling for the rural life into which Miranda was born, Solberg and Meyer traveled to the remote village of Aliviada in northern Portugal and staged Miranda's appearance, in the person of Barreto. "It had been three hundred years since anything happened them," the director says, laughing as she remembers the impact their visit made. "People were following us, curious about the equipment, about everything. We lit up the place at night, and it was a magical event that took us all by surprise." Adds Meyer, "Being resource-poor independent filmmakers we didn't have a smoke machine to create the fog, and so we had two guys in the crew burn leaves in a garbage can, and, of course, the wind kept changing, and they had to grab the red-hot can and run to catch the wind; they burned their hands, and it just added to the whole spectacle."

Over three years in the making, Solberg and Meyer's latest creation still sparks their conversation in an almost parental way, weary but affectionate, proud of their offspring, eager to relay every bit of Miranda's life they were not able to include in the film. They speak of "Carmen" as one would of a close friend. If she had the chance, Solberg says, she would have encouraged her to stay in Rio surrounded by friends and family: "I like the idea of bringing her back home and giving her back her true identity. She leaves Brazil after recuperating from her breakdown to die three months later. I am convinced she had every intention of coming back to Brazil, after she fulfilled her contracts in Las Vegas and Havana . . . She was away for too long, and she wasn't happy anymore in the States. She had become a commodity, and she was just going through the motions."

Solberg humorously closes her film by poking fun at all the Miranda caricatures by creating her own - a dancing Miranda in full, feathered tropical regalia, hovering in the sky like a virgin icon surrounded by flying bananas instead of angels. The scene, no doubt an affectionate nod to Busby Berkeley, who directed the most spectacular footage of Miranda seen at the start of the film, was shot on the veranda of Solberg's family home in the hills overlooking Rio de Janeiro. Solberg recounts the astonishment of her elderly mother as she came upstairs to witness this scene and find her house invaded by film technicians and equipment. She remarked to her daughter, "You're right after all, she is beautiful."

It may seem ironic that the making of Bananas has sharpened Solberg's interest in directing a feature film and working with actors; however, she would disagree. "I don't see the transition from documentary to fiction as an 'upgrading' of an art form. The big difference is that in fiction you are experimenting with another film language, and you have total control of your material. In Bananas, it was very exciting to do the re-creations; they had a special style to them. We were trying to give a feeling of the overly staged, both as a criticism and a celebration of what is 'fake.' I'd like to travel further down this road. But for me," she concludes, "documentaries will always be provocative and challenging."

Nena Terrell, an international communications specialist at Abt Associates Inc., lives in Washington, D.C.
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Title Annotation:filmmaker; actress Carmen Miranda
Author:Terrell, Nena
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Jan 1, 1996
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