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The star-maker machinery.

Being Rita Hayworth: Labor, Identity, and Hollywood Stardom by Adrienne L. McLean. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2004, 272 pp., $23.95 paper.

Forties film Icon Rita Hayworth--born Marguerita Carmen Cansino and immortalized by Hollywood as a sex goddess--first appeared onscreen at age eight. She danced in movies with Fred Astaire, married Orson Welles, with whom she starred in The Lady from Shanghai, then Prince All Khan and then singer Dick Haymes. Hayworth's best remembered films include Gilda, The Lady from Shanghai, Miss Sadie Thompson, and Pal Joey. She died at age 68 from Alzheimer's disease in 1987.

Along the way to stardom, Hayworth dieted, dyed her brown hair black, then red, and endured two years of painful electrolysis to raise her hairline, in addition to changing her name. Packaged by Hollywood and defined by the culture, what was left? Plenty, says film scholar Adrienne L. McLean in an ambitious but scattershot examination of Haywotth's stardom.

McLean is interested in Hayworth's role in constructing her own identity as a star. While she concedes that this talented actress was mostly contained by the kind of patriarchal representation characteristic of the post-World War II era, she finds evidence of resistance.

McLean works hard to cover all the critical bases, drawing primarily on the work of Danae Clark, known for her Marxist-inflected examinations of stars as social subjects rather than commodities and her development of the notion of the actor as worker. While McLean's thoroughness is commendable, she sacrifices clarity of argument for hard-to-digest thickets of allusion and technical verbiage. She is not a concise writer.

To accept McLean's theses, the reader must also accept her use of ephemera--fan magazines, newspaper stories, studio memos, and other Hollywood memorabilia--to track Hayworth's stardom. Such sources, she rightly points out, can help uncover the reality of 1950s culture, which is often portrayed simplistically as conservative. But they can also be "bad evidence," she concedes, since they are about Hayworth rather than by her. They are secondary sources. (I assume primary evidence like letters and taped interviews was not available.)

McLean first examines Hayworth offscreen, claiming that she was responsible for maintaining an ethnic dimension to her stardom. In her earliest national media coverage, on the cover of Look magazine, she was represented stereotypically, as the Spanish dancer Rita Cansino--although not in the accompanying article, where she's identified as "Hollywood's Best-Dressed Girl." McLean concludes that Hayworth had not yet contructed an identity completely separate from that of Rita Cansino--nor would she ever. But does McLean believe that Hayworth's ethnicity remained part of her star identity simply because she talked about it publicly? She argues that Hayworth took control of the physical transformations necessary to construct herself as all-American by sharing them with the public. But does simply talking about having your forehead raised through electrolysis constitute taking control over such an extreme physical alteration? Comparisons to other stars might have clarified Hayworth's situation; without such comparative evidence, it's hard to evaluate whether Hayworth really did try to resist conventional Hollywood commodification.

McLean sees Hayworth's ethnicity both as something to be overcome and "the guarantor of her authenticity as a star." Hayworth could become a star only by changing her name to Hayworth (her mother's maiden name). Yet according to McLean it took as much to manufacture Cansino's ethnicity as it did Hayworth's Americanness. Early in her career Hayworth played Egyptian, Russian, Spanish, Mexican, and South American characters--the specifics of her ethnicity were malleable. McLean collapses Hayworth's half-Spanish heritage into a generalized Latin one, even though during the post-World War II years, Latin and Spanish ethnicities were quite different.

Hollywood female stars were expected to want children and domestic bliss more than careers. The press represented Hayworth in her domestic life as one of Hollywood's "unhappiest stars," depicting her as a "woman who had been hurt." She had a dysfunctional childhood in which she was abused by her father, and there were divorces, scandals, illnesses, and parenting troubles. Indeed, McLean succeeds in showing that Hayworth's struggles with family, domesticity, and her talent and career mirrored issues faced by many women. McLean believes Hayworth's five marriages, her parenting, and her divorces introduced new levels of complexity to the scripts fan magazines and publicity machines worked with.

McLean's background--she has an MFA in dance--positions her well to discuss Hayworth as a dancer and musical comedy star, and she makes a broad claim for the importance of song and dance in film: "It is in the musical numbers of any film that the greatest explicit critique of established assumptions--about gender, racial, and ethnic roles, for example--is likely to take place." She believes that film scholars have often written off Hayworth as passive and objectified because they have focused too much on some of the characters in her films and not enough on how Hayworth plays those characters.

In support of this idea, she analyzes Down to Earth, an obscure 1947 star vehicle, arguing that it registers important historical changes in the musical genre. Pointing to the capacity of dancing women in movies like Down to Earth and another Hayworth vehicle, Tonight and Every Night, to destabilize gender divisions, she claims dance gives women control as agents rather than objects. Similarly, in Affair in Trinidad (1952), collaboration between choreographer Valerie Bettis and Hayworth resulted in dances that, if not exactly feminist in today's terms, suggest autonomy and an inner self and celebrate desexualized female movement and gesture. McLean examines Down to Earth's reception by dance critics and film reviewers, revealing an apparent bias against musicals without male stars or authors. She proposes that musicals starting or written by women have been ignored by film scholars and need serious scholarly attention. It is an intriguing discussion, but it feels incomplete because it can't be addressed adequately within the confines of Being Rita Hayworth.

Gilda and The Lady from Shanghai did more to define Hayworth as star, McLean observes, than the rest of her 60 films put together. But McLean refutes critics who conflate the star and her roles and conclude that the two films reveal the "real" Rita Hayworth as just another synthetic Hollywood sex goddess. Musical numbers make the difference for McLean:
   The contrast between the powerful,
   open, and communicating
   spectacular Gilda and the
   worked-upon and managed narrative
   Gilda serves in the end to
   foreground the impossible bind
   in which Gilda, Hayworth, and
   any number of other postwar
   women all too often found
   themselves. (p. 161)

Hayworth, she says, transcends her film noir characterization as a femme fatale in Gilda, but not in The Lady from Shanghai, in which Orson Welles made even the singing Hayworth seem motionless and fetishized. McLean concedes that music and dance in film are not automatically sites of female resistance, and that other performances that compete with narratives should be examined.

Rita Hayworth was surely more than the "love goddess" to which Hollywood tried to reduce her. And it is an honorable project for a feminist scholar "to replace this woman, and other stars as yet unstudied, as subjects rather than objects." Unfortunately, the evidence McLean provides of a powerful Rita Hayworth in control of her destiny is not persuasive. I wish she had limited herself to a more thorough consideration of how song and dance affect the positioning of women in film. Crackling with ideas and references, Being Rita Hayworth reads like an unruly dissertation where the topic threatens to run away with the author.
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Title Annotation:Being Rita Hayworth: Labor, Identity, and Hollywood Stardom
Author:Robards, Brooks
Publication:The Women's Review of Books
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 2004
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