(Air Date: Week Of 2/21/96)
Carmen Miranda. The name alone conjures up memories of Technicolour Fox musicals of the forties at their zenith. Carmen Miranda was a bundle of energy and mischief & the first Brasilian entertainer to become an international superstar. She was also to solidify the Latina standard for the silver screen. As Rita Moreno, who won an Academy Award six years after Carmen Miranda's death, observed wryly, "We had to be peppy and vivacious. But I wanted to be an actress: to play Shakespeare. When meaty roles failed to materialize after "West Side Story", the versatile Moreno made no movies for years. But if Carmen Miranda ever chafed at being a high priced specialty act, she never seemed to show it, at least on screen."
"Carmen Miranda: Bananas Is My Business", Helena Solberg's documentary of her legendary career, is mainly valuable for its rare film clips, dating back to the thirties. But the subtext, that Miranda was "Our Carmen", namely Brasil's own, tends to grate after awhile. Once Carmen Miranda left Brasil for first Broadway, then Hollywood, she returned just three times in sixteen years, once to be treated with indifference by upper crust Brasilian audiences, once to recover from exhaustion, and finally for her funeral. It was because little Helena's parents wouldn't let her join the million people lining the streets for the services that she became obsessed with Carmen Miranda's complicated relationship with her homeland. But the evidence she chooses to illustrate her theories is largely supplied by subjective voice-overs and a few interviews with wistful friends, family, colleagues and employees.
Nowhere is it made clear that Carmen Miranda wanted any other life than the one she had. True, she died young, on the very night that a television performance left her breathless. (The actual clip is shown in slow motion.) But dying young doesn't necessarily mean living unhappily and the unsupported gossip rumours that Solberg includes reveal her own iconographic obsession, not the real Carmen Miranda.
I suspect if you want to know the real Carmen Miranda, rent one of her many festive movies on video: "Down Argentine Way", "Weekend In Havana" & "Springtime In The Rockies" are three of her best Fox vehicles, "A Date With Judy" and "Nancy Goes To Rio" are two examples of her years at M.G.M. and even "Doll Face" and "Lucky Stiff", which are minor showcases of her work, are fun to watch today. "Copacabana" co-starring Grouch Marx has been colourised recently to fairly good advantage and, best of all, "The Gang's All Here" is a constant cable attraction. (That's the Busby Berkeley confection in which Carmen Miranda immortalised "The Lady With The Tutti Frutti Hat" for posterity.) It is sad that Carmen Miranda probably loved Brasil far more than it ever loved her back. Her legacy of 14 musicals ensures that she will be remembered far longer than the native audiences who scorned her for her success.
Copyright 1996 Monica Sullivan
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