She doesn’t always show up on lists of Hispanic actresses, and that was quite deliberate on the studio’s part. Seriously, I saw a list of actresses of color that had Marilyn Monroe on it—and not her. Which I don’t even know. I mean, her mother was English-Irish in descent, but her father was a Spanish dancer named Eduardo Cansino Reina, who wanted her to be a professional dancer. Her mother was, I believe, a Ziegfeld Girl, or anyway she was in the Follies, who wanted her to be an actress. She hated dancing. But she dyed her hair red, she got electrolysis on her hairline, and I’ve read she even underwent skin-lightening procedures—in the ’30s, when they were primitive and probably painful. And she took her mother’s maiden name and her childhood nickname and became Rita Hayworth.
I don’t know if her sexpot image is residual racism or persistent sexism. But there’s something there. When you think of Rita Hayworth, you probably think of that glove in Gilda. Or that hair in Glida. There was apparently quite a fuss when her hair was cut and dyed blonde for The Lady From Shanghai, but of course it had been dyed red in the first place. But she’d been given a look, and my goodness but there was outcry if she dared to deviate from it. That’s the sort of thing that happens. Her name is in the original title of The Shawshank Redemption, which is based on a novella called Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, which isn’t on her Wikipedia page. And, yes, Andy Dufresne’s poster is the Gilda one.
Of course, there was also her stormy personal life. She was married five times, most famously I think to Prince Aly Khan. She had a child with him and one with the husband before him, Orson Welles. She claimed that the problem was that her various husbands went to bed with Gilda and woke up with her, but I can’t help wondering if the problems were deeper even than her other statement, “I am attracted to mean personalities.” She divorced at least four of them because of cruelty, and I don’t know why she divorced Orson Welles. (I suspect because he was uninterested in domesticity or fidelity.) One of her husbands hit her in the face in public; another humiliated her in front of Charlton Heston. And it seems as though every single one of her husbands either took her money or simply didn’t pay child support.
I feel as though she deserved more from life. She was a talented actress with a fine singing voice. She hated dancing and only did it because her father insisted, but still; she was good at it. Most of her roles seem to be “look how beautiful she is!” Her early roles even tended to lean toward the “Mexican spitfire” sort of thing. Even though she was not herself Mexican. I feel pretty well as though she was yet another actress who didn’t completely get a chance to prove her abilities because she was only expected to be one character.
Was she actually Hispanic? Well, ask Antonio Banderas, I suppose. Or Pedro Almodóvar. To be sure, they’re both immigrants, which she is not, but her father was as Hispanic as they were. She was also labeled as “too Mediterranean,” before her name and appearance were changed, and that feels as though it’s got to be code for something. She played sexy characters, but her sexy characters were more than “ethnic sexpot,” at least, and they were given a chance to develop some. At the time, that wouldn’t have happened had it been discussed that she was half Spanish.
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