Wednesday, February 09, 2011

In Memoriam: Carmen Miranda

Considering the relative paucity of her resume, and how long ago she died besides, in pop culture terms there are few people as instantly recognizable today as Carmen Miranda; put anyone in a halter top and a sarong, have them totter about on cork-soled platform wedgies beneath a bowl of fruit for a hat to an even vaguely rhumba-esque beat, and almost anyone will know who that's supposed to be, even now.

PhotobucketBut what of the real Carmen Miranda? Born in Portugal on this day in 1909, as an infant she and her family moved to Brazil, with which country she would be forever after be associated. Raised strictly Catholic and convent-educated, it was likely the forbidden allure of show business which drew young Carmen to it - although she carefully hid her aspirations from her family for years; the cat was long out of the bag, though, by the time she made her first film, A Voz do Carnaval, in 1933.

Landing in the US in 1939, she made the first of her fourteen American movies - Down Argentine Way - in 1940. It was followed by such tropical-flavoured froth as That Night in Rio and Week-End in Havana (both 1941) and Copacabana (1947) which, while they made her a household name around the world made her unpopular in Brazil. Yet how could anyone who'd been impersonated by Bugs Bunny - as she was in both the 1944 short What's Cookin' Doc? and the 1947 short Slick Hare - be unpopular? During a visit to her homeland in 1940 the criticism that she projected a false image of Brazil stung her to such an extent that she didn't return to the country for 14 years; she did respond, though, by recording a song called Disseram que Voltei Americanizada (They Say I've Come Back Americanized). Touche*...

Despite the vivacious image she projected, though, Miranda's life was marred by one heartache after another, culminating in the literal heartache which killed her... Her marriage to movie producer Dave Sebastian resulted in alcoholism, a dependence on painkillers, domestic abuse, and finally an extended divorce-like separation. She suffered at least one miscarriage, and would remain childless. In the end, she suffered a heart attack live on television in August 1955, during a broadcast of The Jimmy Durante Show; although she was enough of a trouper to finish the show, she suffered a second, fatal attack at home later that evening.

Despite her earlier unpopularity in Brazil, her death was marked by a period of national mourning there**, and her body was flown back to be interred in Rio de Janeiro's Cemitério São João Batista; she is remembered in Los Angeles by Carmen Miranda Square, located across from Grauman's Chinese Theater, one of only a dozen entertainers so honoured in the entertainment capital of the world.

*Or whatever the Portugese equivalent is.
**Which is so often the case... They hate you until you die, then they love you.

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