Vox Populi: A Public Sphere for Politics and Poetry
This video mash-up by the German auteur known as “et7waage1” brings together a collection of clips featuring Rita Hayworth dancing to “Stayin’ Alive” by the BeeGees…. I know, I know… it sounds awful, but the video is actually quite entertaining. Hayworth was probably the most talented dancer to come out of Hollywood’s golden era, and the joy she exhibits on screen is made poignant by our knowledge of her tragic life.
Rita Hayworth (born Margarita Carmen Cansino; October 17, 1918 – May 14, 1987) was an American actress and dancer. She achieved fame during the 1940s as one of the era’s top stars, appearing in a total of 61 films over 37 years. The press coined the term “love goddess” to describe Hayworth after she had become the most glamorous screen idol of the 1940s. She was one of the top pin-up girls for GIs during World War II.
Hayworth is perhaps best known for her performance in the 1946 film noir, Gilda, opposite Glenn Ford, in which she played the femme fatale in her first major dramatic role. Fred Astaire, with whom she made two films, called her his favorite dance partner. Her greatest success was in the Technicolor musical Cover Girl (1944), with Gene Kelly. She is listed as one of the top 25 female motion picture stars of all time in the American Film Institute’s survey.
Hayworth was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1918, the oldest child of two dancers. Her father, Eduardo Cansino, Sr., was from Castilleja de la Cuesta, a little town near Seville, Spain. Her mother, Volga Hayworth, was an American of Irish-English descent who had performed with the Ziegfeld Follies.
Margarita’s father wanted her to become a professional dancer, while her mother hoped she would become an actress. Her paternal grandfather, Antonio Cansino, was renowned as a Spanish classical dancer. He popularized the bolero and his dancing school in Madrid was world famous. Hayworth later recalled, “From the time I was three and a half … as soon as I could stand on my own feet, I was given dance lessons.” She noted “I didn’t like it very much … but I didn’t have the courage to tell my father, so I began taking the lessons. Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse, that was my girlhood.”
In 1927, her father took the family to Hollywood. He believed that dancing would be featured in the movies and that his family could be part of it. In 1931 Eduardo Cansino partnered with his 12-year-old daughter to form an act called the Dancing Cansinos. Since under California law Margarita was too young to work in nightclubs and bars, her father took her with him to work across the border in Tijuana, Mexico. In the early 1930s, it was a popular tourist spot for people from Los Angeles. Because she was working, Cansino never graduated from high school.
After a long apprenticeship as a dancer in forgettable Hollywood films, in 1936 Rita Consino (Hayworth) entered an arrangement with Columbia Pictures which eventually led to a long-term contract. In order to make her image less Mediterranean, she started using her mother’s maiden name, colored her hair dark red, and used electrolysis to raise her hairline to make her forehead more prominent.
On screen and at the box office, Hayworth was magic. Fred Astaire, with whom she made two films, commented that “Rita danced with trained perfection and individuality … She was better when she was ‘on’ than at rehearsal.” The combination of Astaire’s reserved precision and Hayworth’s explosive expressionism was a perfect complement. In August 1941, Hayworth was featured in an iconic Life magazine photo in which she posed in a negligee with a black lace bodice. Bob Landry’s photo made Hayworth one of the top two pin-up girls of the World War II years; the other was Betty Grable.
However, the success of Rita Hayworth’s films and her renown as one of the most beautiful women in the world did not translate into happiness for her. She was married and divorced five times. Her husbands included Orson Welles and Prince Aly Khan, a son of Sultan Mahommed Shah, Aga Khan III, the leader of the Ismaili sect of Shia Islam. Her alcoholism, love affairs, and divorces interfered with her career. By the mid-1950s, Columbia had stopped casting her as a star, and her film career was effectively over, although she continued appearing in cameo roles in films and television for another two decades. Her last picture with Columbia was Pal Joey starring Frank Sinatra, released in 1957.
In 1972, the 54-year-old Hayworth wanted to retire from acting, but she needed money. At the suggestion of Robert Mitchum, she agreed to film The Wrath of God. The experience exposed her poor health and worsening mental state. Since she could not remember lines, her scenes were shot one line at a time. In November she agreed to do one more movie, the British Tales That Witness Madness, but because of her worsening health she left the set and returned to the United States. She never returned to acting.
In March 1974, both her brothers died within a week of each other, which caused her great sadness and led to heavy drinking. In 1976 at London’s Heathrow Airport, Hayworth was removed from a TWA flight after having an angry outburst while traveling with her agent. The event attracted much negative publicity; a disturbing photograph was published in newspapers. Hayworth’s alcoholism hid symptoms of what was eventually understood to be Alzheimer’s disease.
“It was the outbursts,” said her daughter Yasmin Aga Khan. “She’d fly into a rage. I can’t tell you. I thought it was alcoholism — alcoholic dementia. We all thought that. The papers picked that up, of course. You can’t imagine the relief just in getting a diagnosis. We had a name at last, Alzheimer’s! Of course, that didn’t really come until the last seven or eight years. She wasn’t diagnosed as having Alzheimer’s until 1980. There were two decades of hell before that.”
Rita Hayworth lapsed into a semicoma in February 1987. She died at age 68 from complications associated with Alzheimer’s disease a few months later on May 14, 1987, at her home in Manhattan. She was interred in Holy Cross Cemetery, Culver City. Her headstone includes Yasmin’s sentiment: “To yesterday’s companionship and tomorrow’s reunion.”
Rita Hayworth’s legacy includes some of the best dance numbers ever recorded on film and an increased public awareness of the tragedy of Alzheimer’s disease.
Text adapted from numerous sources including Wikipedia.