There has not been one actress, past or present, to fully encompass Hollywood glamour like Rita Hayworth did. Furthermore, very few have been forced to pay as big a price as Hayworth paid for her success.
Hayworth remains the epitome of a sexual icon, appearing as a top pin-up girl during World War II. She was a trained and talented dancer with a thin, supple body to match. Stephen King fittingly used her desirable image as the centerpiece in his short story Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. A photo symbolic of her "bombshell" status was put on an atomic bomb and (much to her dismay) named Gilda in her honor.
The press called her "The Love Goddess." Her daughter is an actual princess. On the surface, Rita Hayworth was the definition of Hollywood magic.
But the glamour we see on-screen and the lives that exist off-screen are very different. Hayworth was ostensibly glamorous but covertly dark, like many women of her time. Postwar culture was filled with women eager to be more involved in society, but with slim opportunity to do so. Women like Hayworth and their stories demonstrate the difficulties they faced throughout their careers, and how they became emblems of female power. By 1940, for example, there were 3,800 stories and 12,000 photos of Rita Hayworth already in circulation.
Despite her constant uphill battles off camera, Rita Hayworth remained glamorous and warm in the spotlight. She struggled so that she could succeed, and her resilience, strong sexuality, and tendency to outwardly disagree with her superiors are what made her such a staple during the Golden Age of Hollywood.
The Golden Age of Hollywood
The roughly thirty year chapter between 1930 and 1959 is the period dotingly referred to as the Golden Age of Hollywood. America had blossomed into its role as the centerpiece of cinema, peaking in 1939 with The Wizard of Oz, and spilling over to kick off the '40s with Gone with the Wind (1940). Hollywood was thriving and, most importantly, women began to thrive as well.
The amount of women in the workforce increased upwards of 35 percent throughout the 1940s, with figures like Eleanor Roosevelt leading the way. While men were shipped off to fight in World War II, women took their places at home. Women who had previously not worked were now taking on more complex jobs and working in factories, but changes in how females were viewed (and how they viewed themselves) didn't just end there.
The 1940s also brought a whole new meaning to the definition of 'glamour' in Hollywood. 'Glamour' can be distinctly contrasted with 'style'—whereas 'style' is more or less devotion to a particular vertical of fashion, 'glamour' is the attraction and fascination the appearance creates.
Women like Rita Hayworth were at the center of this era of glamour. New, innovative styles and shapes in fashion were being introduced that were not only figure-flattering, but slightly more revealing than traditional female clothing. These styles encouraged women to take hold of their bodies and sexuality and embrace their femininity.
In 1946 Hayworth starred as the titular femme fatale in Gilda. One of the most notable scenes is Hayworth's strip-tease to the song "Put the Blame on Mame". The performance not only exemplified her glamour, with her dark, fitted ballgown, but outwardly demonstrated the fact that Hayworth was sexually enticing—and not ashamed of it, either.
The Cons of Glamour
Women, like Hayworth, who managed to succeed on camera did not do so without sacrifice. 1930s Hollywood had little to no room for "exotic" (read: not white) actors, and actresses like Rita were certainly made aware of this fact. Hayworth, in fact, was half-Spanish, born Margarita Carmen Cansino; early in her career, she got a few gigs as an "ethnic" extra in films such as Dante's Inferno (1935).
Studio execs and even Hayworth's first husband, Edward C. Judson, convinced her to change her name and appearance to fit the bill of what a Hollywood actress "should look like". Thus, Hayworth underwent hairline electrolysis, dyed her hair red, and took her mother's maiden name in order to transform into the all-American actress we know her as today.
The unfortunate truth was that while women were seeping into the workforce, the lingering stigma continued to effect them. Post-World War II life was filled with a bursting sense of nationalism and the men who had returned home were overflowing with masculinity and domination over their female counterparts.
Hayworth and many of her female peers were not strangers to this dominant behavior. She was married and divorced five times between 1937 and 1961—just twenty-four years' time. Tragically, nearly all of her relationships fell apart due to violence against her; violence that women continue to face, but that was extremely prevalent in Hayworth's lifetime.
Hayworth spent a lot of her career dodging the control of both her husbands and film studios who tried to dictate her career. She was on salary with Columbia Pictures, meaning she did not get paid per production like contemporary actors. However, this did not stop her from refusing roles she didn't want, causing her to be suspended from Columbia in 1943 and again in 1952.
Hayworth was showing her strength by refusing roles and not appearing on set, which angered Columbia. Not only was she disobeying her rules as a contract player, she was asserting dominance as a female. Bold moves like this were incredibly important and set the tone for others in the industry to fight back. And as a woman in the 1940s, that was quite an incredible statement.
The Women of Golden Hollywood Cinema
Hayworth wasn't the only one of her peers embracing her femininity; Lauren Bacall, Grace Kelly, Katharine Hepburn, Doris Day, and other actresses fully embraced the glamour of the the time.
However, Hayworth's narrative most closely resembles that of Marilyn Monroe's. Both women had multiple marriages, significant aesthetic makeovers, and radiated the sex-appeal that had become so important in Golden Hollywood. Much like Hayworth, Monroe had to reinvent herself in order to be taken seriously in the industry. She changed her name from Norma Jeane Mortenson to Marilyn Monroe and iconically bleached her hair blonde. Monroe had also been suspended while on contract with 20th Century Fox after fighting with the studio about how low her pay was, relative to a star of her stature.
The media was harsh on women in the spotlight, especially Monroe and Hayworth. For instance, in 1947 Hayworth appeared in Orson Welles' The Lady from Shanghai, and many blamed the film's box office failure on Hayworth's looks—she broke from her famed red locks to sport a short, blonde haircut. Somehow critiques of the film landed solely on Hayworth and her image.
The very fact that Rita and her contemporaries were breaking with conventional tropes, flaunting their bodies, and speaking out against actions they disagreed with was a major win for females in cinema. All of these changes, for better or for worse, proved successful for their careers.
Monroe was constantly on display for the public's critique as well, from her personal life, career choices, and looks, up until the large media coverage of her death in 1962. Later in life, Hayworth felt a similar sting from the public. She was misdiagnosed as an alcoholic for years, and was publicly scrutinized for being escorted off an airplane in 1974. It wasn't until 1980 that doctors discovered Hayworth's dramatic personality shift was not alcohol-related, but in fact induced by Alzheimer's disease.
Overcoming the Obstacles
So what's the silver lining behind the dark curtain of Hollywood's glamour-filled Golden Age? The answer is that women like Rita Hayworth were products of a culture that scrutinized them at all costs, yet they came out the other end stronger, smarter, and prepared to fight for their lives and careers.
In Hayworth's case, for instance, her aesthetic makeover was most certainly a strategic business move. And though it's unfortunate she had to whitewash herself in order to be the success she was, Hayworth understood how to play the game—and she played it well. She learned to maneuver in and out of the grips so many people seemed to have on her, which is why she remained one of the most popular actresses of her time. And it wasn't just her looks, though the transformation certainly helped—she could dance, act, and the spark of excitement she brought on screen was undeniable.
After her Alzheimer's diagnosis, she stayed under the care of her daughter until her death in May 1987, due to complications from her disease.
Hayworth managed to balance her sex appeal and knowledge of self-worth throughout her career. All of her fame, glamour, and success was only achieved after lifelong determination and relentless work. To say Hayworth was explicitly talented and undeniably hardworking would be an understatement because, like so many women of her time, she never quite received the treatment she so genuinely deserved. Hayworth appeared in 61 films throughout her 37 year career, but most of all, she raised the bar for women in cinema and embraced what it meant to be a proud female.
Hayworth was a pin-up girl, a dancer and an actress, and many times a wife and mother. But most of all, Rita Hayworth was a true staple of Classic Hollywood and what it means to be a powerful, glamorous woman.
Brittany K. King is a Chicago-based writer and founder of Film Daddy. She spends most of her time avoiding saying the word ‘gyro’ out loud.
Follow Brittany on Twitter @brittanykking.