Carmen: The Unhappy Hollywood Life of Brazil’s Shiniest Star Ever

    Carmen Miranda on cover of Ruy Castro's bookCarmen Miranda died 50 years ago at the age of 46. The most celebrated Brazilian of all times, she had built a fabulous international career on a foundation of sparkling charisma and vivacity. Exceptional verve – an elusive and highly desirable quality – propelled the teenaged hatmaker onto the public stage and kept her in the limelight until her premature death.

    But although the singer continued to wow audiences with unflagging energy until the very end, she was a spent woman during the last half dozen years of her life.

    A disastrous marriage, alcoholism, an unshakable addiction to amphetamines (to marshal the energy for strenuous performances on grueling schedules) and barbiturates (to cancel the effect of the uppers so she could sleep) all took their toll while Carmen’s money machine kept grinding unremittingly.

    By the final years, it appears that nothing was left for the deeply depressed star but her stage life.

    The tragic side of Carmen’s life was exposed in Helena Solberg’s documentary Carmen Miranda: Bananas Is My Business (1994). The film also examined the cartoonish and humiliating stereotype Carmen’s American screen roles invariably conveyed: temperamental, childish, irrational Latin women, loose cannons who fired off rapid strings of malapropisms in heavily accented, stilted English.

    This during WWII, when the State Department was leaning on Hollywood studios to portray Latin American nations in a flattering light in accordance with the U.S. Good Neighbor policy.

    In his review of the film, New York Times critic Stephen Holden wrote:

    “The film’s clips of Miranda from the Hollywood years are like jolts of electricity, for she exudes an incandescent vitality along with a percussive vocal bravura. It is sad that Hollywood, after crowning her with bananas, couldn’t think of anything else to do with her except to turn that image into a joke.”

    When Carmen arrived in the United States, she was 30. Behind her were ten years at the top of the Brazilian entertainment industry. Those ten years were decidedly happier than the following 16, but published information about them has been sketchy.

    In 1978, Abel Cardoso Junior published the book Carmen Miranda, a Cantora do Brasil (São Paulo: Sorocaba), which, for all the valuable information it provided in the form of quotations and discography, never laid out the complete story of Carmen’s life.

    This task was left for Ruy Castro, biographer of Garrincha and Nelson Rodrigues, and Bossa Nova’s chronicler supreme. Castro is nothing if not thorough.

    Over a period of four years, he interviewed close to 200 people, among them Carmen’s relatives, friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and their offspring.

    His bibliography fills over four closely printed pages. Castro also read the complete transcripts of all the interviews made for Bananas Is My Business, including everything that hadn’t been used in the final cut. He scoured the Carmen Miranda Museum in Rio de Janeiro and communicated with researchers and collectors around the globe.

    The result is a monumental biography of 550 pages, which one doesn’t want to set down until the very last page, if then. Castro’s style is always seductive, and here he is very much in his element.

    The book is replete with innumerable tidbits – some so minute that you wonder whether you really wanted to know about details like Darryl F. Zanuck’s sexual predilections or the size of his (apparently not so) intimate anatomy.

    On the other hand, Castro reveals for the first time the shady game that Wallace Downey played as both “representative” of Brazilian songwriters abroad and agent of Robbins Music, which published the songs while never paying those same songwriters a penny in royalties.

    Where Carmen’s life is concerned, we get as full an account as can be had today of her long-lasting (and sequential) romantic attachments with Mario Cunha, Carlos Alberto da Rocha Faria, and Aloysio de Oliveira, none of whom was ever ready to marry her.

    The only man who did propose was David Sebastian, a leech whom she married after a brief acquaintance, without any investigation of his background, and, with no prenuptial agreement. It didn’t take long for her to see the light, but she steadfastly refused to divorce him and effectively sealed her fate.

    Why a strong and independent woman like Carmen allowed herself to sink passively into a ruinous marital and professional trap is still not perfectly clear.

    Ruy Castro dug up as many original sources as are still available, and he gamely offers explanations for inexplicable behavior patterns, but one can’t help feeling that Castro arrived too late.

    Had he been there to ask the right questions several decades ago, the jigsaw puzzle that is Carmen’s life would be more complete. At this point, we can just speculate and enjoy a rich and immensely absorbing yarn.

    Daniella Thompson publishes the online magazine of Brazilian music and culture Daniella Thompson on Brazil – http://daniv.blogspot.com and the website Musica Brasiliensis – www.daniellathompson.com – where she can be contacted.

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