There was more to Carmen Miranda than insane hats and leering grins, a recent documentary shows
Camp depends on a glittering surface that often resists penetration. Carmen Miranda is one of camp’s enduring icons, the flamboyant outsider who makes us love her through sheer force of personality. The “lady in the tutti-fruitti hat” brought to American wartime audiences an extravagantly seductive surface: the exoticism of South America, a sensuality tempered by caricature, and outlandish costumes and fruit-laden “hats” that have an unsuspected origin in the black slums of Brazil.
Helena Solberg’s brilliant new documentary Carmen Miranda: Bananas Is My Business is the first serious attempt to get beyond that admittedly fascinating surface. Solberg was born and raised in Brazil but, like Carmen, came to America to perfect her craft. The link between director and subject is not a casual one. One of Solberg’s most important early memories is her mother refusing to let her attend Carmen’s funeral in 1955, because, as she says, “People like my parents always thought that when poor people filled the streets, for whatever reason, it was better to stay at home.” The director’s rift is wryly healed by the film’s end, when her mother has a “reconcilation” with Carmen and all that she implied.
Carmen Miranda’s story is far more complex and heart-wrenching than one would expect of a woman who flashed to prominence in Hollywood in the early 1940s and ended up fixed forever in the public mind as the inspiration for Chiquita Banana and for countless drag queen revues. This film uses a melange of film clips, home movies, interviews, and dramatic recreations — with drag performer Erick Barreto playing Carmen — to create a sweet, sad picture of a unique artist done in by historical forces. Many myths are dispelled along the way. Some viewers will be surprised to learn that she was a huge recording and film star in Brazil long before she arrived in the U.S. Though middle-class herself, she was in fact a pioneer of the black slum music known as samba. Her color-blindness — perhaps derived from the fact that she was not “native” herself, being a Portuguese who never gave up her passport — extended to her physical image as well. The gaudy turbans, bangles, and exposed midriffs were based on the costumes of the Baiana, the poor black women who sold fruit in Bahia.
Carmen, born in 1909, was 20 when a test demo she made for Victor Records became a hit. After ten years of success in Brazil, she was lured to Broadway to star in Lee Shubert’s revue The Streets of Paris, where audiences were enthralled by her unique style. When she returned to Brazil, she was attacked as “Americanized.” Embittered, she returned to the U.S. to join Twentieth Century-Fox, where she starred in a series of goofy “south-of-the-Border” Technicolor musicals. Carmen’s image established a stereotype that lingers today — the vulgar, flashy, hyperkinetic, language-mangling Latin. Rita Moreno defines it succinctly for us: “We were oversexed, always left by the guy … you had to be vivacious, fiery! an exaggeration…” This image paid off in the most tangible terms: in 1945, Carmen Miranda was the highest-paid woman in the U.S. But she was also increasingly trapped, as the roles grew more caricaturish and the hats reached unparalleled heights of camp craziness in films like The Gang’s All Here, where no earthly stage could accommodate the skyscraper of bananas.
Opinions differ on whether Carmen could have challenged this. Cesar Romero says she was out of step with the times, a novelty that wore off. But Alice Faye and others deny that she could have changed her image and still been employed: “You could argue [with the studio],” she says, “but then you were suspended.” Above all, Carmen longed to express herself, even as a gaudy cartoon in Hollywood movies.
Brazil continued to hold her accountable for what they saw as ridiculing their country for the pleasure of American audiences. The woman whose lyrics “Her skin is hot and dark, her heart beats for Brazil” seemed autobiographical was no longer welcome there, a fact that may have contributed to her drug problems, abusive marriage, clinical depression, and electroshock treatments. Her cooperation with the U.S. “Good Neighbor Policy,” really just a way of replacing the lost European movie audiences of wartime with South American ones, sealed her image as a dupe and sellout.
Still, Carmen had moments of protest that showed her charming wit, style, and sensitivity. The phrase “bananas is my business” comes from a self-mocking protest song she did in the 1940s, to address the perception of being stereotyped. In 1945 she bought out her Fox contract and attempted more serious roles — including playing a dual role in a Marx Brothers movie — with limited success. Newsreel clips show her as an accomplished painter.
A key part of her legend was fixed during her first success here in headlines reading, “Carmen Miranda Conquers America.” But, as so often happens with the absorption of the “exotic” — i.e., ethnic — by American culture, it was the other way around. Carmen’s luminous, upbeat personality was smashed under the mask. Hollywood twisted her unique personal style, her sense of humor, and her dazzling use of black styles into grim, gaudy excess and then discarded her. The “Brazilian Bombshell” collapsed onstage during a live Jimmy Durante show and died of a heart attack that night at age 46.