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, 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.