Sunday, August 5, 2012


What's getting headlines today, of course, is that it is, unbelievably, 50 years today since the death of Marilyn Monroe.  Many, many others have written and will write about her today - her incandescent beauty, the ups and downs of her tangled, messy life, and the amazing way in which today, when she's been dead for more than a decade longer than she lived, she's a still a bigger star than ever she was alive.

No, I'd like to think a little about the other bombshell who left us on an August 5, seven years before Marilyn.  In many ways, Marilyn and the woman born Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha, who became in her prime the best-paid woman in the U.S., have more in common than one might think.  Principally, each became trapped, in different ways, in a popular image that threatened to overwhelm the woman within.

It would probably suprise Carmen Miranda's contemporaries that she remains such a vivid, present, immediate figure, someone who still turns up on campy greeting cards and in impromptu impersonations (put some fruit on your head, strike a pose, and bam, you're Carmen Miranda - who else can be evoked so effortlessly?).  She was seen primarily as a novelty star, someone to drop into a plot (such plots as they were, in the mostly shambolic 20th Century Fox musicals that immortalized her) for a couple of numbers and a few zingy one-liners.  Today, she's often the best (and sometimes the only) reason to watch more than a few of her pictures.  Whatever the billing in 1948 or so, now she's the star.  Consider:  anybody up for a Jeanne Crain film festival?  Sheila Ryan? June Haver?  I thought not.

Like Marilyn, too, she cemented this indelible image in a short time - less than a decade of top stardom - and in surprisingly few movies, just a dozen or so features.  Both capitalized on and exaggerated their features, until at their most extreme both are nearly unrecognizable.  It's almost startling, as here, to see Carmen turned out more or less like other stars (although even here, the trusty Fox wardrobe department has seen fit to add a little Miranda-esque bling to one glove).  

Most of all, like Marilyn, Carmen left too soon, too suddenly, and in a way - a sudden heart attack after bouts of depression and addiction - that highlights, perhaps unfairly, the sadder, darker side of what, mostly, is a pretty fizzy tale:  little girl from a Portuguese village becomes in turn the top star of Brazil, a Broadway sensation, a pop phenomenon, and the toast of Hollywood.  I've told the story before, but I think it applies here, too:  I once asked a Star Who Was There about knowing Judy Garland, and the response - immediate, unpracticed - was:  "What everyone forgets is that an awful lot of the time she had an enormous amount of fun."  I hope we don't forget, in the hyperbolic, elegiac tributes to Norma Jeane Baker, superstar, that much the same could be said of her, and I hope, too, of Carmen.

I wonder if they ever met, the Blonde and the Brazilian Bombshells, and what they might have had to say to one another...