Constructing Rita Hayworth
Essays Culture Film

Constructing Rita Hayworth

Katherine Bayford

Hollywood and the Genesis of Simulated Beauty

The year is 1939. Young, talented, and pretty in a city filled with young, pretty talents, you wish to become an actress. Not having been imported from Europe, you lack the sophisticated mystique of the Garbo types. Failing to have married Hollywood royalty, you cannot make the ascent from Ziegfeld girl to a superstar like Crawford. Not as talented as Bette Davis, nor as quick on comedic timing as Carole Lombard, you find that studios may be willing to sign you to a short contract so that they have another dancer in the background of a musical, or a pretty bride on the arm of the fourth-billed actor—but without a complete reinvention of self you are simply another young girl with another meaningless contract.

The “Golden Age” of Hollywood was typified by studio control. The lives and careers of actors and actresses were essentially owned through their contracts with the studio that determined who they could work with, where, for how long, and on what—not to mention how they could look, what they could eat, and whom they could marry. During the height of the studio system, actors and actresses were rebuilt out of raw material: new names, new looks, even new biographies all tightly managed by marketing departments, and any problems in their lives smoothed over by powerful handlers. Abortions, affairs, and addictions were all tightly controlled and managed by the studios—so too were facial features deemed sub-par. Studios would sign hundreds of girls at a time, who, if they made it big thanks to particular acting skill or sex appeal, were locked into a studio contract for years with relatively meager wages. If the would-be actresses turned out to be duds, they could easily be cast in dozens of B-movie background roles. There’s a particular sport to watching old movies wherein the viewer can try to spot future megastar actresses who hadn’t yet received their big break—Joan Crawford tap-dancing in a group of hundreds, Marilyn Monroe frozen with fear opposite Bette Davis in All About Eve.

In the 1940s, many young women entered the studio system with one name, face, and image, and came out with another set entirely. The shy, plain Norma-Jean Mortensen would have her entire face restructured with makeup, alongside a strict diet and exercise to restructure her figure, in order to become Marilyn Monroe. Jean Harlow, the original platinum blonde, found that she made a name for herself precisely because she had embodied a new, radical form of beauty that pushed aside natural, achievable tones in favor of bleaching her hair and scalp to achieve a radical and unnatural look. Women modifying themselves toward certain beauty standards was nothing new, but the studio system of Old Hollywood held the power to make virtually anyone a star—or at least give them the look of one. So notorious was Jean Harlow’s hair that it not only functioned as a foundation for her career (see 1931’s Platinum Blonde or 1933’s Bombshell), nor simply coined a new fashion (the legions of Hollywood blondes to come), but also fashioned a mythology around her own death. So toxic was the bleach concoction used to lighten her hair to a platinum white that rumors persisted for years that it had seeped into her brain and killed her. Harlow had died incredibly prematurely, and her star, in death, blossomed like any beautiful talent who dies in her mid-twenties. Even in death, her extreme beauty treatments arguably eclipsed her celebrity when alive. Suffering for beauty had precedence—but this period of Hollywood showed its audience just how artificial that beauty was, and therefore, just how achievable it could be. And I would know: as a personal experiment inspired by Harlow, I dyed my naturally dark brunette hair to be platinum blonde, until, that is, the ill effects of the bleach became too intense to sustain the color.

Unnatural, constructed beauty meant that even the plainest of girls tied into the scrappiest of contracts had the ability to—if not blossom into a flower—at least be molded into a starlet. Very few actresses of the age managed to escape this form of creation and control by their studios—an errant self-assured European actress who could get work elsewhere (Ingrid Bergman or Greta Garbo), or young women who were signed to contracts specifically for their natural “girl-next-door” looks (e.g., Debbie Reynolds and Donna Reed). Even those determined to be insufficiently womanly not to warrant intervention could still find their diet, makeup, and surgical procedures tightly controlled by studio bosses. Judy Garland, who would suffer from drug and alcohol addictions and crippling low self-esteem for decades after being considered plain by studio executives, found herself placed on a diet of soup and amphetamines to maintain as slim and girlish a figure as possible for The Wizard of Oz.

One starlet of this era aptly represented this shift in attitudes toward beauty, publicity, and the celebrity of the star’s own creation. Rita Hayworth, one of the most glimmering lights of 1940s cinema, started off as the distinctly more Latin, Margarita Carmen Cansino. Pressuring his daughter into performing at Tijuana nightclubs together as a dancing duo, Cansino’s father created a hit act that eventually drew the eye of a Fox talent scout who would sign her to a paltry six-month contract. Not given a contract big enough to shine under, Cansino still disappointed the studio. Fox didn’t renew her contract, but a new husband, more business partner than spouse, saw the potential in Cansino for the Spanish to be stripped out and the American to be brought in. Signed to a seven-year contract with Columbia, Cansino, under the guidance of her husband, was slowly but surely morphed into the studio’s idea of a star. Hidden away in seclusion, she underwent painful hairline electrolysis surgery to remove a widow’s peak and heighten her hairline, all in order to seem more northern than southern European. Dying her hair the bright, glamorous red she would sport for the rest of her life, Cansino’s features were chipped away in order to become Hayworth. A star was not so much born as made.

Forced seclusion of this sort was nothing new. In 1935, a young Catholic starlet by the name of Loretta Young would star in The Call of the Wild with Clark Gable, with whom she conceived a child. Young knew that, if she were to be open with her studio, they would send her to hospital with “exhaustion”—a commonplace affliction for actors and actresses meant as a euphemism for everything from alcoholism to bipolar disorder. In this case it meant an abortion. Convinced that undertaking one would put her soul in mortal peril, Young fled abroad to receive treatment “for a condition from childhood” and gave birth in secret, sending the newborn to an orphanage, before then emerging publicly from her nebulous treatment in order to adopt a newborn child, who just so happened to have the exact same distinctive ears as Young’s former co-star. For Hollywood standards of the time, Hayworth’s seclusion was far tamer.

Hayworth, cajoled into opening her home and personal life by a controlling husband and a studio hoping to capitalize on its new creation, was swiftly known within the Hollywood press corps as “the most cooperative girl in Hollywood.” Despite having little career or news to share with the media, she was agreeable in giving interviews and therefore a valuable asset to editors who needed a young, glamorous burgeoning starlet to fill their pages. The construction, previously kept tightly under wraps, was now part of the story itself. Hayworth’s awareness of her own objectified construction was a source of deep anxiety. Did she really have any form of talent, or was it all the creation of a makeup artist, laser technician, and publicist? Ironically, the knowledge of her creation only made her more appealing to the moviegoing public. If she, a young, poor, unknown dancer with unattractive features could be made into a true star, so could they. She was far from the otherworldly actresses of the 30s, who seemed to be born with a cigarette holder in their hands and red varnish on their fingernails, and the audience started to respond appreciatively—even enviously—to stars openly created by the studios that controlled every aspect of their lives. It became somewhat realistic for girls across America to go into a milkshake parlor as a high school student and exit with an MGM contract: the exact same thing had happened to the Harlow-esque bleached-blonde Lana Turner, eventually another favorite of the fan magazines. The transformative falsehood of “Rita Hayworth” was immediately in itself a story, regardless of how small a career she had held up until this point. The false object was beginning to become more interesting than the actual subject.

And yet it never managed to eclipse the true character underneath. Watch any Rita Hayworth scene—even one that the YouTube algorithm throws up seemingly randomly—and witness a woman so obviously imbued with an innate energy lighting up the set that she is distinguished immediately from a score of actresses. Long, elegant limbs are flung gleefully in Tonight and Every Night’s joyous musical numbers. In Gilda, Hayworth casts her eyes at just an angle so as to be both yearning and cruel. Within Blood and Sand, an entire nightclub looks on as Hayworth steals a dance with Anthony Quinn: some lustful and covetous, some jealous, some delighted. I doubt the extras had to work hard to express such emotions. Yet, Hayworth’s life was marked by her ability to inspire those responses in the actors and audience that surrounded her. Her original appeal had been created by the studio system, but the quality that kept her at the forefront of cinema for the decade was all her own.

The knowledge of Hayworth’s “creation” operated not just as a source of inspiration. It gave opportunity for ever more cruelty and control. When she asked to separate from the husband who had pushed her toward extreme beauty treatments to attract a studio’s eye, he threatened to destroy the very artwork he deemed his creation and throw acid on her face should she leave him. Now, the threat is less violent, but more insidious. In the modern era, Hollywood has transitioned to a system where all those same pressures remain incognito, informal but all too real. The power is diffused, making it harder to pinpoint the exact source of control. Diffusion is perhaps more pernicious than the traditional sources of power. Previously, actresses had suffered being axed from a contract if they fell below the beauty standards imposed on them. Now the standards are in flux, but actors who fail to adhere to them, no matter how ever-shifting they might be, simply won’t be hired anymore.

In 2009, a young reality TV star, Heidi Montag, undertook 10 cosmetic surgeries within a single day, with the costs comped by a plastic surgeon who hoped to capitalize on her very public Hayworthian transformation. Whilst recovering at home, Montag’s heart temporarily stopped. She was 23 years old, and from this point onward her celebrity only decreased. Montag’s mistake was in being openly ambitious without a good story to tell. She wasn’t a poor, young Spanish dancer who just needed an opportunity to shine in the most difficult of worlds to break into. Rather, she was a wealthy young woman on the fringes of the most hated form of celebrity: reality television. Montag had no discernible talent, no tangible goal other than to chase fame, no compelling story behind the transformation. The image had become the reality, the celebrity constructed from the act of surgery and the falseness of reality television.

This reconstruction of image was a pastiche in a particular sense “What you are presented with in the studios is the degeneration of the cinematographic illusion, its mockery, just as what is offered in Disneyland is a parody of the world of the imagination,” Jean Baudrillard wrote of Hollywood studios, “You come out feeling as though you have been put through some infantile simulation test.” Hayworth’s story was pure Hollywood: a down-on-her-luck Latin girl transformed into a model of Anglo-American beauty, married to Orson Welles and Aly Khan, an idol of the screen. The name of her most famous character decorated the first nuclear bomb tests in the Bikini Atoll (informed by her Catholicism, her reaction was furious disgust). Her transformation was publicly documented, but it was never her entire story: a woman crippled by anxiety that she was nothing more than a construction of other people’s whims, yet in truth so much more than they could ever make her to be.

The audience now only accepts what it wants to see. It is left to the actors and actresses to conform. Those who do not, find themselves adrift in a cultural vacuum that no longer sees value in them. Ten years ago, actresses would starve themselves to maintain a body fat percentage that would reveal their abdominal muscles. Today the market demands both abdominal muscles and thighs that come from having a high body fat percentage. Seventy years ago, fan magazines worked hand-in-hand with the studios they relied on for access to the stars, a mutually beneficial relationship that kept both powerful. In more recent times, part of their power has disseminated into gossip magazines, characterised by paparazzi and unflattering exposés. Now, with the advent of social media, power is diffused even more widely. Even with the rise of social media and on-demand streaming services, old power players still retain significance by shaping the demands of the audience, who operate both as the consumer and the object. They may make demands of their stars, but the stars are still dressed in fashions which are meant to be sold to the audience. The transfer of power is more subtle than simply being in the hands of the consumer. The audience’s tastes are not wholly their own. The traditional power sources of Hollywood still inform the tastes of the individual consumer, but how they do so now looks very different, is much harder to recognise, and, without any figures to label responsible, is much more insidious.

While recently scrolling through one of the thousands of forums discussing women’s beauty, I saw that someone had used a photograph of Ingrid Bergman to illustrate the great beauty of Old Hollywood. Someone seeing her for the first time responded in shock: surely if she’d have been working today, her nose would have been whittled down to nothing? The response made me feel slightly queasy in its accuracy. The old studio system of Hollywood imposed its beauty ideals on the women it controlled, manipulated, created, and ultimately owned. Yet, it still allowed for cracks.

One of the most exciting aspects of watching an Old Hollywood movie is this: the imperfection of the beauty that creeps through the decorative cover. Makeup is carefully applied, artificially transforming the women it owns and yet leaving natural vestiges. Their lips are individually overlined in a way that is meant to represent their individual personalities: Marlene Dietrich’s cupid bow is deepened into an unnatural angle that emulates the way she was lit like a geometric sphinx; Monroe’s were rounder, fuller, and wider every year in an endless caricature of sex. Yet the wide face, large nose, fatty thighs sit, transparent, in front of us. No matter what corset they used to transform a natural body to an unnatural one, the reality is there, underneath the carefully crafted surface, if we could just reach out and scratch off the false layer.

I love the perfectly decorated, yet imperfect faces of this Hollywood. I love seeing their wonky teeth and slight squints, I love seeing their bones and fat and the bags under their eyes that still make them beautiful enough that it has driven the lead of the movie to murder.

Whilst beauty was finite, Umberto Eco once said, “ugliness was infinite, like God”. When we rip out all ugliness from a person, we remove elements of their soul. When we do so for a standard of beauty that is constantly in flux, can never be fulfilled, and will change every 5–10 years, we eradicate the human out of women and replace it with an unattainable, ever-shifting goal of consumerism. The women are both the consumers and the consumed under the system, and the desire to consume will never be sated.

Featured image: Rita Hayworth in Lady from Shanghai by Columbia Pictures via Wikipedia Commons.

Katherine Bayford studies for a PhD in theory at the University of Nottingham and is an alumna of the University of St. Andrews. She invites you to follow her on Twitter.