What Film Haunts You? #1: Gilda

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What Film Haunts You? is a series of essays curated by Nicholas Rombes featuring writers, musicians, scientists, revolutionaries, and others. The debut installment is by Grace Krilanovich:

Gilda (1946) is not a great movie, only a good one. From today’s vantage it’s claustrophobic, over the top, obvious and preposterous, the dialogue highly silly and stylized (even for noir, which, save for some high contrast lighting and forces of evil afoot, this really isn’t). Where it achieved greatness was in sealing the fate of its lead actress, Rita Hayworth. Gilda — the character — is “iconic” in the sense that it formed a great gleaming cage from which Hayworth would never escape.

Best remembered for containing two of Hayworth’s most emblematic film moments, the hair flip and “Put the Blame on Mame,” Gilda gives us three characters, each with “no past, only future.” From Gilda’s first shot — literally up from the gutter — onward, what we are given of Johnny Farrell’s rise from smirking cheater to smirking tuxedoed cheater, his employer Ballin Mundson’s illicit business dealings, and his new wife (Johnny’s old wife) Gilda’s rampant adultery is soured by the “worm’s eye view” quasi-philosophical musings of Uncle Pio, the washroom attendant, who will be there after they are gone (so he tells us).

Gilda’s entry into the film is awesomely disruptive. Her initial scenes are marked by an expression of expansive mock-elation, with eyebrows permanently raised and lines of absurd dialogue delivered through bared teeth. It’s weird. (I wonder if it made 1946 audiences laugh too.) It’s also really fabulous, and skewed enough to make me think of her as an alien who’s been studying humans in preparation for playing one in a movie. The shell is so pretty, pretty perfect. Grating. Everything she says is wrong, there’s no correlation to what’s going on inside. Gilda, Johnny, and Mundson have parallel conversations with each other, riddled with codes and half-truths. You’re supposed to assume they mean the opposite of what they say.

Mundson is the mysterious German with an ugly past, Harpy bookends, and a hidden role in a South American tungsten cartel. As proprietor of an illegal Buenos Aires casino, he maintains a tasteful distance between himself and a world full of “stupid little people” — and a penchant for “shutting out excitement” and disappearing when things get too hot. He doesn’t seem at all happy that the war is over.

Gilda is superstitious, nervous, impulsive and frustrated, forever draped in flowing fabrics that appear translucent in shadows, and opaque under lights. She carries a whip during Carnival as part of her Lone Ranger costume, which, with this film’s profusion of capes, masks, and concealed blades (to say nothing of its euphemism, doublespeak, and shady Nazi pasts) adds a sadomasochistic element to an already perverse enough climate of dirty dealings and kickbacks, betrayal and secrecy, prostitution and exploitation. Again and again we are told, “Gilda makes her own luck.”

Lots of nasty names could be used against her. Gilda is a cheater, a tart, a stripper, a gold digger. None of these words are used, of course. Instead they’re spelled out in the silence of an incomplete exclamation, as in, “Now they all know what I am, a—!” Wait, let me revise that: in the space where a word should be, there’s a slap. Johnny administers it to keep the word at bay, to replace it. Likewise, she gestures toward “striptease” by peeling off exactly one extra long black glove, tossing it into a crowd of crazed men. She doesn’t need to go any further: we — and they — know “what she is.”

Watching it now I can’t help but see Old Hollywood telling stories about itself. A slip of the tongue, really, as one wouldn’t expect Columbia, or any studio, to confess its role in the process by which beautiful canaries were kept, singing softly to their voyeurs in plush boudoirs.

It’s hard not to conflate Gilda, Mundson’s “beautiful, greedy child” whom he likes to feed beautiful things, with Columbia’s own (and indeed every major studio’s) infantilizing tendencies toward its charges, the contract players, during the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s. Those who signed the coveted seven-year studio contract gave up the right to make choices about their destinies, careers, and personal lives in exchange for glamour, wealth, and fame beyond measure.

The whole thing proves irresistible for David Lynch, as it figures prominently in his supreme vision of the Hollywood star machine and the (women’s) lives that got mashed in its gears, Mulholland Dr. (2001).

Here the Rita Hayworth/Gilda mythos is folded into Lynch’s vision of a freaky, overheated alternate universe Hollywood, where actresses’ fates are decided by a mafia-like committee of men operating behind the scenes, and nightmares of the past, amnesia, doubles and slippery identities, failure and decay work on your brain like colliding ripples in a pond. Like Margarita, and like Gilda, Mulholland Dr.’s injured innocent — She-who-can’t-remember-her-name — “makes her own luck,” as, gazing at a Gilda one-sheet poster on the wall, she pulls on the name “Rita” like an angora sweater.

No past, only future…

Using the writing of this essay as an excuse, (yes, I do need one) I went back and reread Barbara Leaming’s 1989 biography of Rita Hayworth, If This Was Happiness. It was one of many movie star bios I read as a teen that, along with a stack of books about the Warhol milieu, helped me forge early, corrupt notions of fame, glamour, and what it meant to be a woman (from what I gathered, that meant being fucked up on drugs, dysfunctional, groomed/manipulated, unlucky in love, and, ultimately, devoured by the machine). Whether their names were Rita, Hedy, Kim or Judy – or Baby Jane, Edie, Viva and Ultra Violet — their bosses (Harry C., Louis B., Andy) had a hand in shaping their lives and destinies, and seemed to like tweaking their fame for maximum profit. How are we able to forgive their trespasses against women? Is it because they gave us all this beautiful art?

As degraded and toyed-with as Gilda is, what strikes me is the centrality of her character, the fact that she takes up so much space. Say what you will about the “bad old days” of American movies, at least women were given buckets of movie-space, to do with as they saw fit, to set the story in motion, rattle the lives around them, run away, break windows, dance drunk – or just matter.

We don’t only want to see men’s stories. Yet, often these days the word “crucial” isn’t the first thing that comes to mind with regard to female characters.

That’s what’s haunting about watching Gilda in 2011 – a sense of loss for what once was, screwy as it may have been. Far from being a “woman’s film,” Gilda maintains its own maniac appeal. Its tragic heroine is in keeping with a tradition of bad-but-good screen femmes from the first half of the 20th century, who raised pillars in the Hollywood circus tent and expanded like a cloud of Chanel No. 5 inside.


Grace Krilanovich's debut novel The Orange Eats Creeps, published by Two Dollar Radio in 2010, was a finalist for the Starcherone Prize and the Believer Book Award. She's a MacDowell Colony fellow and was named as one of the National Book Foundation's "5 Under 35" honorees for 2010. More from this author →