Font and Frock and Silver Screenings have offered bloggers of film, literature, and television the opportunity to share their character crushes in the Reel Infatuation Blogathon. I could find no better invitation to wax bittersweetly poetic on the subject of my aching adoration of Rita Hayworth’s Gilda.
I’ve already written about aspects of the film Gilda for two previous blogathons, but the character Gilda deserves a post of her own because she owns a little piece of my heart.
A unique entry in the classic film noir cycle, Gilda (1946) tells the tale of love gone wrong, really wrong. We watch in excruciating detail as loving someone hurts so much you turn it to hate and then turn the screw until you can’t tell the difference between pain and pleasure anymore and neither can the object of your adoration/scorn. Specifically, Gilda (Hayworth) has been dumped by Johnny (Glenn Ford) and married a wealthy man (George Macready as Ballin) who sees and treats her as a possession to display rather than another human being to love. This works for the heartbroken Gilda, until Johnny shows back up in her life as a new conquest for Ballin (there are many suggestions they are lovers in addition to employer/employee). In response, Gilda makes a show of being flagrantly unfaithful to Ballin, though we never see actual evidence that she sleeps with these eager paramours.
Much of the remainder of the film is Johnny and Gilda battling it out, loving and hating with equal fervor, even after Ballin is killed and they can get married. Johnny proves the far superior sadist, however, wedding but ignoring the wife who is prepared to forgive and forget. The misery he causes her is palpable and leads her to leave him, but Johnny has her followed, even planting a spy to seduce and promise to help Gilda get a divorce then return her to a miserable yet still vicious Johnny.
Gilda’s vengeance is to call Johnny’s bluff, performing a striptease in his club in which she plays the role of the heartless whore that she has never been. The “Put the Blame on Mame” number is mesmerizing (even if sadly marred by dubbing Hayworth’s voice). (Visit my post dedicated to the song and performance, if it interests you.)
Ultimately, and after a return of a not-dead Ballin and his subsequent actual murder, Johnny and Gilda reunite. Both are willing to say the blame for their unhappiness is mutual and equal, even if most viewers are not. It’s a typical heteronormative romantic ending for a film that deserves better.
It this reading of the film that draws me so deeply to Gilda, so full of love and unable to give it or even to live freely without it. I agonize over her combination of strength and weakness, her self-doubts balanced against her shimmering beauty and charisma. I want to take her away from Johnny and handle those tricky zippers for her. I want to to dance and drink and smoke with her, to show her the unconditional love she deserves.
Of course, my crush relates also to a feminist desire to have rescued Rita Hayworth from the pain she suffered as she was exploited and molested by her father, transformed by Hollywood into a star, tossed about by the narcissism of Orson Welles, and ultimately lost from view as she contracted Alzheimer’s at a young age only to die in 1987 at 68 years old. I’m sure she was more than a handful for those who did love her, from lovers and spouses to children. But for both Hayworth and Gilda, I can’t help but think that kinder, more protective hearts could have changed much. And in odd moments, I put myself into the picture and steal Gilda away from Johnny. We take it on the run, living wildly ever after, making our own happy ending.