'Gilda' Is an Invitation to Look Deeper Into Pop Culture
Beautiful, classic, important, and thoroughly complex, Gilda is a real “aficionado” film, and yet it has an undeniable popular appeal.
GildaDirector: Charles "King" Vidor
Cast: Rita Hayworth, Glenn Ford, George Macready
Studio: Columbia Pictures
If ever a Criterion Collection film release was long overdue, Charles Vidor’s Gilda (1946) is that film. Gilda is, perhaps, the one film that most thoroughly embodies the spirit of the Criterion enterprise. It’s beautiful, classic, important, and thoroughly complex. It’s a real “aficionado” film, and yet, it has an undeniable popular appeal. It has spawned dozens of scholarly articles on a range of topics. Indeed, it’s one of the finest pieces of entertainment that the American film industry has produced.
Perhaps because of the excellent quality of the transfer and the satisfaction of finally having Gilda on blu-Ray, it’s easy to forgive the DVD’s relative lack of usual Criterion extras. It comes with a 2010 commentary from film critic Richard Schickel, an interview with filmmakers Martin Scorsese and Baz Luhrmann on their love for the film, and a video essay by film noir historian Eddie Muller on Gilda’s queer legacy. Each of these is enjoyable, if lackluster compared to the kinds of special features one is used to finding on Criterion editions.
The best inclusion is a 1964 Hollywood and the Stars TV special on “The Odyssey of Rita Hayworth”, which charts her career from her early childhood as part of a family of dancers to her meteoric rise to Hollywood fame. What stands out in the short biographical documentary, which is narrated at turns by Joseph Cotton and Hayworth herself, is Rita’s lifelong commitment to hard work and her willingness to push herself beyond her comfort zone in order to achieve success.
For an actress billed (and remembered) so consistently as one of Hollywood’s most iconic sex symbols, the short TV special does a fantastic job of both humanizing her and dignifying her career as a performer and dramatic actress. Such serious treatment of both the talent and dogged perseverance of the female talent that was so fundamental to Hollywood’s heyday is rare, and its inclusion in the Criterion Collection of Gilda is a testament to the sea change in both critical and popular memory of the contribution women like Hayworth made not only to American culture but to film culture as well.
That contribution was substantial. The scene in which Hayworth’s luminescent visage is introduced made such a lasting impact on audiences -- and not just contemporary ones but those that, even 50 years later, are fascinated with her performance -- that it became a kind of meta-cinematic object. This visage appeared in films as diverse as Stephen King’s The Shawshank Redemption and Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. In the booklet accompanying the Criterion release (a booklet which, importantly, folds out into a large photo of Gilda in her iconic black sheath dress, smoking a cigarette), film writer Sheila O’Malley writes of its cinematic legacy:
The shadow of Rita Hayworth in Gilda has stretched across the culture for almost seventy years now. In 1946, the United States conducted a couple of atomic bomb tests on Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The first bomb dropped was named Gilda. In 1948, in De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, Antonio is in the process of putting up a Gilda poster when his bike is stolen. In 1982, Stephen King wrote Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, a novella in which Hayworth’s pinup photo hides the hole dug in the wall. In the 1994 film adaptation of King’s book, the prisoners gather in the mess hall to watch Gilda, and right before she first appears, Morgan Freeman says to Tim Robbins, “This is the part I really like. This is when she does that shit with her hair.” It’s not just lust on his face, but appreciation of her beauty and the joy that it brings. There are tributes, too, in Notting Hill (1999) and David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. (2001).
So, how to talk about Gilda? How to offer a worthwhile opinion on a picture that offers some of the most sublime images in film history? Of all the things that Gilda has been for me and the countless other film fans who have adored it, it has been an invitation to look deeper into popular culture.
At first glance, it's a prototypical film noir. A dangerous and seductive woman lures the men around her into a complex and ultimately fatal web of sex, deception, criminality, and death. Clearly, the film can be read this way, and several film critics and historians have done so, situating it squarely within the visual and narrative conventions of the crime genre that dominated American cinema from 1941-1953. However, like the film’s eponymous heroine, Gilda is not so easy to pin down. As the scrappy antihero Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) enigmatically remarks -- either of Gilda (Rita Hayworth) or his employer Ballin Mundson’s (George Macready) lethal dagger hidden within his walking cane -- “It looks like one thing, then it suddenly becomes another.”
So what does Gilda become when one lets it out of the generic box created for it by a Hollywood constrained by the Motion Picture Production code and the vice grip it kept on cinematic representations of “questionable morals”? While Gilda clearly contains all the visual and narrative conventions associated with film noir, it nevertheless inverts what is arguably's noir's most definitive feature: the exploration of the threat that femininity poses to masculinity. Instead, Gilda becomes a kind of anti-noir, an atypical story of male criminality and ego in which the woman is always to be blame even though she's never really at fault. This is, perhaps, one reading of Hayworth's iconic performance of "Put the Blame on Mame". It is, after all, a song about a woman who is inevitably blamed for a host of natural disasters even as the men she ensnares fall willingly into her charming traps.
The song receives two different treatments which, while not actually sung by Hayworth, are still delivered by the actress with such varied physical emphases that their different meanings cannot be ignored. The first is quiet, tender, and somewhat resigned; it has no audience except for the good-natured Uncle Pio (Steven Geray), perhaps Gilda’s only ally within the story.
The second rendition is the kind of performance one expects of a femme fatale. It is pointed, sexual, and intended to cut to the core not just of any man (though those in the casino audience are also pierced by it), but of the one for whom the performance is intended. Johnny takes the bait, and Gilda suffers for it. This scene is perhaps the most anti-noir of them all, as it shows Gilda in a different light than the film has yet cast upon her. In this scene she is not the Black Widow, the dangerous woman, the femme fatale; she is a woman trapped, overlooked, and vulnerable. She is, as so many classical Hollywood femmes have been, a victim in an overwhelmingly masculine world.
Gilda is also one of the first (and only) films to provide a deeply engaging -- and deeply queer -- dramatic crime film. The queer subtext in Gilda has been noted by film scholar Richard Dyer in his monograph, The Matter of Images: Essays on Representations, though his observations about the homoerotic connotations to the indisputably ambiguous relationship between Johnny and Ballin have been expanded by a number of other scholars including Eddie Muller whose ideas on the sexual politics of Gilda grace the Criterion DVD’s special features.
The most interesting academic treatment of Gilda ‘s queer subtext that I've encountered is Novid Parsi’s “Projecting Heterosexuality, or what do you mean by ‘it’?”, published in the Spring 1996 edition of the film journal Camera Obscura. Arguing with an article that perceives Gilda’s presence in the film as heterosexualizing the erotic relationship between Johnny and Ballin, Parsi writes:
assuming that heterosexuality is always already being spoken and homosexuality is always already being silenced makes certain that that is indeed always already the case. For if the gayness or homosexuality of the film is only connoted and undecidable, what exactly is denoted or decidable about the straightness or heterosexuality of Gilda? How do we know (or assume to know) that any character in this film is straight?
Parsi’s rhetorical strategy here is important for two reasons. First, it opens up a way of doing queer readings that doesn't relegate them to an “alternative” reading, one secondary and in opposition to a “straight” reading, one in which queer content is not sought or seen. Second, it contains an implicit exhortation that we go back and watch Gilda with fresh eyes, that haven’t been conditioned by the conventions of Hollywood to see those representations that float on the surface of the film’s incredibly complex subtext and connotative visual strategies.
Watching the Criterion edition of Gilda with Parsi’s essay in mind, I encounter a film that is, quite easily, one of the most obvious forerunners to contemporary queer cinema. If one sets aside the generic conventions of film noir that almost demand a straight reading, Gilda becomes eminently confused and confusing. Exactly who is in love with whom? Who is sleeping with whom? The initial meeting between Ballin and Johnny has the distinct characteristic of a wealthy older man cruising a working boy in the bad part of town. Gilda’s persistent ridiculing of Johnny’s devotion takes on a completely different tone if one reads Johnny as Ballin’s “kept boy”.
A host of other details in both dialogue and physical performance become increasingly queer the more one allows them to: Johnny’s return of Ballin’s key upon his marriage to Gilda, the reason for which he cites as “tact”; Johnny’s protectiveness of Ballin’s feelings, and his presence in the clearly queer-coded older man’s home; the abundance of phallic references to Ballin’s cane, not to mention the way in which Johnny relates to it; the strangely asexual nature of Gilda’s relationship to her newlywed husband.
Despite the Motion Picture Production Code’s prohibition on representations of “sex perversion or any inference to it”, queer content has always seeped into Hollywood films. Yet, for some reason, unlike Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train or Robert Wise’s The Haunting, Gilda has not emerged as a significant cinematic milestone in the representation of queer desire despite its protagonist -- Johnny, who provides the film’s narrative voice over -- displaying relationship patterns that today would clearly be read as bisexual.
While Gilda displays some profoundly queer tendencies in its construction of romantic relationships between people of various genders and identifications, it also offers a different take on love and passion than one is used to finding in classical Hollywood films. While sexual attraction may be one of the dynamics keeping this odd threesome in thrall with one another, it is truly their mutual resentment and hatred for one another that drives the plot. Johnny hates Gilda for whatever she’s done to him in the past, and he hates her for coming in between him and Ballin. Gilda hates Johnny because of their past together, but she also hates Ballin just as much as she fears him. For his part, Ballin hates the secret history that his paramours share with one another, and he hates their attempts to be free of him. That this tangled web of hateful relations creates a film that so easily passes for a love story is just further testimony to the truth of Ballin’s observation to Gilda:
Gilda: If you’re worried about Johnny Farrel, don’t be. I hate him.
Ballin: And he hates you. That’s apparent. But hate can be an exciting emotion, Gilda. Haven’t you noticed that? There is a heat in it one can feel. Didn’t you feel it tonight? I did. It warmed me.
And so Gilda has warmed me, first with its sublime imagery, and then later, when I was older, with its complex layering of sexuality, psychology, and drama. It’s the best kind of film, the kind that keeps giving with every viewing. Like Gilda and Johnny -- the quintessential film noir hustlers -- Gilda is what you need when you need it: brainy or brainless, deep or easy, psychological or just visually beautiful. Whatever its effect on you, rest assured, you can always put the blame on Mame.