Happy Birthday, Rita Hayworth

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She was a newbie when she appeared as Judith, the wife of the hated flier MacPherson (the fantastic Richard Barthelmess), in Only Angels Have Wings (directed by Howard Hawks), but she’s terrific in the part. The part seems like it would be a cinch. However, there are pitfalls everywhere in that script (especially for her character), none of which Hayworth falls into. You totally believe that she would be “the one” who came closest to winning Geoff’s heart (played by Cary Grant at his cranky best), not because she’s gorgeous and bodacious, or not only because of that – but because she treats him with an egalitarian calmness that I imagine he would find relaxing and suitable for his particular temperament. No girlie histrionics for him. A good pal with the body of a pin-up, the Howard Hawks Ideal.

Finally, in the scene when she does lose it due to the fact that her husband doesn’t trust her, and she gets drunk, staggering around behind the bar looking for the corkscrew (“Lock the doors. Judith’s lost her equilibrium”, she giggles, in a moment that manages to be both adorable and pathetic, all at the same time), and Cary Grant lets her have it, finally dunking her head in the water to sober her up – she realizes: Yes, he’s right – I AM only thinking of myself.

In other words, she plays a good woman in that film, a woman who would be a good mate, a perfect wife and partner, and she is also capable of critical thinking, even when it involves her own faults. In the drunk scene, she is able to take a step back and realize: “The problem here is ME.” How often are movie goddesses ever allowed to have a moment of self-realization like that?

Hayworth, new to dramatic parts at that time in her career, is more than up for the task.

Apparently, she had a hard time bringing herself to tears in her final scene, so Howard Hawks, a practical man, made her come in from the rain for that final confrontation, so her face would be all wet, which gives the impression of tears, and lets Hayworth off the hook of having to bring tears to her eyes. Producing tears is obviously something actors may worry about, and she certainly did, but if you have the impression of tears, then what does it matter if they come organically or not? Hawks got that, and he helped Hayworth to get that too, and it’s a very effective scene, and I couldn’t care less if she the actress was actually crying or not.

Highly under-rated actress. Yes, beloved as a sex bomb and babe but under-rated as an actress with some CHOPS.

Clip from Only Angels Have Wings below – when Cary Grant gives her a dousing of water and a harsh talking-to. The scene comes at the 8 minute mark.

And of course, nobody … but nobody … took off a glove like Rita.

A wonderful actress.

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