Who Needs Hollywood?

You will, however, be enthralled by the film with a title that at first inspired me with dread: Bananas Is My Business (May 31 and June 7, both evenings at 6:00 p.m.). When I saw that it was to be a documentary about Carmen Miranda, I was even more apprehensive. Who has not seen those 20th Century Fox Technicolor musicals of the Forties and Fifties in which Carmen Miranda -- hips zigzagging, hands fluttering, mouth grinning from ear to ear, elongated lashes bobbing up and down to the rhythm of the samba, underneath a ludicrous fruit-salad hat -- sang in Spanish at world-record speeds? Remember? Betty Grable and Cesar Romero were always sitting at a nightclub table, cooing at each other while Carmen's nonstop gyrations kept pulsating in the background. Where would AMC be without Carmen Miranda and her crazy chatter, saying "mouse" for "mouth," "souse" for "south," and, inevitably, "I loff you, mi corazon"?

Those of us old enough to have seen the originals will admit that Fox and Carmen gave us our image of what South America was like. We assumed at the time that her contagious vivacity and delightful massacre of "our" language was what we would find if we ever got there; that life in Brazil or Argentina was one long carnival, one long eruption of balloons and tinsel, danced by an innocent, naive, but charming population. This film helps us to discover what we should have realized years ago, if indeed we had ever thought about it: that Carmen Miranda had nothing to do with South America, that she was a wartime Hollywood fabrication, the ultimate escape from reality.

What we could not have known at the time, of course, is that Carmen, whose tragic destiny parallels that of her contemporary, Marilyn Monroe, was as good an actress as Marilyn; she too persuaded us that she was having the time of her life up there on the screen. Both women were turned into glamour symbols, sequined Stepford wives whose souls had been pilfered while they slept.

What we certainly did not know is that Carmen's native country of Brazil did not like what Hollywood did to her. She was the Edith Piaf of Rio before Lee Schubert, who happened to catch her act one night, talked her into starring for him on Broadway. Then came her Fox movie debut, and, as she sang of the "Souse American Way," audiences laughed up a storm and clamored for more. Like the ditzy blonde Monroe was doomed to play in film after film, Miranda's persona stayed with her during her fifteen years of stardom. When critics attacked her for the monotony of her performances and suggested that she try something more serious, she answered with the song that the documentary takes for its title: "Bananas Is My Business." The grammatical error was carefully calculated to assure the American public that their "bombshell" was never going to change, was never going to learn English, even as she would never grow old or have any pain in her life. The complete version of the American Dream is this: Everyone ought to be able to get ahead and never pay a price for it.

This film, well crafted by director Helena Solberg and narrated in English, is a powerful dissection of Tinseltown: how Hollywood works as seen through the eyes of Brazil. It offers a searing indictment of the studio system and the enslavement of its stars, who were given anything they wanted except a sense of their own identity. Marilyn presumably took her own life. So did Judy Garland -- who, ironically, is shown here joyously embracing Carmen in one sequence. Carmen virtually committed suicide. She took thousands of uppers to energize those relentlessly swaying hips and just as many downers so she could sleep. At 46 she was a worn-out old woman who collapsed in front of an audience and died later that night. The actual footage of her final appearance presents an image that will stay with you a long time. Here is a film that Hollywood would never have made. If you don't mind being disturbingly enlightened, jump at this rare chance to see it. Originally shown in this country on PBS, it may now reach the large audience it deserves.

Having already been shown at the Boston and Recife Festivals, Pequeno Dicionario Amoroso (Little Book of Love) (Saturday, May 31 at 10:00 p.m., Wednesday, June 4 at 8:00 p.m., and Saturday June 7 at 10:00 p.m.) would, if it were the sole film on view at the Cosford, do little to foster hope for a Brazilian renaissance. It belongs to a genre, much adored by Hollywood, that might be termed "romantic comedy with dark undertones." Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal did this much better in When Harry Met Sally; at least their ups and downs were laced with humor and genuine characterizations. Director Sandra Werneck has chosen to hit us over the head with the all-too-predictable downhill course of a relationship that starts off with lots of heavy breathing in boudoir scenes that are unnecessarily detailed, and then languishes as the lovers (Andrea Beltrao and Daniel Dantas, both of whom are willing to expose a lot of flesh) gradually lose interest in each other. The trouble is that we lose interest in them almost from the start.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help

Now Showing

Find capsule reviews, showtimes & tickets for all films in town.

Box Office Report

Join My Voice Nation for free stuff, film info & more!