The glamour in classic Hollywood movies make me dizzy with nostalgia to a world I probably wouldn’t have liked to be in. Yet I still romanticize the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s precisely because of the beautiful movies that were made back then. Though I’m not unaware of the problems in those movies, especially as a feminist. Women are either femme fatales and serve solely as a catalyst for the downfall of a man or serves merely as an accessory and can be replaced by a lamp. A few weeks ago I’ve finally watched Gilda and through her being constantly pushed into a femme fatale box by her ex-lover Johnny she eventually starts to see herself as nothing more than that. Yet the movie offered a raw portrayal of what this label does to those women in question rather than zoom in on how the men are disadvantaged by those women. The movie is also an ode to all the female actresses that completely outshone the male character & a plea for more female characters in movies. Because damn it, did Ford’s acting pale in comparison to that of the magnificent Rita Hayworth.
Gilda is a black & white movie from 1946 directed by Charles Vidor starring Rita Hayworth as Gilda and Glenn Ford as Johnny Farrell. Smack dab in the middle of the noir-era, this movie is no exception. There’s a man, a woman, a gun, a villain and someone dies in the end. But in comparison to many other noir films, Gilda was not the villain. She was not the motivation nor the deciding factor for the bad events. In fact, the mystery was very lame and what makes this movie so great was precisely the relationship between Gilda & Johnny. This movie explores the toxic relationship between them and the events that unfold because of it. So while being thé essential film noir, it might be precisely that because of how different it is from other films in the era.
The movie is about a casino owner, Ballin Mundson, who hires a gambling hack, Johnny. They have one agreement: gambling and women don’t mix. Then that agreement seems to become void as Ballin introduces Johnny to his new wife, Gilda in the iconic hair-flip scene where she is introduced.
Add one and one and you assume that Ballin is trying to trick Johnny in some way. It could never be a pure coincidence that they have a history. You think you are in for a wild ride of intrigue, double-crossing and love triangles. Instead you’re looking at a 110-minute rollercoaster of frustrations, emotions & nostalgia for a lost love that take the form of hate resulting in a devastating tug-of-war between Gilda and Johnny. That is exactly what this movie excelled at: conveying the the nuances and overflowing emotions to the public. But I’d like to give Rita the credit for that. It is not the men who are fighting for her, rather it is her who is fighting for affection of both those men (and more men..) and just to be seen as an autonomous woman who is more than capable of making her own decisions.
Perhaps Johnny is trying to make sure she will not be hurting his boss the way she hurt him because he remembers what it feels like and that’s why he’s ‘helping’ her cheat by lying to his boss. But he does this not without making her feel horrible, which makes one see why she would have broken up with him. He constantly throws insults her way and positions her as a soulless man-heart-eating demon and this translates into her carrying this badge with honor. She constantly hints at her self-awareness of being a femme fatale, especially in her iconic performance of Put the blame on Mame just so she stays in control of her own narrative. In the end of the performance she breaks down. The frustration and pressure has become too much, she is sexualizing herself more and more in hope that Johnny will love her again. It is that point that you feel that she realizes she might never be enough.
At a certain point, Ballin disappears and Gilda is left with his estate, for which Johnny marries with her, not for love. He takes control of her more and more until she can take it no longer and flees from her husband/captor. That is when she gives the heartbreaking performance of Amadio Mio in Montevideo. Afterwards she is advised by an attorney to go back to Buenos Aires and get her marriage annulled. Upon return she finds out that he was hired by, you guessed it, Johnny. There is no love between them and escape is hopeless yet they do everything in their power to torture each other. Johnny could have been the perfect Heathcliff if Ford put more soul into his performance. Though the curious thing about this movie’s ending is that Johnny and Gilda make up and run away together – a seemingly ‘happy’ ending (though of course someone had to die – Ballin who ‘came back from the dead’ and accused them of betrayal.)
Rita Hayworth outshone every male actor in that movie in a time that women in substantial roles in films were usually an exception. I wouldn’t say Gilda is the most complex female character out there – but it seems like she is turning the femme fatale trope on its head and revealing the devastating consequences it has for the women. Rather than showing a cunning, cold and calculated woman we see a flawed woman who is just looking for love and cannot seem to find it because of the projected insecurities by the men around her. It is a raw portrayal of a doomed and messy love. But love can be exactly that – messy, ugly and destructive. When they say there is a thin line between love and hate I am inclined to agree. The danger is when the hate becomes all-consuming and makes you forget there was ever love after all. If Ford gave a more passionate performance, I would have put this movie in my top list. But Rita becomes Gilda and there never was a woman like Gilda.