Carmen Miranda cuts a curious figure in film history.
You know those actors and characters you just can’t really picture smiling? The Buster Keatons, the James Bonds, and so on. Part of what I love about Carmen Miranda is that she’s completely the opposite–I have such a hard time picturing her with a straight, emotionless face. She embodies such a great physicality for an actor, and her smile is the very definition of “contagious.”
I’ll get to the fun stuff shortly, but as so often happens with non-white-dudes from the period, her persona is certainly loaded. She found herself playing wacky foreign sex bomb after wacky foreign sex bomb, a stereotype she herself would both come to resent and for which she was criticized by Brazilians, upset that this was one of their country’s few depictions in Hollywood.
But at the same time, she was one of few Hispanic actresses in American film at the time who was actually playing Hispanic characters–she wasn’t Dorothy Lamour or Esther Williams playing “exotic” foreign beauties, nor was she Rita Hayworth getting hair implants to look more Caucasian. For better or worse, she was playing true to her heritage, and incredibly, in 1945 she was the highest paid woman in America.
Even beneath her more stereotypical roles though, I think there’s always a true comic at her center. I mentioned her infectious smile before, but the bigger part of that is she’s actually a terrific example of a very talented physical comedian, utilizing the great elasticity of her face to deftly command her expressions for maximum comedic value. Every emotion is played HUGE, and while I think that’s part of the issue with her onscreen persona (the effect is at times almost clown-like), it also affords her an undeniable, magnetic film presence that’s impossible to ignore.
These excitedly conveyed emotions also hide another weapon in her comedic arsenal… the bait and switch. I love how in the movies, you can say the meanest, nastiest thing to someone, but if you say it with a huge smile, they won’t catch it. Often delegated to the nosy “other woman” role, Miranda used this technique to great and often hilarious effects.
This post was originally written for the Funny Lady Blogathon series, but I’ve updated it for the Hispanic Heritage Blogathon, hosted by Movie Star Makeover and Once Upon a Screen. Check out the rest of those posts here.