“I am sick and tired of those [publicity] photographs. They make me look like a smoldering fire.”
–Maria Montez, 1944
Carmen Miranda was more than just a fruit hat and platform heels. The tiny Brazilian with a beautiful voice became the highest-earning woman in Hollywood in the 1940s. She did this at a time when Hollywood was not kind to women, especially Latinas. Her contemporary, the beautiful Dominican actress, Maria Montez, didn’t have it easy, either. Both died young, but not before carving a path for the Latina actresses that would follow.
Fame came at a price for Carmen Miranda and Maria Montez. Hollywood painted them both as fiery, oversexualized, child-like females and never let them escape those roles.
Montez was Cobra Woman — a jungle high priestess — in the 1944 classic of the same name — complete with plastic snakes, sequined sarongs, and plaster palm trees. The set looked like a tiki bar. Watching it, you knew she was trying so hard, but she got to lounge on that cobra snake throne.
Montez became a star with these glossy and cheap action-adventure movies. But when her star began to wane in the late 1940s, she took to doing yoga (very progressive for the times) and taking saline baths to keep her weight down.
She died in Paris taking one of those baths; she had a heart attack and drowned at the age of 39.
Miranda’s signature number was “The Lady In The Tutti Frutti Hat” in the 1943 film “The Gang’s All Here.” She wore a massive turban topped with fake fruit on her head as two rows of women dressed in not-much-waved-around huge bananas. Watch the movie — it’s a tropical Alice in Wonderland on crack. Miranda, known as the Brazilian Bombshell, would never escape the banana image.
Her real name was Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha, and she was born in Portugal but immigrated to Brazil with her family when she was a child.
She was the most successful Brazilian singer in Brazil for ten years before she ever went to the United States. She became huge in the U.S., but in Brazil, she was seen as a sellout. This hurt her deeply.
By the late 40s, Miranda’s star also began to fade, and she struggled with alcoholism and substance abuse. At the age of 46, after finishing a number on the Jimmy Durante show, she was found dead in a hallway of her palatial home at Beverly Hills; her doctor said she was a victim of a heart attack.
At the end of their careers, both Carmen Miranda and Maria Montez struggled to cast off the Hollywood stereotypes and moved the needle for those Latinas that came after.
When we celebrate this Women’s Month, let’s remember these Latinas who lived their lives as they saw fit. We should cherish their example because they fought the good fight — no matter the cost. And there is still the story of Lupe Velez and Dolores del Rio. But that’s for later.