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CRITIC AT LARGE

The Private Prison Of The Pinup

May 19, 1987|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

They don't make love goddesses the way they used to, and I'm afraid it is a kindness that they don't.

Being a love goddess has been, on most of the evidence, cruelly destructive to the private lives of the women who have been cast in the role. When Rita Hayworth died last week at the age, her daughter said, of 69, it was hard not to think of Marilyn Monroe as well.

They had been the supreme love goddesses of their time, of our time, the most pinned-up pinups, the most alluring and provocative of all the alluring and provocative women Hollywood put in place for the lightning of popularity to strike.

The trouble, leading on to tragedy, is that being a love goddess is confining, isolating, distorting work that finally makes it impossible to be a normal, private woman. The pedestal is a prison.

Marilyn Monroe's exceptional beauty, with its attractive suggestion of a waiflike vulnerability, had seemed to rescue her from a childhood and early adulthood that could have been partially scripted by Charles Dickens.

But fame and money only awakened in her the visions of all the other things she wanted to be and do. The confusions among the woman she wanted to be, the woman men wanted her to be and the woman she actually was became difficult and perhaps intolerable. Her final chapter remains ambiguous; what is unarguable is that she was alone, in every way.

It could be that Rita Hayworth's private life would have been volatile and unsatisfying if she had remained in the chorus or modeled furs in the garment district. Her temperament never seemed attuned to tranquillity.

Yet, looking at some of the marriages, it's impossible not to see something cinematic in them: the love goddess living out a public role privately, or semiprivately. The men, flamboyant in their own ways, are marrying the love goddess, the love goddess is betrothed to them.

It appeared to be, and perhaps it felt like, life lived larger than life. But there was always, it also appeared, some smaller, meaner reality lurking in the wings, like a hangover or a bill.

Rita Hayworth's last chapter was anything but ambiguous--the long, slow, wasting decline of Alzheimer's, whose one consolation is that its sufferers are at last unaware of their plight.

But it was a denouement no one would have wished for her, no more than for any admired friend. Whatever the private costs of her career, she was a wondrous movie star, with a particular challenging and amusing beauty, impudent and vivacious. She was not a passive goddess, and the vulnerability didn't show, as it often did with Monroe.

The beauty and the dancing had got her started, but she had become an interesting actress. A few years ago, someone found and presented the 3-D version of Hayworth and Jose Ferrer in "Miss Sadie Thompson," a version of Somerset Maugham's story, "Rain," about the hooker and the missionary on a tropical island.

The film was overwrought and steamy and, although the 3-D gave some spacing to the palm trees, it didn't help the vehicle a lot. But Hayworth dominated the screen and, as usual, she left no doubt she was a star.

I met her once and the memory is painful. There was as I remember no film to promote, and I surmised later that the unsaid agenda was to demonstrate that the rumors about Rita and alcohol were untrue or no longer true.

We sat at twilight in her rather dark living room in Beverly Hills and she was flanked not by one but by several press agents. It was like a press conference with the numbers reversed. Her answers were very brief and very guarded and the whole event seemed to be an inexplicable ordeal for her.

There were a few nondescript films to follow (this was 1965), and the melancholy of the shadowy afternoon may have been our shared sense of the triumphs that once there were.

Then again, the saving, salving glory of film always is that it provides its own kind of immortality. Rita is gone, but Gilda lives on and therefore so does the Rita of her goddess years.

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