Gilda

“I Knew He Doesn’t Really Love Her”: Movie-going and Memory – An Introduction to “The Zipper”

by Noel King

I first encountered Leonard Michaels’ essay on Gilda in the selection of Best American Essays 1992 edited by Susan Sontag. But when I noticed that it had appeared in the Berkeley-based broadsheet cultural journal, The Threepenny Review, it figured. In the early 1990s, while wandering around bookshops in Berkeley, I picked up some copies of The Threepenny Review (though not the issue with Michaels’ essay in it) and have kept up with it on and off ever since. (It’s partially available on the Net). The Threepenny Review publishes terrific pieces by people I’ve always enjoyed reading elsewhere — John Berger, Stephen Greenblatt, Luc Sante, Carol Clover, Carlo Ginzburg — and includes poetry, a film section, essays on photography. Hence, it’s always a pleasurable and informative reading experience.

Michaels is a distinguished American novelist, short-story writer, diarist and essayist, and his piece on Gilda immediately struck me as a wonderful example of a mode of talking about cinema that one doesn’t encounter very often: the elegantly expressed, personal-essay/memoir-recollection of movie-going. Morris Lurie has a lovely piece in Meanjin, the Australian literary-cultural journal, on movie-going and the sad entry into adulthood, based on an unchaperoned visit to see The Maltese Falcon. Roland Barthes has the essay, “Leaving a Movie Theatre.” In 1990, Serpent’s Tail published a collection entitled Seeing in the Dark, which contains many interesting recollections of movie-going in the UK, Europe and South America, and the opening of Jean Claude Carriere’s The Secret Language of Film conveys elegant ironies about film viewing in post World War I French colonial Africa. Much closer in style and tone to Michaels’ essay is American poet, Richard Hugo’s beautiful recollection of watching movies at George Shrigley’s White Center Theater in White Center, Washington, an exercise in poetic cinema reminiscence that tells how much he loves Elia Kazan’s Man on a Tightrope. Here is a sample:

I got going to movies early, around 1930 or 1931, and I saw both Dracula and Frankenstein first run. By first run, I mean the first time they came to George Shrigley’s White Center Theatre in White Center, Washington. That took a little time after they opened in downtown Seattle. Say a year …

George Shrigley had a white line painted across the single aisle. Children had to sit below the line so they wouldn’t disturb the grownups watching the movie. Since we were noisy, and since we sat between the adults and the screen, Shrigley kept the volume high so the dialogue and music could climb over our screams and laughter and reach the rear of the house. Once in a while one of us would try to move above the white line, but the usherette kept close tabs on us and would hustle whoever it was back below the mark.

But for all that, George Smiley’s White Center Theater was paradise. I would do anything to go there …

I have my favorite movie of course. It’s called Man on a Tight Rope, directed by Elia Kazan in 1952 …

It’s a corny film, I suppose, but that doesn’t bother me. All art is corny, or it isn’t art … The theme is simple and an old one: people versus the system. In this case the people are circus performers, not very good ones, and the system is the Communist bureaucracy of Czechoslovakia.

There are weaknesses in the script that would turn off a viewer of any sophistication but they don’t bother me …

I love the movie so much that I judge people by their reactions to it. If you don’t like it, chances are I wouldn’t like you.

Other writers have sought to express the compelling particularity of the act of movie-going or of a specifically memorable cinematic encounter. In Violent America: The Movies 1946-1964, Lawrence Alloway says he hopes his film criticism will “hold onto its source in the original act of movie-going. The critical notions to be discussed are not those I had as a regular, not to say compulsive movie-goer, but I do not want to lose that early feeling, the capacity for identification, that made me see I Walk Alone several times when it was first released.”

Barry Gifford, a Berkeley-based novelist (Wild at Heart), screenwriter (Lost Highway), and biographer (of Saroyan and Kerouac) peppers the essays on film noir that comprise his Out of the Past (an expanded version of his The Devil Thumbs a Ride) with details of the distinctive viewing situation that pertains to a particular film, and tells how a given film affected him at a particular point in his life. More recently Greil Marcus (another Berkeley-based writer) evokes this mode of film-writing-as-recollection in his BFI Classic on The Manchurian Candidate when he says:

I remember first seeing it alone, when it came out in 1962, at the varsity theatre in Palo Alto, California, a Moorish wonderland of a movie house. The first thing I did when it was over was call my best friend and tell him he had to see it too. We went the next night; as we left the theatre, I asked him what he thought. ‘Greatest movie I ever saw,’ he said flatly, as if he didn’t want to talk about it, and he didn’t. He said what he said stunned, with bitterness, as if he shouldn’t have had to see this thing, as if what it told him was both true and false in a manner he would never be able to untangle, as if it was both incomprehensible and all too clear, as if the whole experience had been, somehow, a gift, the gift of art, and also unfair— and that was how I felt, too.

Hugo has a section towards the end of his essay where his reminiscence of childhood movie-going and his love of Man on a Tightrope broaden into a consideration of the larger American political-cultural context:

When the movie first opened it got good reviews but was not a hit. I saw it in Seattle where it played as a second feature to a poorly produced Betty Grable musical. People of both left and right political persuasion didn’t like it for reasons probably not so different from the reasons governments don’t like rundown circuses or Nixon distrusted the arts. When The Old Man and the Sea appeared, an Eisenhower cabinet member wondered aloud why anyone would want to read about an old man who is a failure.

Given the bad habits of time, we could not have stayed forever below the white line in George Shrigley’s White Center Theatre. But we were better off than we realized and we were fools to want to cross too soon into the adult section. We had no way of knowing how complete we were down front, hopelessly committed to the flow of horses and men and the music that swelled to resolutions we would never know outside in the light of day.

Michaels’ essay on watching Gilda has similar moments — he says that seeing the “zipper business” made more of an impression on him than WW II — and is similarly precise about the location of his film-viewing moment. “I saw this movie in the Loew’s Theater on Canal Street in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.” After his liminal viewing experience, he says, “I went down Madison Street, passing under the Manhattan Bridge, then turning left on Market Street, walking toward the East River, until I came to Monroe Street, and turned right.” The person writing-remembering this New York street-walking so meticulously is aged 60 or so, across the continent, on the other coast, in California, but the point is clear, and kind of Hemingway-esque. The hard clarity of street names, recited, might undo the terrible moral lesson the film had conveyed: “The creep touched her. I understood that real life is this way. Nothing would be the same for me again.”

Gilda

For the task Michaels’ article sets itself, and achieves so wonderfully, is the phenomenological enacting in prose of an adolescent remembrance that permits the contemporary remembering adult his split-subjective part in the act of remembering, moving the reader across three time zones. First, a “back then,”— “I was about thirteen when I saw the movie. I took it as seriously as life.” And seeing Rita Hayworth as Gilda prompts in Michaels a version of Christian Metz’s celebrated description of the cinema-viewer encounter. Where Metz says, “By watching the film I help it to be born, I help it to live, since only in me will it live, and since it was made for that purpose: to be watched, to be brought into being by … the look” Michaels says, “She looks into the camera, into me, my interior.”

This is exactly as it should be since Michaels’ essay telling us about watching Gilda in 1946 is all about an encounter of several bodies: the celluloid body of the film as it unfolds on the big screen before his virgin 13-year-old body which suddenly finds itself in the presence of a cinema image that contains Rita Hayworth’s stunning body (though none of Michaels remembering bodies knows that Hayworth’s lithe dancing body had recently had a baby with Orson Welles).

Then, two years on from this act of intensely corporeal film witnessing, Michaels rides the subway home. “Two years later, I had sex for the first time and I was taken by a weird sorrow riding home alone in the subway, as visceral odors lifted from my hands, reminding me that I’d fallen a few hours ago with my girlfriend – both of us virgins – from Heights of Desire, into bodies.”

And finally (and first), Michaels is the 60-ish essay-writing body in 1992, recalling these events. For of course it is the fully achieved novelist who brings back into the 13-year-old’s memory the wonderful description of George Macready’s character of Ballin Mundson: “He looks frosty, pock-marked, and desiccated, like the surface of the moon.”

So in “The Zipper” Michaels is simultaneously 13-years-old on the cusp of a fall into sexuality and watching Gilda for the first time, and a couple of years older, initiated into the sexual world, and much older, the consummate writer of this nostalgic cinema recollection. If this is Michaels’ Proustian moment it’s also firmly in the American literary-cinematic tradition of the first-person nostalgia-narrator. Think of the voice of classic American regret one hears at the end of Summer of ’42 (“That summer we raided the fort etc, and, in a very special way, I lost Benjy forever”) and Stand By Me (“I realised I’d never have friends like that again. Jesus, who does.”) (I paraphrase each from an unreliable memory)

Pauline Kael popularised the (ambiguous) phrase, “I Lost it at the Movies” by giving that title to one of her collections of film reviews. Michaels’ description of a youthful act of lapsarian film viewing captures the helplessness of the 13-year-old male viewer as he watches actions he senses must be bad. In the “religio-movie darkness” the 13-year-old must confront the possibility of harsh carnal realities — “There are women who want to be Macreadied” — much as he cannot avoid watching Glenn Ford slap Gilda: “I feel so sorry for her, not to mention myself, poor kid, having to grow up, to know such things.” He doesn’t know that the Production Code is delivering this “less is more” set of anxiety-inducing images to him, he just knows things like, “I didn’t want Macready to unzipper Rita Hayworth’s dress … I didn’t want him to touch Rita Hayworth. I knew he doesn’t really love her (my italics).” That calculated literary solecism of mixed tenses is at the heart of the essay, enabling Michaels to convey the simultaneity of his different times, a back then and a now. It is the older Michaels who knows about the “male-gaze” and knows that “Gilda — written by a woman, starring a woman, produced by a woman — suggests that women know better than men what men are looking at when men look at women.” (Here Michaels is referring to the contributions of producer Virginia Van Upp, screenwriters Marion Parsonnet and Jo Eisinger and of course Rita Hayworth as star.) And it is he who evokes so resonantly (for this reader, and I’m sure for many other readers) this version of film viewing as a strange combination of love and loss.

Maybe there is more of this kind of writing about film and I just haven’t come across it. If so, when I do happen onto it I’ll count myself as lucky as anyone about to read Leonard Michaels’ “The Zipper” for the first time.

Works Cited

Alloway, Lawrence, Violent America: The Movies 1946-1964 (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1971)

Barthes, Roland, “On Leaving a Movie Theatre”(1975), trans. Richard Howard, in Barthes, The Rustle of Language trans Richard Howard (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986): 345-349

Breakwell, Ian and Hammond, Paul, ed., Seeing in the Dark (London: Serpent’s Tail Press, 1990)

Gifford, Barry, Out of the Past: Adventures in Film Noir (Jackson: Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2001)

Hugo, Richard, “The White Line,” in Richard Hugo, The Real West Marginal Way: A Poet’s Autobiography ed. Ripley S. Hugo, Lois M. Welch, and James Welch (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 198): 82-89

Kael, Pauline, I Lost it at the Movies: Film Writing 1954-1965 (New York: Little Brown and Co, 1965)

Lurie, Morris, “Introduction to Adulthood,” Meanjin 59, 1 (2000): 51-53

Marcus, Greil, The Manchurian Candidate (London: British Film Institute, 2002): 48-49

Metz, Christian, “Story/Discourse (A Note on Two Kinds of Voyeurism,” trans. Celia Britton and Annwyl Williams in Metz, Psychoanalysis and Cinema: The Imaginary Signifier trans. Celia Britton, Annwyl Williams, Ben Brewster and Alfred Guzzetti (London: Macmillan, 1982): 93

Sontag, Susan, ed., Best American Essays 1992 (New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1992): 244-252

* * *

The Zipper

by Leonard Michaels

Gilda

Originally published in The Threepenny Review, Summer 1991. It is republished here with the kind permission of the author.

“A man goes to bed with Rita Hayworth and wakes up with me”

– Rita Hayworth (b. Margarita Carmen Cansino, 1918)

“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”

– William Shakespeare

Rita Hayworth stars in Gilda, but she isn’t seen for the first fifteen minutes, while the friendship of two men, played by George Macready and Glenn Ford, is established. Macready saves Ford from being robbed on the docks of Buenos Aires, then hires Ford to manage a gambling casino owned by Macready. They become trusting, affectionate pals in a nightlife society where women are marginal. Then Macready leaves on a business trip to the “interior”. When Macready returns, Ford hurries to Macready’s mansion and he is surprised to hear about a woman whom Macready just met and married. The woman is heard singing, a muted voice in the interior distance, in a bedroom, in the depths of Macready’s mansion. Macready leads Ford toward the singing, into the bedroom, to meet the woman, and – cut – Rita Hayworth lifts her face to look into the camera and see who is there. In this gesture, with all the magic of the word, Rita Hayworth “appears”. She is bathed in light, seems even to exude it like a personal quality, like her wavy hair, her voice, and the flow of her body when walking or dancing.

She looks into the camera, into me, my interior, and I see that the friendship of Macready and Ford is in trouble, for this is the beautiful face of betrayal, jealousy, murder, suicide, war. It is the face of love from Homer to Shakespeare to the 1940s.

Like other actresses of her day, Rita Hayworth had mythic power, and could carry a movie without a male star. I thought she carried Gilda despite George Macready and Glenn Ford. To my view, they were of slightly repulsive dramatic interest, but I was about thirteen when I saw the movie. I took it as seriously as life. How could Rita Hayworth get involved with guys like that?

Macready, playing a Nazi agent who lives in Argentina, walks rigidly erect, carrying a sword cane. He looks frosty, pock-marked, and desiccated, like the surface of the moon. There is something priestly about him, a lofty, ascetic air. Ford, playing a low-life hustler who cheats at cards and dice, has a soft, dark, sensuous look, sensitive rather than intelligent. He smiles and wiggles around Macready in a flirty way. Wiggly and Rigid form a love triangle with Rita Hayworth, very degrading to her, since she is way out of their league, but then she is repeatedly humiliated in the movie. She seems to ask for it, even to need it badly; once, she actually crawls at Ford’s feet. Humiliation, essential plot matter in Hollywood and novels, is probably basic to fiction generally. Even the cherished story Alice in Wonderland, where a girl falls into a hole and is then repeatedly insulted in mind and body, has to do with humiliation. When I saw Gilda, I didn’t wonder if there was a universal need for such subterranean experience.

Much dramatic tension is created when neither Rita Hayworth nor Ford tells Macready – who is made suspicious by their instantaneous, mutual hostility – that they already know each other and were once lovers. Not telling Macready, they betray him. Ford thinks he is loyal to Macready, protecting his peace of mind, etc., and he is angry at the intrusion of Rita Hayworth into his paradisal friendship. He says, in a voice-over after Macready presents him to her, that he wanted to hit her, and he also wanted to hit Macready. Ford is bitterly frustrated and confused. I disliked him, but I suffered his anguish.

Trying not to succumb to Rita Hayworth’s charms, Ford becomes increasingly self-righteous and more rigid than Macready. There is an excruciating moment when Macready, concerned not to look like a jealous husband, tells Ford to pull Rita Hayworth away as she dances with another man in Macready’s casino. But she will not only dance with other men, she will also go out with them. She doesn’t love Macready; she fears him, and yet she makes him jealous of Ford, just as she makes Ford jealous of her and other men. It emerges that her licentious bitchery means only that she loves Ford; he lovers her, too. They are trapped in a viciously delicious game of mutual detestation which becomes the main plot. It complicates, in a feminine way, through flamboyant gestures and shows of feeling. The subplot, full of male violence – guns, fistfights, crime, war – is turgid and easy to forget. You might say the movie is sexually structured, the woman (feeling) on top.

Gilda

Rita Hayworth, with her amazing blond light in this dark movie (where almost everything happens in rooms, and even the outdoors seems indoors), suggests that dark and light are Manichean opposites – dark is evil, light is good. Gray represents confusion of good and evil. I certainly didn’t think this when I saw the movie in the Loew’s theatre on Canal Street, in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. I didn’t think anything. I felt the meaning of things, especially the morally murky weight of the gray-lighted bedroom scene where Rita Hayworth asks Macready to unzip her dress as she lies on a bed. She says more than once that she has trouble with zippers, a helpless girl imprisoned in the dress of a grownup. Zippers, a major erotic trope of ’40s movies, represented a man’s access to a woman’s body, despite her invisible metal teeth.

I didn’t want Macready to unzipper Rita Hayworth’s dress. I didn’t want Macready to touch her, though she is married to him, and she herself invites physical intimacy. Macready has told Ford he is “crazy about her”, so his heart is in the right place. Nevertheless, I didn’t want him to touch Rita Hayworth, I knew he doesn’t really love her; doesn’t even feel desire or lust, only a sickening idea of possession, and a mysterious need for betrayal. Why else would he hire Ford, a known cheater, as his most trusted assistant? And why else would Macready marry a woman – even Rita Hayworth – he has known only one day?

Macready flaunts his frightening sword cane, which he calls his “friend”, but he moves in a delirium of masochistic self-destruction, and he is finally stabbed in the back by his “friend”, literally the cane, metaphorically Ford. Macready gets what he deserves, which is what he wants, including sexual betrayal by Ford. Despite Ford’s furious resistance to her, Ford gets Rita Hayworth, which is what she wants. Everything seems to work out, to balance and close, but not for me. I left the movie haunted by images of Rita Hayworth, yearning for her.

She had so much beauty and vitality that I assumed she would recover from what Macready did after unzippering her dress. Whatever it was, it wasn’t good, but I supposed it happened a lot in Hollywood, where men go about touching women without feeling love, and – utterly unbearable – there are women who want to be Macreadied. Thus: in the religioso movie darkness, I saw Rita Hayworth request her own humiliation by the ascetic, priestly, frightening Macready. Zip. She is sacrificed and apotheosised. I had to remind myself that Gilda is a movie, not real life, and George Macready is a fine actor; also, probably, a nice guy.

No use.

The creep touched her.

I understood that real life is this way.

Nothing would be the same for me again.

I wanted to forget the scene, but it had happened as if to me, and was now fixed in my personal history, more indelibly than World War II. Only an instant of zipper business, yet it colored my love for Rita Hayworth with pity and grief. She lay there, utterly still and vulnerable, and Macready leaned over her the way kids play doctor, an eerily erotic game.

Seeing this was like a criminal privilege, though I was only sitting in a movie theatre, doing nothing but looking. But I looked. I didn’t shut my eyes. Unspeakable apprehensions – pleasure? – were aroused in me, in my head or heart, that secret, interior, moral theatre (as opposed to the public showplace, the Loew’s Canal) where movies dreamily transpire, differently for each of us. I disapproved of the sensations, the so-called pleasure, but pleasure and disapproval feed on each other. Rita Hayworth will be all right in the morning, I told myself. It won’t matter what Macready did, though it was shameful and sad. What I felt was, perhaps, felt by millions.

Today, these feelings are considered sentimental; quaint. They have lost force and spontaneity. We still have them, maybe, but they no longer have us. Macready did it to Rita Hayworth. So? He didn’t rape her. The scene ended. I didn’t have to watch Macready actually do anything, not that it would have been possible to film Macready in bed, doing things to Rita Hayworth, without destroying the movie. The remake of Gilda will, of course, show Macready doing everything, but it must be remembered that Gilda was released when feelings – like clothing styles, popular dances, car designs – were appreciated differently from today. Perhaps feelings as such had a far higher value. Movies didn’t have to show naked bodies, fucking, paraphilia, or graphic mutilation and bloody murder. Techniques of suggestion were cultivated – the zipper, for example. Less was more except in regard to words. There were long scenes brilliant with words. We didn’t so much use our eyes, like roots digging into visible physical bodies for the nourishment of meanest sensation. The ear, more sensuous than sensual, received the interior life of persons, as opposed to what is sucked up by the salacious eyeball.

Later in the movie, Rita Hayworth asks again for help with her zipper, during a nightclub routine, as she does a striptease dance. Several men hurry to oblige and help her become naked. Ford notices, has a tizzy, stops things from going too far. He slaps her. His hand doesn’t wither and rot. Not only is there injustice, there is no justice. I feel so sorry for her, not to mention myself, poor kid, having to grow up, to know such things. Rita Hayworth is never seen disrobed in the movie, though it is threatened more than once. The atmosphere of dark repression and mysterious forces – the mood or feeling of the movie – might be destroyed by the revelation of her body. It scared me as she began her striptease dance in the nightclub. I didn’t want everybody to see her body, or even to see that Rita Hayworth had a body. (The length of her beautiful left leg – I nearly died – is fleetingly exposed by a slit in her dress, as she dances.)

Two years later, I had sex for the first time, and I was taken by a weird sorrow riding home alone in the subway, as visceral odors lifted from my hands, reminding me that I’d fallen a few hours ago with my girlfriend – both of us virgins – from Heights of Desire, into bodies. (Religious movements, west and east, have cultivated a practice of dreamily disembodied, extended, nonorgasmic sex, as described in John Donne’s poem “The Ecstasy”.)

In plain sight of Ford, who is obliged by his job to watch her, Rita Hayworth flirts with other men and says, “if I were a ranch, they’d call me the Bar-Nothing”. She thus tortures Ford, showing him – in the desires of other men – the body he can’t let himself have. Ford watches. He tries to seem angry, then blurts out that Rita Hayworth can do whatever she pleases. It doesn’t matter to him. He says he will personally deliver Rita Hayworth to her other men, then pick her up like “laundry” and return her to Macready. In effect, everything Rita Hayworth does with other men will be determined and controlled by Ford. Impassioned and irrational, Ford doesn’t know what he means.

My moral notions, already disturbed, were further disturbed – the hero talks like this? I was being introduced to deep stuff, subterranean forces, years before I understood what was happening to me, or maybe the world in the ’40s. It had to do with sex – hardly anything doesn’t – but I didn’t know about sex. I believed something more important was at stake. I saw Bad presenting itself – in the form of pleasure – as entertainment; and I was being made to know that I was susceptible to the pleasure of Bad, if for no other reason than that Bad was in me, like Gog and Magog.

Was the experience indeed pleasure, not merely a strong sensation, like the electrical excitement of an idea, or the effect of a novelty, or a demonic, masturbatory fantasy? If it was a real feeling, could I be violated by it, my own real feeling? Could it happen to anyone? If so, could anyone ever be a good person?

I continued to wonder, without words to analyze or describe it, about the distinction – in real life – between pleasure and its innumerable imitations. Saint Augustine says, “The love of this world is fornication against God,” and that’s that. For me, the question was, if I felt something I believed was bad, but it felt good, would I want to fornicate against God again and again? And would I then despise other pleasures, assuming other pleasures remained to me? Had Macready unzippered me, too? In Flannery O’Connor’s masterpiece, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”, a mystical murderer says, “It’s no real pleasure in life”. I wondered about real pleasure. What is it?

Ford’s antiheroic, homoerotic hysteria, basic to the dramatic effect in Gilda, is virtually explicit when Rita Hayworth suggests that a psychiatrist can tell Ford that he likes the idea of Rita Hayworth as “laundry”, or dirty – that is, of her doing things with other men. I didn’t understand this in feeling or thought. Is sexual infidelity – deserving of death in the colourful Mediterranean community I came from – what Ford likes? I didn’t see his angry, tyrannical show of controlling power as a refusal to acknowledge that he is the hapless creature of dark impulsions. Rita Hayworth understands what’s going on in Ford, but Ford never gains understanding of himself. Instead, he becomes sadistically determined to punish Rita Hayworth for his inadmissible need to see her do what he likes her to do.

Rita Hayworth, pinup and erotic icon

Gilda – written by a woman, starring a woman, produced by a woman – suggests that women know better than men what men are looking at when men look at women. They know that such looking – a function of blindness – is not seeing. In effect, Rita Hayworth exists fantastically for Macready and Ford within the so-called “male gaze”. She is created by their looking, a form of ideological hypnosis, or blindness, or stupidity, perhaps crucial to the perpetuation of human society as it presently exists. In the movie, the male gaze keeps two men fixated on a woman rather than each other. Outside the movie, in real life, Rita Hayworth was the fixation of millions of men in the armed services, their favorite “pinup girl”. An erotic icon, she kept our boys straight.

In Gilda, Rita Hayworth famously sings one song several times. (I later found out her voice is dubbed; also, her hair is dyed, her hairline is fake, her name is Margarita.) The refrain of her song is “Put the blame on Mame, boys”. Mame (Freudian pun intended) is responsible for cataclysmic occurrences – the Chicago fire, a terrible snowstorm, etc. (She’s hot, the city burns; she’s cold, “for seven days they shovelled snow.”) The song ironically implies that boys, who are exquisitely tortured by her capricious dominatrixiness, want to imagine that Mame has tremendous, annihilating power. I could see the amusement in Rita Hayworth’s eyes as she pretends to sing, and I loved her for that, her peculiar quality of spirit. Not quite playing the role, she is more real, nearly accessible, more heartbreaking.

The audience learns that Ford abandoned her in the “interior” when he ran out of money, before the movie begins. To express the audience’s contempt for him, the attendant in the men’s room of Macready’s gambling casino, a comic philosophical figure, lowly and godlike, twice calls Ford a “peasant”. Ford lacks aristocratic sensibility, or class. But Rita Hayworth gives him an opportunity to transcend himself by choosing her over his career as Macready’s thing. He doesn’t choose her until the end of the movie, when he supposes Macready is dead. Ford thus remains a peasant, or, at best, a grubby careerist who takes his work more seriously than love. The movie ends. Poor Rita Hayworth goes off with Ford. A grim winter night, streetlights, traffic – the shock of the real – awaited me.

I went down Madison Street, passing under the Manhattan Bridge, then turning left on Market Street, walking toward the East River, until I came to Monroe Street and turned right. These directions, these streets, restored me to my life. I passed the tenements with their Italian grocery stores and candy stores, and I passed my old elementary school, a huge grim soot-dark Victorian building, P.S. 177. From the church of Saint Joseph, at the corner of Cherry and Market streets, I heard a bell tolling the hour. The church stood opposite our first-floor apartment in a building called Knickerbocker Village. Walking down Monro Street, I approached the wavering light of Friday night prayer candles in our kitchen window. The shadow of my mother, against the window shade, moved from refrigerator to stove. Everything as it should be. Italian ladies with shopping bags and baby carriages. Italian kids sitting on the stoops of their tenements. This was real. Too different – like a blond woman who might bring the solidity and value of this neighborhood into question – wasn’t good.

The darkness of the movie, like a darkness inside me, contained nothing real, but there was a faint glow of Gilda within it, and I felt tumultuous yearning for Rit Hayworth – the woman, not the actress. I yearned to bring her home, where she would descend, or lovingly condescend, to sweet reconciliation with the ordinariness of my life, even its banality and boredom, which I believed was good. The good. My mother, cooking good dinner in the small but good kitchen of our three-room apartment, would be embarrassed. She would apologize to bad Rita Hayworth for not having prepared a more sumptuous dinner, but I hadn’t given any warning. “Do you like borscht? It’s good. Do you know, Miss Hayworth, the good doctor who delivered your bad baby is my good cousin from Canada? When he told me that he delivered your bad baby, I almost fainted. Maybe you remember him. Tall. Curly hair”.

It was like this for me, in a day when love was praised and much desired, even the terrible anguish it was known to inflict. As for Rita Hayworth – dream of heroes, three husbands, millions of servicemen – she was love, catastrophic, wild, impossible to domesticate. So much of her life was public, spectacular imagery that it is hard to suppose she also had a real life, or to suppose that her feelings about Rita Hayworth were not the same as ours.

© Leonard Michaels, 1991