Mondays with Manuel is a new ongoing series here at the blog wherein I am watching all the films referenced in Manuel Puig’s The Buenos Aires Affair (1974). If the name sounds familiar, it is because Puig gave us that other Hollywood-obsessed book (turned film/turned play/turned musical) Kiss of the Spider Woman (1976). In his 1974 police novel, Puig opens every chapter with a snippet of dialogue from movies he adored, all of which star beautiful and iconic starlets from Old Hollywood from Dietrich to Garson. I’m working on Puig and the influence of these films on his prose for my dissertation, and this seemed like a good way of doing double duty (triple if I include the fact that I hadn’t seen any of these films before!).
Rita Hayworth: (dazzling in her gauze negligée with a revealing neckline, but profoundly disturbed since she just found out that her husband’s new bodyguard is none other than the only she ever loved in her life and by whom she was abandoned; she talks trying to hide it all) It’s been a pleasure to meet you, Mister Farrell.
Her gangster husband: (in a tone of affectionate protest) But Gilda… his name is Johnny.
Rita Hayworth: (gaily) I’m sorry! Johnny is a very difficult name to remember… and so easy to forget.
(from Gilda, Columbia Pictures)
It takes close to twenty minutes for the eponymous Gilda to show up in Charles Vidor’s 1946 film, but boy does she get an entrance! As we follow recently scrubbed and employed Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) and his newly returned boss Ballin Mudson (George Macready) up the stairs of the latter’s home, we hear a beautiful voice. “Gilda, are you decent?” Ballin asks, a question that, given the noir tone of the piece does little to conceal what type of girl Gilda is, especially once we see her frilly off-the-shoulder dressing gown she’s wearing and hear her bemused “Me?” response, equally flirtatious and faintly naive. The bubbly exterior quickly gives way to a more hardened look once she recognizes Johnny, the man whose love and hate for Gilda will motivate the rest of the film’s plot. Puig zeroes in this very scene where Hayworth excels at playing Gilda’s doubled performances. She’s charmingly biting to her husband’s ears, unwaveringly cruel to Johnny’s, and playfully devious to ours.
It’s not surprising that Puig was so enamored with Hayworth (née Margarita Carmen Cansino), and especially her performance in this film. Not only is it set in Argentina, set against the aftermath of the second world war, but the film depends on the seductive and wounded nature of Hayworth. Puig, as we’ve seen, is particularly drawn to these female characters and stars whose femininity is both their weapon and their downfall. Hayworth’s Gilda is no exception. Much of her scenes rely on the star’s ability to turn Gilda’s insecurities and misidentified rebuttals into empowering moments of female sexuality. In Gilda, Hayworth is both virgin and harlot, a duality that Puig himself explores in The Buenos Aires Affair. Indeed, as in many of the other epigraphs that litter The Buenos Affair, Gilda is a complex character usually reduced to cliché and stereotype by both characters on screen and viewers in front of it. Gladys and Leo, Puig’s protagonists are, like Gilda, very much scarred and wounded by transgressive sexual experiences but while this remains all a Hollywood smokescreen in Gilda (as we learn, of course, our dear heroine only talks the talk and had never been unfaithful to our lead), Puig’s novel grapples with the very real and troubling consequences of violent desire: Gladys is raped and attacked early in the novel, while Leo ends up raping and killing a man who refuses to be fucked by him. Hayworth may just hint at the sexual and violent past Gilda shares with “Johnny” (that disturbed look on her face as the camera focuses on her negligé) but Puig mines it for all it’s worth, mocking and revering the storybook feel of Gilda while dismantling its own double standard when it comes to Hayworth’s lead turn.
Mondays with Manuel Index:
Chapter I: Camille (1936)
Chapter II: The Blue Dahlia (1946)
Chapter III: Humoresque (1946)
Chapter IV: The Shanghai Express (1932)
Chapter V: Red Dust (1932)
Chapter VI: Blossoms in the Dust (1941)
Chapter VII: Marie Antoinette (1938)
Chapter VIII: Algiers (1938)
Chapter IX: I’ll Cry Tomorrow (1955)
Chapter X: Ziegfeld Girl (1941)
Chapter XI: The Letter (1940)
Chapter XII: The Hamilton Woman (1941)
Chapter XIII: Dishonored (1931)
Chapter XIV: Tender Comrade (1943)
Chapter XV: Grand Hotel (1932)
Chapter XVI: Gilda (1946)