English version | How stars were born

31 Oct 2020
By Ana Murcho

She was one of the sexiest women of the 20th century, but Margarita Carmen Cansino was not up to the aesthetic standards of Hollywood, so she had to do what we today call extreme makeover. The same happened with Norma Jeane Mortenson, who would never have been more than a girl next door if she hadn't aligned with the demands of the big studios. In the golden years of cinema, it was not enough to look good or be a good actress. It was mandatory to have "the complete package.”

She was one of the sexiest women of the 20th century, but Margarita Carmen Cansino was not up to the aesthetic standards of Hollywood, so she had to do what we today call extreme makeover. The same happened with Norma Jeane Mortenson, who would never have been more than a girl next door if she hadn't aligned with the demands of the big studios. In the golden years of cinema, it was not enough to look good or be a good actress. It was mandatory to have "the complete package.”

It is common knowledge that, in order to make her lips appear fuller and plumped, Marilyn Monroe (1926-1962) used five different shades of lipstick - preceded by the mandatory pencil, or lip liner, already an indispensable tool in the makeup bag of any woman - and what the process was only completed after applying several layers of gloss, to create a three-dimensional effect that left anyone with their eyes pointed. It is also not exactly a secret that Alberto de Rossi, Audrey Hepburn's personal makeup artist (1929-1993) had the habit of putting an eyelash mask on the actress and then using a pin to separate them, one by one, until she got the “Bambi effect” that characterizes her until today. No Pandora's box hides Sophia Loren's obsession (Rome, Italy, 1934) with olive oil, which she used not only in her Mediterranean diet, but throughout her imposing body, Mae West's (1893-1980) fetish for coconut’s oil, which gave her skin an eternally young and natural glow, nor Grace Kelly’s trick (1929-1982), who decades before Kim Kardashian discovered the powers of blush to define (currently the correct verb is “to contour”, but who wants to know that when it was a princess who invented the technique?) her more-than-perfect cheekbones. On the contrary, it is possible that not all readers and viewers know that Marlene Dietrich (1901-1992) decided to remove the molars to accentuate (even more) her cheekbones and that, from time to time, she resorted to adhesives to feel the results of a provisional face lift. Or that Joan Crawford (1904-1977), after a long day of work, had the habit of putting her face in ice water 25 times after washing it, in order to close the pores and stimulate circulation. And perhaps, we risk, to camouflage the freckles that covered part of her face - and that magically disappeared under innumerable layers of face powder and foundation. In the golden years of Hollywood, a period between the 1920s and 1960s, the film industry experienced one of its golden moments, if not the most golden: big productions were followed one after another, the audience in the theaters multiplied each year , the actors became stars, marketing brought millions into the coffers of the biggest producers. There was only one catch. For all of this to happen, failures were not allowed. Which, in the case of female members, meant "play by the rules", changing (everything) that was needed, and only showing up when someone with enough power decided that they had "the whole package.”

Legend has it that when her first film came out, the studio she had a contract with told her she looked like “a fat little pig in pigtails ” - the treat is a pun on the name of the film, Pigskin Parade (1936) and with the character she represents, a girl with short, curly hair... with braids. Nice thing to say to a 14 year old girl. Even more so when this girl was one of the biggest rising stars in Hollywood, none other than Judy Garland (1922-1968). But what to do when the talent did not correspond to the aesthetic canons of the time? Frances Ethel Gumm (that was her real name) was only 1.51m and her sweetness did not reflect the personality of the great movie stars of that time. Charles Walters, a director who worked with her several times, said on purpose: "Judy was a money-making machine, a great success, but she was the ugly duckling ... I think it had a very damaging effect on her [side] emotional for a long time. I think it lasted forever, actually. ” Today we know that Garland's life was anything but brilliant - after attempting suicide several times, she died of an accidental overdose at age 47. A tragic ending that may be linked to the almost dictatorial way in which she was "forced" growing. MGM, to which she was linked for more than a decade, has always kept her under a tight rein, guiding her decisions in detail: she was forced to follow a diet where calories could not enter, and even the cafeteria staff was instructed to serve her only chicken soup until she reached the right weight - this at the same time that they put diet pills down her throat. According to her first husband, David Rose, whom she married at the age of 18 (and without the “MGM consent”, which would later have repercussions in her personal life, since she was forced to have an abortion because being a mother, allegedly, would take away part of her fans), the actress was encouraged to smoke up to 80 cigarettes a day to suppress her appetite. Too extreme? By all means. Only there is more. It is known that the actress, like many colleagues, consumed amphetamines and barbiturates in more than recommended doses - it was the only way to keep the (frantic) pace of making one production after another. The results were not long in coming. In the film that marks the transition from “teen star” to “adult actress”, For Me And My Gal (1942), where she plays opposite Gene Kelly, Garland is visibly thinner, far from the image of an innocent child that we keep from works like The Wizard Of Oz (1939). Her magnificent performances gave her direct entry into the history of cinema. Unfortunately, she never managed to enjoy that status with her whole body and soul. 

She arrived at the land of Uncle Sam as a very Latin Margarita Carmen Cansino and ended up an ultra-glamorous and ultra-worked version, which she called Rita Hayworth (1918-1987). Gilda's star (1946) had the potential to be a bombshell, but when she landed in Hollywood she was everything that the big bosses of the seventh art did not want: according to Columbia Pictures she had look too Spanish, so Cansino agreed to submit to a series “interventions”, including capillary electrolysis, which basically removes hair from unwanted areas (in this case, the forehead, where they existed beyond what the label considered correct) based on electric shocks, preventing them from growing back. And as the "Spanish-y" air did not disappear with a few touches, the actress agreed to undergo a "skin lightning" treatment, something that even today it is considered to be a dangerous practice. Imagine 80 years ago… To complete the transformation, Cansino (or shall we say Hayworth?) dyed her rebellious black hair an attractive reddish-brown. Nicknamed “Love Goddess” by the press, in 1949 the American Artists Professional League (an association that promotes artists and their works) voted for Rita's lips as the most beautiful in the world. By that time, she already had a contract with Max Factor to promote Tru-Color lipsticks and the Pan-Stik makeup range. Despite having entered more than 61 films, it was always her physical aspect that prevailed for the general public. As proof of her iconic status, the fourth atomic bomb to be detonated in an atmospheric test in Bikini Atoll received the nickname “Gilda” and was decorated with a photograph of Hayworth. According to Orson Welles, the actress's second husband, she was furious at having her image associated with such a process. As she would later state, in an interview, "Men go to bed with Gilda, but wake up with me”. Was she talking about Margarita Carmen Cansino?

Even the greatest diva, the undisputed one, was under pressure to be within the standards required by the industry. Greta Lovisa Gustafsson, whom the world would come to know as Greta Garbo (1905-1990), “La Divina”, was born and raised in Sweden, and always knew she wanted to be an actress. She started by making advertisements and, at the age of 17, he was accepted into the Dramatic Theater Academy, where she met the first of her mentors, Mauritz Stiller. It was he who changed her name and he, too, who convinced her to lose nine kilos before offering her one of the main roles in his film The Saga of Gösta Berling (1924), who would eventually attract the attention of Louis B. Mayer, the MGM boss. The invitation to fly to Hollywood did not take long. Nor the message that Mayer left Stiller: "In America, we don't like fat women.” And so it was. Garbo started a spinach diet that lasted three weeks, lost the studio's intended weight, and became terribly ill. This new look, in which the curves were replaced by invisible lines that hid a body without energy or vitality, and in which the protruding cheekbones attracted the light from any angle, ended up remaining throughout her film career. She had what a journalist from The Guardian dubbed, for her centenary in 2005, “European ennui”, or European lethargy: “They had vamps, they had sex bombs, but they'd never had existential depression. ” Because what Garbo carried, first of all, was an invisible loneliness that not all retouching could hide. And it was this, more than anything else, that made the Swedish actress a legend beyond compare. 

Harlean Harlow Carpenter, or rather, Jean Harlow (1911-1937), was banned from getting married because becoming a "wife of" could interfere with the levels of her sex appeal. Due to a morality clause with MGM, the studio was able to oppose (read, forbid) her marriage to William Powell. And when the actress became pregnant with the "lover", everything was treated discreetly so that her abortion would pass unscathed in the public eye. "MGM had all kinds of penalty clauses with respect to its stars having children," revealed Ava Gardner (1922-1990) in her autobiography Ava: My Story (1990). If many agreed to abort, or even not to have children, Loretta Young (1913-2000), winner of the Oscar for Best Actress for her performance in The Farmer's Daughter (1947) went further: strict Catholic, she kept her pregnancy in secret, turned away from the spotlight and, later, adopted her biological daughter, who was after all the result of her (illegitimate) relationship with Clark Gable during the shooting of Call Of The Wild, in 1935. The truth was only known after her death, with the publication of her memoirs. Bullying? Harassment? Persecution? It is in the hands of each reader to decide. At the time, Hollywood was governed by a “work code” called the De Havilland Act, implemented in 1937. According to the rules explained therein, an actor's average contract lasted seven years, during which time he/she should act in any films the studio wanted. Studios, in turn, had the right to "lend" actors to competing studios without their consent or permission, sometimes as punishment or for "bad behavior" on the part of the actor. All casts were designed in a typical way. Appearance was extremely important. Weight maintenance was standard in any deal, from the main character to the extras. Physical fitness was strictly applied. What could not be resolved was changed surgically. “A star is made, created; built with care and cold-blooded out of thin air, ”said Louis B. Mayer. “All I ever looked for was a face. If someone looked good, I could try it out. If a person looked good in the film, if he photographed well, we could do the rest.”

For a long time it was a question almost as intermittent as the one that still surrounds her death: did Marilyn Monroe undergo plastic surgery? It is known that, just before turning 20, Norma Jean Baker, the Californian young woman of natural beauty who would become the most famous woman in the world, decided to dye her dark, long, curly hair into a sort of platinum blonde, in order to get more model jobs. The resolution paid off, as she was approached shortly after by a 20th Century Fox executive, who ended up offering her a six-month contract. In August 1946, she divorced (she had been married since 1942) to focus entirely on her acting career and became Marilyn Monroe. It was then that, like Rita Hayworth, she followed the aforementioned process of capillary electrolysis - not because it had Latin origins, but to change the shape of her face. And it was around that time, too, that anxiety attacks started, because Monroe was never enough... nothing. Alcohol, pills, despair. Despite being adored by a legion of fans who never stopped to grow, the artist lived in a constant struggle with herself. And with the demands of her "bosses." That is why the question of her alleged surgeries has never had an answer. Until 2013, when a “collection” with X-rays and personal notes from surgeon Michael Gurdin, from 1950-1962, arrived at Julien's Auction House. Yes, this means that someone, somewhere, acquired medical documents that belonged to the actress of Bus Stop (1956), namely those dating from June 7, 1962, just a week after her 36th birthday and two months before her death, and that reveal that Monroe (under the pseudonym "Joan Newman") had a cartilage implant done because of a "chin deformity" in 1950, while a facial X-ray shows that she also had a small nose fracture, which confirms suspicions that Marilyn had a small rhinoplasty early in her career. What does all this change about the myth? Strictly nothing. Because with or without the certainty of these interventions, Marilyn, or Norma, will always be Marilyn - and, we believe, increasingly Norma, because distance, and time, allow us to see us that her shine was there, from the beginning, with or without any extreme makeover. Like Barbra Streisand, the woman who refused to change her nose and became the exception to the rule, destroying the old belief that in Hollywood only those who had “the whole package” could succeed. After Streisand, talent became the most precious ingredient of the package.

Originally published on Vogue Portugal November issue, "The Beauty of Imperfection."


Ana Murcho By Ana Murcho


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