Frank Langella Remembers His Rita Hayworth

Rita Hayworth. Courtesy Everett Collection

On my television set tonight, in the black-and-white movie Gilda, Rita Hayworth is seducing Glenn Ford, heartbreakingly refuting the old adage “the camera never lies.” It is close to 40 years now since last we were together, and the woman I had known in real life is, for me, still the single most tragic example of how far from the real person an image can be.

She was a Goddess on screen, about as desirable a woman as any man could want—perfection in feminine allure. From the moment I saw her, she haunted my imagination. And from the moment we met in the lobby of a small hotel in the tiny town of Guanajuato, Mexico, in 1972, until her death from Alzheimer’s disease 15 years later, she continued to haunt it, eliciting a far more profound emotion than lust.

My agent at that time, David Begelman, had talked me into a Western titled The Wrath of God—aptly named—to be shot entirely in Mexico. It would star Robert Mitchum, with Rita in the “and” position, set off in a billing box at the end of the actor credits. She was by then finished in pictures and the word was that Mitch had insisted on her, possibly for old times’ sake, the rumor being they had once had a tumble or two.

Mitch would play a runaway priest. I would be the town’s despot, who swears revenge on all priests for murdering my father, and Rita would be my mother, a God-fearing matron who never lets go of a set of rosary beads. What was I thinking? Well ... I was thinking: Rita/Gilda.

And there she is, tiny and scattered, standing in front of me, a rain hat on her head. She shoots out her hand and smiles. “Hey, I know you,” she says. “I’ve seen ya in the movies. You’re gonna be my son.” I spout all the clichés: how excited I am to meet her and work with her, etc.

She tears off the rain hat, frantically runs her fingers through the once-lustrous auburn hair, now shorter and more sparse, shakes it out, pulls at it, and whips her head back and forth in an exaggerated “no,” flailing her hands in the air as if shooing away an army of flies.

“Oh, cut it out. Cut it out,” she says in a high-pitched, impatient tone, jamming the hat back on and fleeing the lobby.

Once on the set she is a total pro. Ready to go, eager to do her best. But the lines won’t come. No matter how hard she tries, she can’t retain the simplest phrase. In our first scene together, I approach her at prayer in a church and ask, “Why are you here?” Her line is “Because God is here.” But she can’t do it. Take after take she is unable to retain those four words. Oblivious to the rising tension and unkind remarks from the crew, she presses on. “Let’s do it again,” she says. “I’ll get it.”

Finally a man is laid down on the floor at her feet. Action is called. I ask, “Why are you here?” He whispers, “Because God is here.” Then immediately Rita says, “Because God is here.”

“Cut. Print. We got it,” slurs Ralph Nelson, our director, and the crew bursts into cheers and applause. Rita beams like a little girl who’s just been crowned Miss Snow Queen, completely unaware the cheers are jeers. At lunch, as she rests in her trailer, the jokes about her are lewd and cruel, and for years after, I too would be guilty of reenacting the scene for friends at her expense.

At about 5 p.m. on our first day off, the phone rings in my room. “Hey, it’s Rita. Do you wanna eat?” Thirty minutes later we are sitting in the hotel’s tiny restaurant. “We’ll be friends to start, OK? Dutch treat on dinners. One night you, one night me. Deal. Let’s have red wine. Just two glasses each.” After the first one she asks me how old I am. I tell her: 34.

When dinner is over, we walk through the chilly, dirty streets and she gathers her black-fringed shawl close around her shoulders, slips her arm into mine, and forgets my name. “Oh, yeah, yeah, Frank,” she says. “You’ll be Frankie. I love Frankie. Not Sinatra. The guy was never on time.” We pass an open-air market and she insists we buy fruit and cheese to keep in our rooms. “Just to have, you know, for the ghosts.”

As we walk back toward the hotel holding string sacks of food, she clings to me, her arm tight in the crook of mine, our bodies finding a rhythm, and she whispers words I cannot understand. When I see her to her door, she leans up to chastely kiss me good night and says: “Do me a favor, baby: don’t ever call me mother.”

Film sets, particularly on remote and distant locations, can be anything from warm, collegial good times to lethal, tension-filled bloodbaths. Without the familiar surroundings of home, family, and routine, these shoots can become a breeding ground for heightened drama, soaring libidos, and neurotic behavior. Ours becomes a polarized, not altogether homogeneous collection of crazy loners. At night, doors are closed tight and the cast mostly isolates. On this set a lot of the crew, a mix of American and hard-bitten Mexican wranglers, hits the seedy whorehouses regularly. There are torn-up hotel rooms, hallways reeking of marijuana, heavy bar bills, and drunken brawls at 3 a.m. on the barren streets.

rita-hayworth-fe02-secondary Rita Hayworth with Frank Langella.

Rita and I drift toward each other like two boats on an unfamiliar sea, torn free of their moorings. We could just as easily have floated in opposite directions, but real life is now reel life, and on movie locations personal relationships are less often chosen than grasped at. Rita grasped at me and I chose to take her on. The 20-year difference in our ages suited the unreality of time and place. Each of us wanted something from the other, and neither of us much contemplated motive or consequence.

A ritual began. Dinner most nights in her rooms. She buys dozens of candles, lights them all, and puts them on every surface, including the floor. I start a fire and pour the wine. And we sit by the open window, our elbows resting on the low wooden sill. Three stories below is the main street of the town, brightly lit, dusty, dirty, and noisy. She wants to make another deal.

We will count trucks. All trucks passing by her window going left to right are mine. All going right to left are hers. Whoever has the most trucks by dinnertime gets treated. I stay with the wine, but she graduates to bourbon. Dinner is served on the floor, and we eat to the cacophony of noise from the street. Her hair is washed free of the day’s set and spray, her face polished clean of makeup, her dress a plain white caftan thrown over her naked body. She crosses her legs, barely touches the food, and talks and talks. Mostly about men. Shards of these ramblings stay with me.

“He found me when I was a kid. Brought me to L.A. What the hell did I know? I went along.” Of another she said, “Oh, Christ, he beat me bad. Then he skipped. I had to sign with Cohn [Harry Cohn, president of Columbia Pictures] for another seven to pay off the debts.” Of Orson Welles she said, “He tried to help me to be a great actress, but he always needed money.” And Prince Aly Khan: “I didn’t want to live nowhere where they kiss the hem of your skirt. I mean, what is that, for Chrissakes? Two guys laying on top of each other outside my bedroom door so I couldn’t get out. I didn’t want to be no f--kin’ princess anyway. So I went to the old man. He liked me, and I said to him, ‘Just give me my kid and let me out of here. I don’t want anything.’” And then she says, “Geez, they were always around. Husbands, boyfriends, lawyers, managers, press agents—the bosses. Where the f--k did they all go?” Her voice is tinny and high, almost childlike—until she picks up the telephone and says in movie-star timbre: “This is Miss Hayworth. Would you please send up another bottle of bourbon.”

dropped-names-cover Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women As I Knew Them, Frank Langella

When it becomes late and she has had enough of it, she flings her head back, hair flying about her face, and, in the candle’s light and fire’s glow, once again becomes the Goddess. She knows I am looking and she holds the pose, lowers her head, tucks in her chin, raises her eyes to mine, grabs my hair, and says, “Don’t stare at me, baby. You can see me in the movies.”

We will be seven weeks on this turbulent sea, and no other boats take notice of ours or even float past—none but Mitchum’s. A man whom very little escaped. As regards Rita and me, he becomes my one and only confidant. We never discuss their past together, nor does he offer any wisdom or make any judgment. He would just listen and then say: “Frankie, it is what it is.”

But one day he comes to me and says: “Listen, pal, we’re never going to finish this f--king picture if we don’t get your girl to work on time.” Mitch, Rita, and I have our own local drivers, and each of them regards the harrowing ride along narrow, unfenced mountain roads as challenges to be met with daredevil speed. Mitch sleeps through his rides and so do I. But Rita, who is terrified of all moving things, makes her driver go at a snail’s pace and often arrives at work an easy hour or more after everyone else. So Mitch comes up with a plan: “Look,” he says. “Let’s the three of us ride together. You sit up front and we’ll put Rita in the back with me.”

Early mornings become a struggle of manipulating Rita into a broken-down jalopy and laying her down on the floor of the back seat. Mitch tosses a blanket over her as she pulls her floppy sailor hat down past her eyes. I then hop in the front and off we go. These rides become a hilarious routine of Rita laughing and screaming at the top of her lungs, with Mitch stretched out on the back seat outshouting her, singing Gilbert and Sullivan patter songs, exactly as written, in perfect pitch, while a non-English-speaking driver careens close to the narrow road’s edge as wildly as he dares. When we reach the location, I get out and Mitch and I lift Rita from the floor, remove the blanket, pull up her hat, and calm her down. “Cheated the old Grim Reaper again,” he says and saunters off to his trailer.

On set, Rita continues to be a nightmare for everyone. There is not a shred of temperament, not a demand, not so much as a hint of cruelty. Rather, it is like watching a schoolgirl desperately trying to learn her times tables and unable to get past the twos. Very little sympathy is shown for her. It is assumed she is a drunk and is boozing in her trailer. No one, including Mitch, reaches out to help her. So little was known then of her disease that even I regarded the panic and terror in her eyes as the neurotic insecurity of a fading star.

In all her scenes, large placards are put next to the camera and her lines are written out in huge block letters. It becomes an agony for her to try to hold on to what little she can, and an embarrassment to face each daunting day. But she does face them, and she does make it through. Her pride and happiness at the smallest of her achievements are pitifully touching.

The nights are another kind of hell for her. She has climbed into my boat, and I come to see I have set a dangerous course for which I am woefully unprepared. There are stretches of time when the mist in her mind clears and she is very much with me. But often she desperately clings, weeps, and talks in words I cannot understand, and it is not always my name she calls out in the dark. When at last she sleeps, I leave her and go back to my room. There is, sadly, never a time when we awake in the same bed.

Our film comes to its predictable end, and on our last night, with my bags packed and waiting in my room, late in the candlelight I say the words I know she wants to hear. An easy lie to tell. The next morning at dawn I abandon her and fly back to real life.

A year later there she is on the Christmas cover of Esquire, looking like a waxen image of herself, smiling and confident, her arms wrapped around a Santa dummy, once more facing a lying camera. Our film is the last movie she ever makes. Her physical body passed out of existence on May 14, 1987, but Rita’s essence had faded from the frame long before.

Now, almost 40 years after I faded from her life, there she is in black and white on my television screen. And the camera’s lie is actually welcome and soothing. Her beauty is staggering. Her sultry voice, her body, the way she moves close to a man, the sway of her hips as she drunkenly belts out “Put the Blame on Mame,” stop time and obliterate what had been our reality. Her acting is honest and true. A thoroughbred, desperate to be taken seriously, cursed with a divine beauty, who could not find a man to desire that beauty as only a part of the whole woman.

Near the end of Gilda, it seems she has lost Glenn Ford forever because he believes her character is what she has been pretending to be: a loose woman out for a good time with as many men as she can find. Feeling profoundly alone and misunderstood, sitting at a bar, shyly smiling at the bartender, her face full of loss and vulnerability, she is hauntingly lovely. The bartender asks: “Would you like to have a tiny drink of ambrosia, suitable only for a goddess?”

In the movie’s final moments, the villain is killed and the lovers reunite.

“Let’s go home,” Rita says to Glenn as they face a new sunrise.

Those nights we spent together in Mexico, she’d say:

“Put all the lights out, Frankie, and open the shutters.”

And by the light of the candles and fire, she would once again become the legendary beauty who had obsessed and haunted my young imagination, swaying and dancing for me.

“Stay with me, baby. Stay with me tonight.”

I never shared a sunrise with Rita Hayworth; and I did not try to save her, nor could I have. The best I was able to do was take into my arms someone no longer any of the things she had once been: Movie Star, Princess, Goddess, or Gilda. Just a 54-year-old courageous and gentle woman named Margarita Carmen Cansino, one of God’s lost souls, clinging in the night to a man whose name she could not remember.

From the book Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women as I Knew Them by Frank Langella. To be published this month by HarperCollins Publishers. © 2012 by Frank Langella.

The Roles

Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

Her breakthrough film alongside Cary Grant as a pilot in South America.

You'’l Never Get Rich (1941)

Twirled onto the A-list as Fred Astaire’s dance partner in this wartime musical comedy.

Cover Girl (1944)

This film made her such a popular pinup her picture was pasted onto a test atomic bomb.

The Lady From Shanghai (1947)

A noir directed by Orson Welles, who divorced Hayworth shortly after it was released.

Separate Tables (1958)

This Oscar winner was her last great film.