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BIG RED by Jerome Charyn book review — Rita and Orsie and Old Hollywood

BIG RED. Book cover art by Edward Sorel.

Big Red. Jerome Charyn. Liveright. New York. 2022. 304pp. Hardcover. $28

Orson Welles was a magician in the truest sense of the word. He loved to dazzle an audience. And he was utterly fascinated with the process in which to dazzle. Many an entertainer and creative loves magic. To excel in this conjuring art form requires skill, passion, and no small amount of ego. And so it makes sense that such an inquistive novelist as Jerome Charyn, one who loves magic and is intrigued by magicians, not to mention movies, should pick Orson upon which to build a novel. Add to that the fact that Welles was married to one of the most beautiful and enigmatic of movie stars, Rita Hayworth, and you have the perfect framework for a tale about Old Hollywood.

The Boy Wonder

Orson Welles portrait by Irving Penn, for Vogue 1945

Throughout the novel, Orson Welles is called, “The Boy Wonder,” as much in honor of his genius as a dig at his excess. Welles was, in many respects, one of a kind, an outsized force of nature, untamed and undisciplined, and therefore an imperfect maestro. He was a masterful filmmaker, creating unique imagery, capturing compelling performances from his fellow actors, but prone to missteps in his lavish storytelling. He was also sloppy in his personal relationships, as Rita Hayworth, aka “Big Red,” could attest. However, as Charyn comes back to again and again, there was no director quite like him. This is a novel about art colliding with life and vice versa. Orson Welles seemed to be able to better tolerate the burden of celebrity than his spouse, Rita Hayworth. But even The Boy Wonder had his limits. Charyn plays with these dynamics, these contradictions, repeatedly bringing home the fact that a big, flat footed and insecure man, no matter how talented, was perpetually bending to the pressures of being a Boy Wonder. And if the pressure should prove too much for someone as flamboyant as Welles, then how must it have been for someone so shy and demure as Rita Hayworth?

The true nature of one Rita Hayworth, with her own nickname, both a tribute and a put down, gets to the crux of the matter. Charyn brings out the fact that the real person behind the name wears the name of Big Red like an albatross around her neck. In a moment of passion, the nickname can praise just as quickly as it can cut. Who can live up to all the larger-than-life expectations? Not Rita, or Margarita, the girl who lost her childhood to a father who exploited and abused her, making her his dancing partner by age twelve, the two of them working as a duo in casinos, treating her as if she were his lover. The abuse had left her with little of a voice, a life of depression and despair, even though she had honed the skills, from an early age, of a great entertainer. Charyn provides the reader with a portrait of a formidable beauty with the soul of a frightened child.

Rita Hayworth in 1946’s Gilda.

Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth were married from 1943 to 1947. Much of the novel focuses on the dynamics of this mismatched couple. It was in star power that Hayworth held her own, and even eclipsed Welles for a time. But her shyness seemed to cancel out her extraordinary beauty. Charyn places a unique character, Rusty Redburn, right in the middle of the action, someone who manages to navigate her way between the two and provide special insight on them. Rusty is a young aspiring writer who stumbles into work on the Columbia lot and, by a set of circumstances, ends up working as a private secretary to Rita Hayworth while also serving as spy for studio boss Harry Cohn. Rusty learns it’s important to keep a close eye on Big Red, as well as Welles, but she does as she wants and maintains her loyalty to Rita and Orsie. Over the course of the novel, with Rusty’s vantage point, a rollicking story unfolds tracing the trajectory of two of the strangest and most magnificent of Hollywood icons.

Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles

Mise-en-Scène or Depth of Field technique in CITIZEN KANE

As true to form as ever, Jerome Charyn tackles the man behind the celebrated cinematic masterpiece, Citizen Kane, and his power to fascinate an audience as well as hurt those he was supposed to love. Charyn, a great fan and scholar of cinema, with a journalist’s instinct for a great story, has made the most of his subject for his latest novel, filled with his signature use of imagery and metaphor. Charyn, the magician with words, delivers various breathtaking moments once all the chess pieces to his tale are in play. One of the greatest is when Orson Welles, at loose ends and in need of an adrenaline rush, mounts a full-scale circus in the middle of Hollywood. It is one of the most surreal and entertaining tributes to Hollywood and unfettered creativity you will ever read. It may seem a pity that Welles, the man, was unable to live up to the myth. It was a legend he himself helped to perpetuate and which choked him at every turn. Of course, no one, not even a magician, would ever have survived unscathed from all the bright lights, noise, and hype. Charyn brings home the point that it is this grand illusion that will forever fascinate and captivate, prone to ensnare an audience and actor alike.

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