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Thursday, September 13, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Flashy actress accepted decades after her death

The Washington Post

RIO DE JANEIRO — When Carmen Miranda became Brazil's biggest international film star in the 1940s, the success abroad of the "Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat" was matched only by the rejection she faced at home. High society saw her hats and exaggerated accent as little more than a Brazilian blackface act — and Miranda herself as a co-conspirator in Hollywood's creation of the flamboyant Latin-American stereotype, an absurd, enduring image that lumped all cultures south of the border into one.

But the passage of time and Miranda's rebirth here as an icon of kitsch have finally allowed the "Brazilian Bombshell" to achieve something she always longed for: the acceptance of her countrymen.

Indeed, 46 years after her untimely death from a heart attack, Brazilians of all social classes are suddenly going bananas for Carmen Miranda. "South American Way," a sophisticated musical that explores both the light and dark sides of Miranda's life, is playing to sold-out crowds here. Negotiations are ongoing to bring an English-language version of the work, penned by leading Brazilian playwright Miguel Falabella, to Broadway and U.S. television.

The show follows two documentaries on Miranda's life and a revival of her movies and music, now studied as period art in Brazilian schools and universities. Her colorful legacy inspired a theme for a recent ball at Rio's lavish Copacabana Palace Hotel that once would have been unthinkable.

Miranda was selected by big-name Brazilian designers last year as the theme for Latin America's Fashion Week in São Paulo. Rio's tiny Carmen Miranda Museum, with new funds earmarked from the city government, plans to move to more spacious headquarters in her old neighborhood to accommodate growing crowds. New biographies are being snatched up by Brazilians who suddenly can't seem to get enough of her.

"Time heals all wounds, and only now can we Brazilians look back and accept the talented actress who became the world's social reference for Brazil," said Falabella

But Miranda's revival touches a tender nerve for many Brazilians.

"This is a very delicate subject for us," said Cinthya Graber, producer of "South American Way." "Maybe if you're a small Brazilian store owner, you can honestly say that your dream isn't to open a branch on Fifth Avenue. But if you're an actor, director or producer, you crave validation in the United States — even if that dream is secret. And if any Brazilian tells you otherwise, he or she is simply lying. Maybe that's one reason why we can understand today what Carmen Miranda did back then."

Brazilians are also rationalizing Miranda's decision to accept Hollywood roles that put her into situations in which she sang Americanized Brazilian samba with Mexican mariachi players wearing Cuban rumba outfits in movies with such titles as "Down Argentine Way."

Partly, they are seeing her work in a new light. In her early days as a singer on local radio, she became one of the first white artists to popularize samba, a sensual rhythm from poor Afro-Brazilian neighborhoods. Many local cinema experts now call her later Hollywood performances "ahead of their time," representing the first attempts to exalt a Pan-American culture.

"She was Brazil's cultural ambassador, but she was also a great entertainer who celebrated the rest of Latin America and brought the region to the forefront of a world that didn't really know we existed," said Heitor Capuzzo, film professor at the University of Minas Gerais.

Brazilians also simply blame the Yankees for making her wear those silly hats. Many now paint her as Hollywood's victim, saying her directors milked Miranda for her flamboyance then edited out scenes not considered outlandish enough.

Miranda was born in Portugal but came to Brazil at about age 2 and always recognized it as her homeland. Early in her career, she sowed the seeds of what would become her lavish stage and screen act by adopting stylized versions of the frilly costumes worn by the traditional black women of Bahia in Brazil's northeast. She also designed hats, though her early creations never came close to the tropical jungles Hollywood would later plant on her head.

In 1939, Broadway producer Lee Shubert brought her to New York to appear in "The Streets of Paris." One little-known fact receiving increasing notoriety in Brazil was the political side of her arrival: President Getulio Vargas saw Miranda as a key tool to improving diplomatic relations with the United States.

Miranda and her U.S. managers quickly developed her trademark act, but when she returned to Rio a year later, Brazilian audiences sat silently or jeered at her new performances. "It was not the Carmen we knew," said a friend, Odette Motta Raia, 79.

The rejection hurt Miranda deeply. She did not return to Brazil for 14 years, shortly before her 1955 death in Beverly Hills. As new details come out in documentaries and plays about her unhappy marriage to American producer David Sebastian and her reliance on sleeping pills, many Brazilians are also empathizing with the tragic side of a woman long known for her offstage flamboyance.

Though artists and high society rejected her, the masses never quite did. Her funeral at a Rio cemetery, where her grave is now visited by a new generation of Brazilian fans, was attended by an estimated 1 million, mostly from the lower classes.

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