One fact you might easily research about Carmen Miranda is that she wasn't Brazilian. Although she attained international fame marketing her own and Hollywood's versions of Brazilian folklore, Miranda apparently retained her Portuguese passport most of her working life.
But her little local memorial surely belongs right across from the Chinese Theater: Miranda's cinematic affectations were about as authentic as Graumann's Cantonese architecture. She belongs on Hollywood Boulevard because, like the famous movie house, Carmen Miranda was unequivocally, sincerely and essentially Hollywood: She actually reinvented herself in its image.
The dedication of her "square" - actually just the intersection of the Boulevard and Orange Drive - last week brought out a reported 70 Brazilian diplomats. Sorry, guys, but she belongs to us now. That's because 58 years ago, Brazil turned its back on her. And Hollywood became her salvation.
According to biographer Martha Gil-Montero, Miranda was born in Portugal in 1909 and came to Rio de Janeiro as an infant. Trained as a hat maker (aha!), at 21 she began recording sambas. By 1939, as South America's most famous living singer, she opened on Broadway. There, she began to replace her Brazilian music - by native-born composers like Dorival Caymmi and Andre Filho - with the pseudo-rumbas of Tin Pan Alley tunesmiths Henry Warren and Mark Gordon, and her soulful Portuguese lyrics with pidgin doggerel like "Chica Chica Boom Chick." The norteamericanos ate it up. In her 7-inch heels and 2-foot fruited turbans, the bare-midriffed little "lady in the tutti-frutti hat" with her "hula-dancing eyebrows" was credited with saving the entire 1939-1940 Broadway season from the heated competition of the New York World's Fair.
Back in Rio, however, her new show bombed on opening night. She returned to the United States, where her talents were soon deployed in Hollywood's official wartime effort to coax Latin America into the Allied bloc. But her campy, exaggerated and manifestly controvertible film ethnicity nearly had the opposite effect ("Down Argentine Way" was actually banned for bad taste in Argentina). And she rapidly became such a comic presence, even to U.S. audiences, that she began consciously to parody her own pretension, to play it for laughs.
But she endured as a Hollywood legend, even as her film roles degenerated from musical stardom to Dean-Martin-and-Jerry-Lewis featured player. She fought this decline with frequent appearances on early TV variety shows, and it was on one such show, hoofing away in her turban and stiltlike heels, that she had a fatal heart attack in 1955, at age 46. She's buried in Rio, but I think her soul belongs with us. And with our culture, wherein box office beats authenticity every time.