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Tributes honor Carmen Miranda's colorful career

RIO DE JANEIRO -- In 1944, she was the highest-paid actress in America. And she wasn't even American.

Carmen Miranda was rich, powerful, a denizen of Beverly Hills, and a household name everywhere. The ''Brazilian bombshell" had landed on US shores just five years earlier and wowed audiences with her Latin rhythms, exuberant songs, and impossibly large fruit-basket headdresses, which only grew in proportion with her fame.

Today, Miranda, decked out in her prodigious turbans, remains a readily recognized icon the world over. But the woman who starred in such classic films as ''The Gang's All Here" (1943) and ''Springtime in the Rockies" (1942) wasn't always embraced here in her hometown, where some critics blasted her as a sellout.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Miranda's death from a heart attack at age 46, and her homeland now appears ready to rehabilitate her reputation once and for all.

To commemorate, Rio's Museum of Modern Art is hosting through Sunday one of the most comprehensive exhibits ever mounted on the actress's life and times, and Ruy Castro, one of the city's best-known writers, has just published a 600-page biography of ''the most famous Brazilian woman of the 20th century."

Both the book and the exhibit aim to shed light on a former star who, for many Brazilians, has been reduced to little more than a familiar name and a vague vision of tropical fruit.

In particular, admirers want to emphasize that Miranda's fame abroad sprouted out of her success in her homeland and was hardly some fluke or mere invention of Hollywood producers.

Miranda was an indefatigable performer bent from girlhood on achieving stardom. Before moving north and taking the United States by storm, she recorded nearly 300 songs in 12 years and refined her act in late-night sellout shows at a popular Rio casino, becoming the toast of Brazil's music world.

Many of the items on view in ''Carmen Miranda Forever," the exhibit that opened this month, are devoted to this early part of the singer's career.

Several of her outlandish costumes, some weighing more than 40 pounds, with their signature headdresses and 6-inch-high platform shoes, have been restored and are on display. Miranda's broad smile and mischievously arched eyebrows beam from an assortment of old magazine covers, as well as from ads hawking soap and toothpaste. Her lips are never less than shockingly red, her head never bare of some flamboyant wrap.

Miranda was actually born in Portugal in 1909, the daughter of a barber and a homemaker who decided to immigrate to Brazil less than a year later. The second of six children, Carmen, whose real name was Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha, was raised in the artsy Lapa district and educated at a school for poor students.

To help support her family, she learned to design and make hats as a teenager, which proved an indispensable asset to her career. She got her first major recording break when she was 20, signed a contract with RCA Victor and, by the mid-1930s, had rocketed to national fame alongside the second most popular singer in Brazil at the time, her younger sister, Aurora, with whom Carmen performed a double act that spent several successful seasons on tour in Buenos Aires as ''Las Hermanas Miranda."

After American impresario Lee Shubert saw Carmen perform at the Cassino da Urca in 1939, he invited her to New York. She and her band, the Bando da Lua, bowled over the audiences who came to see ''Streets of Paris," a zany variety-type show on Broadway that also featured Abbott & Costello. Within months, Saks Fifth Avenue's windows were touting the Carmen Miranda look.

But catering to an American audience carried an artistic price.

''She had to adapt her musical repertoire and some of her style to be understood by Americans," Castro says.

Miranda would not set foot in her homeland again for 14 years, until just before her death. In the meantime, her star continued to rise in the United States, where tax returns showed her to be the country's highest-paid woman in 1944, with a declared income of about $201,500 -- more than even Bob Hope's or Cary Grant's.

On Aug. 4, 1955, a few months after she went back to Los Angeles, Miranda taped a number for ''The Jimmy Durante Show," during which she complained of being out of breath. In the early hours of the following morning, she died of a heart attack in the dressing room of her Beverly Hills mansion, collapsing to the floor, her hand still clutching a mirror.

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