Picture this: Hollywood, 1943, during the peak of the Golden Age of cinema. You’re a cubicle worker, a gossip columnist, working in the offices of Columbia Pictures. You’re called upon by the studio head honcho Harry Cohn to become the confidante and spy of Rita Hayworth, the huge movie star, the much-coveted talent—Big Red herself. This is where Jerome Charyn sets his scene — and sets us on the edge of our seat — in his powerful historical fiction, our December Book of the Month: Big Red: A Novel Starring Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles. From the first-person narrative of Rusty Redburn, a reporter from Kalamazoo, Michigan, who is commissioned to trail Rita Hayworth, Charyn reanimates in literary form the career of the iconic actress, his well-known satirical humour interspersed masterfully within the infallible sorrow that marked her career.
The first impressions of Rusty Redburn’s views on the Golden Age film stars are much the same as most of us see them, idolising Hayworth’s talent and beauty, in awe of Welles’s grand cinematic visions. It is an alluring fantasy, an idyllic romance under bright movie lights. Yet, Hayworth’s story is inevitably permeated with heartbreak, trauma and tragedy, and Charyn channels her inner and outer turmoil with a tenderness and honesty into this bittersweet story. He lifts the glamourous veil of the Golden Age and reveals a more fraught, touching, human side to the people behind the big names shining in lights above crowds of adoring fans.
From a young age, Hayworth was driven by her controlling father to dance, and he took her to many classes and rehearsals growing up. Spotted performing at the Caliente Club by Winfield Sheehan, the head of Fox Film corporation, Sheehan arranged a screentest for her. Hayworth flourished as an actress on the silver screen, appearing in 61 films over 37 years, performing with huge names such as Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire and Cary Grant. In 1942, she was cast by Orson Welles in ‘The Mercury Wonder Show’, and thus began one of the most famous romantic pairings in movie history.
Charyn’s re-envisioning of Hayworth’s story and her brief but turbulent marriage to Welles is incredibly well-crafted through the eyes of a first-person narrator. Whilst taking the reader to the movie sets of beloved classics such as Cover Girl, Gilda and The Lady from Shanghai, to the cutting room, and even to intimate scenes in boudoirs, Charyn’s expansive and extraordinary knowledge, along with his love of this era of movies, really shines through. Rusty Redburn’s perspective reflects not only the author’s fascinating insights, but also the re-imagining of the intimate lives and emotions of classic stars, and emphasises the sensations that the reader experiences as we look behind the curtain of the Hollywood fantasy through fresh eyes.
Though the attractive Tinseltown allure is uncovered to reveal a darker, desperate side to the Golden Age industry, the magic and radiance of these classic film stars is never lost in Charyn’s cinematic and captivating narrative. Dazzling and devastating, satirical and sensational, Big Red evokes the essence of Hayworth’s career in its very pages.
“Charyn plausibly recreates another chapter in American history in this affecting and searing portrait of Silver Screen superstars Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles…”Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Charyn’s movie-love dances like a flame over every page of Big Red. Like its gloriously outspoken narrator – who never existed but should have – the book is bewitched by cinema and also hardheaded about the crass, exploitative reality of the dream factory.”Sara Imogen Smith, film critic and author of In Lonely Places
“This is a wise, hilarious, and very deep look into Hollywood’s ambitions, dreams, and indulgences.”Brian Koppelman, co-creator of Billions
Big Red is published by No Exit Press
9780857305244 / PB / £9.99 / Out 1st December 2022