Latinos at the Oscars

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By Guillermo Reyes

85OscarStatuette_credit-A.M.A.P.S“Latinos sweep the Oscars!” Now there’s a headline that allows film fans to inhabit an alternate universe. The Academy Awards has featured a few of these rare sightings – Latinos – exotic beings who occasionally manage to get nominated or even win now and then. But, we all know that most of the time this headline could be followed by a cruel joke about maintenance practices at the Academy. A series of articles in the L.A. Times in 2012 revealed that the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences is no more diverse than, say, the United States Senate, which is largely represented by white, male legislators over the age of 60. Only one woman has ever won for Best Director, and no U.S. Latino has ever been nominated in that category.

The Academy is an institution of privilege. In order to join, artists need to be invited on the basis of significant achievements in the industry. But there’s the catch – since Hollywood rarely finances the making of films with important roles for Latino actors or rarely hires a Latino director to begin with, the chances of developing a prestigious career are minimal. For all this, the list of Latinos who have featured prominently at the Academy Awards isn’t long but it’s a form of counter-narrative: people who have swam upstream and somehow survived to belong to an exclusive list.

I have taught a class on the Oscars for two years at Arizona State University and I start with a caveat: the Oscars represent a public relations hustle of the film industry and, ultimately, the main story boils down to an elite within an elite of accomplished Hollywood insiders that vote themselves the awards. I’m too jaded to think there’s anything particularly wrong with this. The alternative is to have only critics vote for awards, and they’re an even more exclusive club of carping, sniveling cognoscenti, and People’s Choice Awards? Puh-lease! The average filmgoer, for instance, can’t handle subtitles; for those of us with Latino backgrounds, we know what type of ethnocentricity that represents among the American public. The Academy is what Winston Churchill said about democracy – it’s the worst system, except for all the others. Nonetheless, for those of us who can withstand a bit of glamour and take it straight, there’s great satisfaction in discussing the best films of the year, rating them, and second guessing the winners and the nominees.

Here’s a list of Latinos at the Oscars, culminating in a little surprise for those of who didn’t know to what extent the Oscar statuette itself is Latino. Along the way, I also bring up the issue of how difficult it is at times to define “Latino.” Are the Spaniards included? That’ll be my first question, not to be easily resolved within this article because Latino identity itself appears to be a work in progress in this country. Many of you will have your own choices and issues. Let the second guessing begin!

#12 The Spaniards/los españoles

We may have declared independence more than 200 years ago, but the Spaniards stand in for some of our genes and some of our issues about what it means to be Latino in the United States today. When Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem get nominated or win Oscars, we celebrate for them, but we know that they are not actual Latinos. Does the rest of the country know the difference? Ellen DeGeneres, as the host for the Oscars in 2007, celebrated Penelope Cruz as an example of a Mexican artist, and then had to come back after a break and promptly apologize. Penelope is, in fact, Spanish. She won for best supporting actress in Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), and Javier Bardem took home the supporting actor prize for playing a vicious, un-charming killer in the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men (2007). Colonialism remains a relevant topic, and the frequent confusion of Spaniards for Latinos might be an important subject of discussion – but we may still celebrate the achievements of these artists without blaming them for the dissonance of this historic mix-up.

#11 The Oscar factory at the R & S Owens Company in Chicago

Mr. Anacleto Medina has been sculpting, casting and polishing the Oscar into shape for more than 40 years. (Several YouTube entries show Mr. Medina at work, e.g., The dedicated workers at R & S Owens, who hail from a variety of backgrounds, are eligible every year for a free trip to the Academy Awards in Los Angeles, according to Noreen Prohaska, the sales manager for the company. The workers alternate in terms of seniority, she explains. This special invite allows the actual Oscar makers to participate in the show itself.

#10 Brokeback Mountain

Bring up Brokeback Mountain at your next Oscar gathering and people might blurt out “gay cowboys!” How about you tell them Basque gay cowboys? Heath Ledger plays the sexually conflicted Ennis del Mar. The character not only suffers from sexual repression of his gay identity, but from ethnic dysmorphic ambiguity as well. The film presents Randy Quaid as Aguirre, the homophobic boss, but only his name suggests a background and a history. Aguirre is a Basque name. Is Ennis del Mar a Basque gay cowboy? Are Basques Latinos? The presence of Basque immigrants in the Wyoming setting opens up the dialogue about suppressed identities: this year it’s called the “Argo syndrome” (see entry #6). The Oscar in 2005 went to Ang Lee for directing this groundbreaking gay Basque-American cowboy romance, and to Argentinian composer, Gustavo Santaolalla, for his score.

#9 Best Actor nominees

Edward James Olmos, Demian Bichir and Javier Bardem. The list of winners and nominees in the supporting actor/actress categories may have a greater abundance of Latino names, but Latino actors competing in the top category is a rare feat that can still be counted with less than one hand. Olmos played the embattled Bolivian-American teacher, Jaime Escalante, who struggles to educate underprivileged students in L.A.’s Garfield High School in Stand up and Deliver (1988), and Demian Bichir plays an undocumented worker attempting to earn a living and give his son, as the title implies, A Better Life (2011; a loose adaptation of the Italian classic, The Bicycle Thief). Javier Bardem rounds out the list; he has been nominated twice, in 2000 for Before Night Falls, and in 2010 for Biutiful.

#8 Salma Hayek plays Frida

Virtually alone in the Best Actress category as one of two Latinas to have been nominated for Best Actress (again, I’ll leave aside the Penelope Cruz nominations as a Spanish phenomenon which we celebrate separately), Salma Hayek brought to life the monumental epic life of the great Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo, in the film, Frida (2002). Critics in Mexico criticized the film for its “lack of authenticity.” But how many Latina actresses have managed to bring their talents to a mainstream audience with this degree of success? Brazilian  actress, Fernanda Montenegro, was also nominated as Best Actress in the Brazilian-French film, Central Station (1998), completing the slim list of Best Actress nominees.

#7 Los directores

U.S. Latino directors have not been nominated for the Oscar at all. We leave this type of achievement to foreign-born directors such as the Mexican Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu for Babel (2006) and Argentinian-born Brazilian Hector Babenco for Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985). Then there’s Pedro Almodóvar, one more entry into the Spaniards-as-Latino debate, whose films have been nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category several times and won for All About My Mother (1999). Almodóvar achieved the even more difficult feat of winning Best Screenplay for Talk to Her in 2002, the first time a foreign language film had won in that category. But, then again, that year also included Y Tu Mamá También, nominated in the same category for the humorous, nimble screenplay by the Cuaron brothers, Carlos and Alfonso. Up until then, only English language screenplays had won. In 2007, director/screenwriter Guillermo del Toro was also nominated for Best Original Screenplay for Pan’s Labyrinth. Del Toro is a Mexican citizen who lives in California and considers himself an “involuntary exile” from Mexico because kidnapping attempts on his father led him to resettle. The lack of opportunities for American-born Latinos in directing becomes especially urgent as directors usually make the crucial choices that affect the fortunes of all Latino talent, which is made worse by the phenomenon described next.

#6 The Argo syndrome

Ben Affleck plays a Latino in Argo, and he’ll likely be a strong nominee this year for his accomplishments, at least as a director. What are we to do? Blame the artist for casting himself as the Latino CIA operative Tony Mendez? Unfairly target Affleck’s achievements because financial decisions call for “name” actors such as Affleck? The syndrome repeats itself from year to year. Take the example of Jennifer Connelly winning the Best Supporting Actress award in 2001 for her role of Alicia Nash, the wife of mathematician John Nash. The actual Alicia Nash was a Salvadoran immigrant. In the film, A Beautiful Mind, directed by Ron Howard, she’s represented by the American model/actress who speaks without a hint of an accent and makes no reference to her background whatsoever. This woman’s ethnicity and nationality are entirely erased. The net result is a form of American blindness towards the Latino presence in the United States. This year we also saw the curious phenomenon of a Spanish-financed film, The Impossible, in which the Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona films the story of a Spanish family struggling to survive in the tragic tsunami of 2004. The couple is cast with Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor and any references to “home” are completely deleted. This family has no apparent background and no nationality, and the accents of the actors suggest a vague Australian/British mishmash. Spaniards – who are Europeans after all – are apparently still too foreign, or too ethnic, for American white audiences, and even Spanish financiers seem to think this is a fair business decision. Here’s where the colonialist argument becomes urgent: the Spaniards don’t seem to understand that their casting decisions become especially destructive for Latino talent in the United States.

#5 Winner: Benicio del Toro  

The casting of the Puerto Rican actor to play a Mexican cop in Traffic also came under attack given the lack of opportunities for Mexican or Mexican American actors. This is the problem with “the syndrome” (see above), as Latinos of different backgrounds end up battling among themselves for the few opportunities available in the industry. Del Toro took the Best Supporting Actor prize home, while Steven Soderbergh also won for Best Director that year.

#4 Anthony Quinn

A two-time winner, Quinn was a bicultural, binational Mexican-born actor of Mexican parents with an Irish grandfather brought up in East L.A. An international star (Federico Fellini cast him without problem as an Italian male in La Strada), Quinn won two Supporting Actor Oscars, playing the French legendary painter, Gauguin, in Lust for Life and also as Emiliano Zapata’s brother in Viva Zapata! He was also nominated twice for best actor for his roles in Wild is the Wind and Zorba, the Greek.

#3 Rita Moreno

A Puerto Rican woman actually playing  a puertorriqueña in West Side Story (1960) counted as a breakthrough at the time but, nonetheless, Ms. Moreno has spent the rest of her life lamenting that her career after winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress amounted mostly to fielding and rejecting various offers to play the usual stereotypes, the “Conchitas” and “Lolitas.” Instead, she pursued other interests on Broadway, television and recordings and is the first Latina to not only win an Academy Award, but also an Emmy, a Tony, a Golden Globe and a Grammy in a legendary career that continues unabated to this very day.

#2 José Ferrer

The only Latino actor to have taken home the top prize, Best Performance by an Actor, in 1950 was also a puertorriqueño. Schooled in theater at Princeton University, New Jersey, Ferrer was cast to play the title role in the Broadway production of the classic French play, Cyrano de Bergerac, for which he won the Tony Award for Best Actor. Director Miguel Gordon cast Ferrer in the lead role in the film version as well, without any apparent reservations about Ferrer’s background. By then, Ferrer had also been nominated as best supporting actor in Joan of Arc (1948). This great actor broke through the curse of the “mainstream syndrome” with excellent classical training that allowed directors to see him not so much as a Latino actor, but as a great stage actor who could also duplicate his performances on film.

#1 Oscar is Mexican

The Oscar statuette isn’t just Latino, but Mexican. That’s because the young man who posed naked for designer Cedric Gibbons was an unknown Mexican actor who happened to have been friends with legendary actress Dolores del Rio who, in turn, introduced him to her then boyfriend, Gibbons. Emilio “El Indio” Fernandez returned to Mexico, perhaps not fully understanding that his body image resulted in giving the famous statuette a character, not just a shape. Bette Davis claimed the statuette reminded her of her husband, Oscar, but the Academy’s librarian, Margaret Herrick, is credited for renaming the award after claiming that the “Award of Merit” (as it was known then) reminded her of her uncle Oscar. The fetishization of the award as a male figure has been one of the strangest developments for an award that was never officially called “Oscar.” The widespread use of the nickname, “Oscar,” can be attributed now to the sculpting of the youthful and athletic body of Fernandez as the model. Fernandez went on to become an accomplished director, winning the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival for his film, Maria Candelaria (1947), but he’ll be forever remembered as the body image of the Academy Award.

So that’s how the Oscar can be said to be Latino. There’s your conversation starter for your next Oscar party as you celebrate for the winners with a touch of Latino-flavored trivia.

Guillermo Reyes began his research on the Oscars at Arizona State University where he has taught a class on the subject for the last two years as a professor in the School of Theatre and Film. He is otherwise known as a playwright, director and author of the recent book, Madre and I: A Memoir of Our Immigrant Lives, which delves into his early life in Chile and later in Hollywood as an immigrant.

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