María Montez’s name tends to conjure lifted eyebrows and donut-sized “ohhs” from film buffs because of her intense beauty, classic style, and tragic and mysterious death at the age of 39. The general public, however, knows little about her. Labeled Hollywood’s “Technicolor Queen,” Montez’s mark on the golden age of cinema hinges on caricature, as does that of other Latina actresses of the time, like Brazil’s Carmen Miranda: exotic, sexualized bombshells from somewhere south of the border. A fellow Dominican actress, however, has made it her mission to present the woman behind Montez’s iconic image.
Celines Toribio is a well-known reporter and television personality who has progressively made her way from non-fiction to drama, and in the process, she’s struggled to find welcoming gatekeepers and compelling roles. By way of inspiration and in order to bring into relief elements of her cultural heritage, Toribio looked to Montez and decided to tell her story. Like many Dominicans, she grew up hearing about Montez, as well as other Dominican figures such as the Mirabal Sisters. In fact, Toribio starred alongside Michelle Rodriguez in the 2010 film Trópico de sangre about the Mirabals. Still, it was Montez’s story that would move Toribio to write, produce, and star in María Montez: The Movie, a period piece shot in multiple languages, across various countries, and involving hundreds of cast and crew members, a feat that would surely have impressed the audacious Montez herself.
“She didn’t want to be considered as just a sex symbol. She wanted to play Joan of Arc, Lucretia de Borgia, and the studios kind of locked her doors.”
The thing about island life is that it is as idyllic as it is isolating; both Toribio and Montez know the feeling. Montez left the Dominican Republic for New York in her teens and went on to star in Hollywood escapist films of the 40s: large studio productions shot in crisp and saturated Technicolor, and featuring high-stakes adventure plots. Not only was Montez a studio moneymaker, she was also a poet, a published author, and had aspirations beyond the films forced onto her. Changing tastes and her marriage to French actor Jean-Pierre Aumont would lead her to a career in Europe. She died in her bathtub in Paris in 1951.
Like Montez, Toribio left the Dominican Republic in her teens to attend Lehman College. Also like Montez, she continues to challenge herself, to take an active role in her projects, and simply not be taken for granted. Because she values her culture, her work and the courage it takes to execute it, Toribio is seeing to it that Montez’s legacy not fall into the shadows of Babylonian lore. Toribio’s dogged insistence has created a film that represents Montez not just as a young starlet desperate to make it, but as a complex, intelligent, and determined woman, with deep desires and with sights set beyond the island life she once knew. Though very few people know about María Montez these days, Celines Toribio is about to change that.
Below Toribio talks about her approach to the material and what it was like to wear multiple hats on such an ambitious production.
Where in the Dominican Republic did you grow up? What was your childhood like?
I had a very happy childhood. I know it sounds cliché, but I really did. I grew up in Santo Domingo, in Alma Rosa. My father was a general in the Navy and my mom was a stay-at-home mom. I came to the States when I was 16 years old and I went straight to college. I was the youngest student at Lehman College because here they start kids in school at five and I started at three. When I was growing up, whenever the power would go out, they used to call me to just put on a show for them. I used to put on a long towel and pretend it was my long hair and grab a comb and sing for my family [from] a very young age, like 5, 6 years old. So I always knew I wanted to be in front of the camera [and] entertain people.
Are there a lot of similarities between you and young María Montez?
Definitely. From [growing up] in the Dominican Republic [then coming to] the States in the pursuit of achieving our dreams to being brave to breaking the mold to wanting to do better roles for her as a Latina in Hollywood. She didn’t want to be considered as just a sex symbol. She wanted to play Joan of Arc, Lucretia de Borgia, and the studios kind of locked her doors. The studios said, “No, you’re giving me enough box office. This is what I want you to keep doing.” And that’s why she had to leave the studio and became an independent producer and actress.
“When I noticed I didn’t fit the stereotype of Hollywood, that’s when I said, ‘Okay, who is this woman who did it in the 40s, in a time of no social media or Internet or plastic surgery?'”
So when did you know that you wanted to make this movie? Did you grow up knowing about María Montez?
They [taught] me María Montez’s story and the Mirabal sisters when I was in 8th grade, so I knew of her a little bit. But when I moved to LA in 2007 and I started from scratch (I left my media career in NY from radio and television and I started from the bottom just to study acting) – when I noticed I didn’t fit the stereotype of Hollywood, that’s when I said, “Okay, who is this woman who did it in the 40s, in a time of no social media or Internet or plastic surgery? How did she do it?” And that’s how I got engaged in her life and journey and legacy.
Once you decided that you wanted to make the film, what was the process like? Who did you contact?
I went to my country because we have a new law that incentivizes film production; [it’s] like a tax credit to local companies that pay taxes, that can allocate those funds to independent producers. So I decided to go over there and take advantage of the film law and also bring my expertise from the States. So I said, “Okay, I’m going to mix my expertise and my contacts in Europe and Mexico and I’m going to put together this project in my country.” We’re telling the story of an iconic Dominican woman, utilizing the incentives they have over there. So it wasn’t easy because as a woman, as a media personality – not an experienced producer – of course I had barriers and people second-guessed me. But I stayed true to myself and my goal and it happened. Thank God.
“I had tons of photos of her… but no video. I even went to the National Archives in Washington and they didn’t have anything of hers.”
Did you meet with her family?
We couldn’t interview many of them. She has a sister in a home in Arizona with Alzheimer’s and we never got access to that sister, but we got access to nieces. Because we’re talking 1912 – she was born in 1912. So all the siblings were older than her. So it was tough. What was toughest for me as an actress was to study her as a woman. Everything I got from María Montez was her being an actress, not her being a woman. Just the photos – I had tons of photos of her as a mother, as a wife, as a superstar, as an actress, but no video. I even went to the National Archives in Washington and they didn’t have anything of hers. I spent a year asking for her interviews. I wanted to hear her speak about her career, because you can grasp a lot when someone is being interviewed, because they’re talking about a personal experience. I had to listen to the urban legends of María Montez in her hometown.
What was it like to work on the screenplay?
It was a learning experience. It has been the most expensive film school for me. I had to hire all these screenwriters. I used to come to their homes with boxes of movies and books about this woman. So it was a long process [and] that’s why it took us almost two years to develop the screenplay. I co-wrote several of the scenes and dialogue, and that helped me too because I didn’t have a lot of resources from María Montez, the woman. Designing her – writing her helped me to become her while I was shooting.
“When you’re producing or writing a biopic, you gotta fictionalize some things, especially if you don’t have all the facts.”
The stuff that you guys chose to include in the film, is it 100 percent true? Is it 60 percent true?
I would say it’s 90 percent true and 10 percent fiction. When you’re producing or writing a biopic, you gotta fictionalize some things, especially if you don’t have all the facts. We all know that she married William McFeeters and then they moved to Puerto Rico and lived happily for seven years. But we don’t know their marriage. They said that he supported her, that he gave her a check for $20,000 for her to go to New York and pursue her acting career on Broadway. We don’t know if he was happy about it or not, so we had to play that he wanted to help her, but he wasn’t happy. He wanted a family; she wanted a career.
You’re acting and also producing. What was that like?
They[‘d be] putting on fake eyelashes or a wig and I’m signing a check for payroll [at the same time]. [laughs] It was very stressful. This is going to be the first and last time I do this, because now I’ve learned and I’m just going to make sure I don’t rush it. That’s another thing – because we did it under the film law, we were pressured by time because you have to do everything within a tax calendar year. Next time, if I ever play another female role and produce it, I’m going to make sure I take my time and get the right team so that I can delegate and I can just focus on character.
So looking ahead, what kind of impact do you hope the film has within the Latino community?
Well, I hope it inspires women because I tell you, there were many nights when I had to go to the corner of my hotel room and just cry and let the stress out. So if it inspires women by saying, “Okay Celines didn’t know anything about filmmaking as a producer and she went on fearlessly,” I hope that inspires many women from my community. The new generation doesn’t know about María Montez. I hope they really support it because we gotta put the numbers up for Latinos in cinema. Independent filmmaking is not easy.
We all want to see more of ourselves on screen but are there particular stories or characters that you’re more interested in?
I want to see more iconic names from our history put onto the big screen. Right now, I’m working on Anacaona. If you Google Anacaona, she was La Flor Taina de los indios nativos.
Like the song?
Yeah, exactly! It’s based on her, but we’re talking 1500s. And it’s about the struggle of being colonized. So I’m working on her story to make it like the Caribbean Pocahontas: animated, powerful, for adults. It’s going to take me probably five years. You and I will speak again about it in five years.
María Montez: The Movie hits theaters in New York and New Jersey on October 2, 2015.