Walter Mercado was larger than life. To describe the famed Puerto Rican astrologer requires conjuring up a figure that feels out of this world. His capes, his blowout, his mannerisms — they all feel so affected that they beg the question: who was Walter Mercado when the cameras weren’t rolling? Who was he before he became that iconic image? Who was he after he stopped appearing on television? Mucho Mucho Amor, a new Netflix documentary, tries to answer these various questions, all the while pushing back on this idea that the man we all saw donning fabulous outfits on daytime TV was a put-on performance. To think there was someone more authentic or less theatrical is to miss the point about Mercado entirely. As someone who had spent decades in front of the camera, as Mucho Mucho Amor shows, Mercado had a hard time disentangling his own sense of self outside of the performative persona he put on for the cameras.
“The thing is, that is his true self,” co-director Cristina Costantini notes. “The person who’s voguing toward the camera — like, that’s him.”
“I think he was just very used to a kind of broadcast news approach to storytelling,” producer Alex Fumero adds. He remembers needing to coax Mercado to talk about any of his negative experiences in life, the obstacles he had to overcome and the sadder aspects of his own life and career. “I was like, ‘Walter, how boring would a movie be where nothing bad ever happens to the protagonist? You are the hero.’ But a lot of it was educating him on a different type of filmmaking approach. Because we’re all Latino, but we also have come up in the American filmmaking tradition and there’s a certain expectation of a level of intimacy that I don’t think he was necessarily used to.”
During filming, which took place over several trips to Puerto Rico and Miami, Mercado often asked co-director Kareem Tabsch when he’d be getting his scripts. Tabsch had to remind Mercado that theirs was a documentary film. They were interested in unscripted moments. But the famed astrologer was so media trained that he often went out of his way to script these candid moments, like staging a tea party outside with his personal assistant Willie, or, as you see in the film, leading a tour of his house for viewers at home.
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That sequence, where Costantini and Tabsch’s camera follows Mercado as he poses and showcases his ornate home, epitomizes a productive tension at the heart of the documentary. “We are not making the movie that Walter thought we were,” Costantini says. “And I think that was one of the moments where he was editing, in his mind, because he was used to filming when tape was very, very sacred and you didn’t shoot something unless it ended up in the final thing. So he would edit in his head.” You can even see him swaying and dancing, setting his entire performance to music he was sure would be added in post. Choosing to leave that scene un-scored ends up reminding viewers that Mercado’s vision of himself was always already mediated. What Mucho Mucho Amor does is show how untangling it is both necessary and futile in equal measure.
It’s a testament to the filmmakers’ tenacity that, over time, they got Mercado and his family to open up. For instance, while initially discouraged from filming Mercado’s bedroom, viewers of Mucho Mucho Amor get to see in that very space quite touching moments that offer glimmers of who Mercado, at times frail, at others unvarnished, was in private. In fact, while the tour of the house initially gives you the sense that his home is immaculately designed (albeit by someone with a rococo sensibility), the reality is that much of it is staged: there’s the part of the house that’s for show and then there’s the portion of the house behind glass mirrors where Mercado actually lived, unadorned and unencumbered by his own crafted image.
Balancing the need to offer a portrait of “Walter” as he was and the “Walter Mercado” audiences around the world knew sets the tone for Mucho Mucho Amor. Nowhere is this clearer than in how the documentary tackles the issue of Mercado’s sexual and gender identity. Having grown up in a heavily machista society that viewed Mercado’s effeminacy with suspicion (if not outright derision — just think of the many impersonations of him straight male comedians have touted over the decades), many long speculated about Mercado’s proclivities, sexual and otherwise.
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Visually, Mucho Mucho Amor tries to offer some commentary on Mercado’s queerness, with shots of the Oscar Wilde portrait that sits in a small desk in the library, of the male nude portraiture that adorns its walls and even of Mercado’s copy of Gay Planet that’s laying around. If it all seems rather oblique, it’s by design, a way to honor Mercado’s privacy.
“He didn’t talk about it in a way that was like, ‘I’m queer,’” Tabsch says. “He talked about it in a way that was like, ‘I blend energies. I’m not a man and I’m not a woman, I’m both and neither, sometimes I’m one, sometimes the other.” Ultimately, how he identified was as “Walter,” a label and an identity that was capacious enough to encompass everything he was. And more importantly, everything he meant to queer kids like Tabsch, who grew up with this vision of a gender non-conforming public figure lighting up the screen whenever he was on.
Mucho Mucho Amor, they hope, will not only feel like a love letter to Walter Mercado but a welcome invitation for others to feel that love in turn.
“We wanted to share him,” Costantini says. “I think we have been so lucky to have grown up with him. But we wanted other people to feel this love, too. We live in a time when our leaders are so full of hatred and so many people are eager to remind us of how different we are from one another — whether it be religion, or race or nationality — and Walter and his messages are more relevant than ever. We need Walter more than ever.”
Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado is now streaming on Netflix.
This interview took place during Sundance Film Festival 2020.