Latin Victories at the Oscars

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Jorge Drexler rocks. Sunday night, the Uruguayan singer-songwriter won the Academy Award for the best original song in a motion picture, marking the first time a song in Spanish has received even a nomination from the Academy, as presenter Salma Hayek so fervently  informed the audience when introducing the live performance of the song by Santana and — we are still cringing — Antonio Banderas.

Drexler visibly suffered throughout the song, and rightfully so. It would have been better had Beyoncé – who sang most of the other nominated songs – taken a stab at “El otro lado del río”, the song Drexler wrote and performed for The Motorcycle Diaries.

Banderas indeed took a stab at the song. He then kicked it while it was down with his brutish vocals and strutting style and ground salt in the wounds by adding some kind of flamenco-sounding thigh slapping throughout Santana’s usual dexterous guitar work, which also seemed out of place. Let us not forget Banderas’s outfit and the strange stone structure behind the performers, both of which made bland calls back to some imagined Castilla — oh, and the motorcycle just sitting on the side.

When Drexler made his way up to the stage to accept the award later, I turned to my friend and said, “He should get up there and start singing the song.” You know what? He did. And it was beautiful. Drexler stepped gently but deliberately to the mic, and out flowed two verses of his song, delicate and powerful, as if floating down a gentle river.

“Chau, thank you, gracias, chau,” and he left.

The other highlight of the evening for Latino/Ibero achievement was Mar adentro’s taking home the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. This marked Spain’s fourth victory in this category out of 19 nominations. Director Alejandro Amenábar (whose parents fled with him to Spain from Chile’s imminent dictatorship when he was barely a year old) accepted the award while the film’s lead actor, Javier Bardem, brilló por su ausencia during the ceremony. The film also received a nomination for achievement in makeup but lost to Lemony Snicket’s a Series of Unfortunate Events.

Other “it’s-nice-just-to-have-been-nominated” Latinos included Puerto Rican writer Jose Rivera for The Motorcycle Diaries, which lost best adapted screenplay to the trite and pretentious Sideways, and Spanish director Nacho Vigalondo’s bid for best live-action short film, “A las 7:35 de la mañana”, which lost to “Wasp” by Andrea Arnold.

The award for biggest heartbreak goes to Catalina Sandino Moreno who received a nomination for best performance by an actress in a leading role for her stunning work in Maria, llena eres de gracia. Only the third Latina ever nominated for this award (neither Selma Hayek nor Fernanda Montenegro won) and the first lead Latina nominated for a film performed in Spanish, Sandino Moreno really didn’t have much of a chance in a field that included breathtaking work by veteran stars Kate Winslet (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and Annette Bening (Being Julia). The award went to Hilary Swank for Million Dollar Baby,
which cleaned up at last night’s awards, taking best supporting actor (Morgan Freeman), Best Director (Clint Eastwood), and Best Feature Film. In addition to the strange and fetishizing performance by Hollywood’s token “Latino”, Banderas, the decision to have Penelope Cruz and Hayek present an award together seemed just a tad inappropriate and patronizing — despite their upcoming film — especially since Hayek had apparently decided that her breasts should announce the nomination.  But at least some Iberoamerican cinematic work received some healthy recognition even in the nepotistic world of the Academy.

The 20th IFP Independent Spirit Awards, on the other hand, did better. Held on Saturday in Santa Monica, California, this annual ceremony focuses on filmmakers who “embody independence and who dare to challenge the status quo,” according to IFP’s website. Sideways took most of the major awards there, but the Latino nominees fared much better than at the Oscars.

Rodrigo de la Serna won Best Debut Performance for his role in The Motorcycle Diaries, for which Eric Gautier won the Spirit for Best Cinematography. Mar adentro took Best Foreign Film here as well, and Josh Marston won Best Screenplay for Maria, llena eres de gracia, which he also directed. And, yes, all is not lost: The Spirit for Best Female Lead went to Catalina Sandino Moreno.