Oscars Past

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Latinos have a long if not broad history in Hollywood, deep if not always visible. As this year’s Oscars approach (Feb. 25), boasting an unprecedented Latin/Hispanic presence, I’ve realized that many of us remain ignorant of the actors and films honored over the years by the Academy. One article I read claimed that Latin recognition by the Oscars began with Rita Moreno in 1961. Not so. We humans like to think we live in an historic moment of change and unprecedented aperture, that we serve as the guardians of progress.  But without an understanding of the past, our claims blow off like a puff of hot air into a cold day.

I don’t mean to claim that Latinos have always received fair recognition by the U.S. film-making establishment. It is an American institution after all. But there has been more success than meets the eye. The USA has long prompted the “ethnic” to change their names and hide their pasts to join the pursuit of the American dream. So unearthing all the Latinos of the past takes more than a brief internet search, and they don’t pay me enough for that. But a few minutes on the Academy Awards website reveals enough to dispel our foolish illusions — and perhaps raise some ire. (A search like this of course brings up the troublesome topic of what makes a Latino/a — language, birthplace, heritage, self-identification, and so on. I’m not using any one method here. I’m just picking.)

A brief history of los tiempos:

1947 – New Yorker Thomas Gomez (Sabino Tomás Gomez) nominated for best supporting actor in Ride the Pink Horse.
1948 – Puertorriqueño Broadway star José (Vicente) Ferrer (de Otero y Cintrón) nominated for best supporting in his first film role, in Joan of Arc.
1950 – Ferrer won* best lead actor for portraying the title hero in Cyrano de Bergerac.
1952 – Anthony Quinn (Antonio Rudolfo Oaxaca Quinn), born in Chihuahua, Mexico, won* best supporting actor for Viva, Zapata!
– Ferrer nominated for best actor, playing Toulouse-Lautrec in Moulin Rouge.
1956 – Quinn won* best supporting for Lust for Life.
1957 – Quinn nominated for best actor for Wild Is the Wind.
1961 – Rita Moreno (Puerto Rico) won* best supporting actress for West Side Story.
1964 – Quinn nominated for best actor for Zorba the Greek.
[What happened in here?]
1987 – Norma Aleandro Robledo (Argentina) nominated for best supporting actress for Gaby – A True Story.
1988 – Mexican-American Edward James Olmos nominated for best actor for Stand and Deliver.
1990 – Andy García (born Andrés Arturo García Menéndez in Cuba) nominated for best supporting in The Godfather, Part III.
1993 – Rosie Perez (Nuyorriqueña) nominated for best supporting actress for Fearless.
1998 – Brazilian Fernanda Montenegro nominated for best actress for Central Station.
2000 – Benicio Del Toro (Puerto Rico) won* best supporting actor for Traffic.
– Spaniard Javier Bardem nominated for best actor for Before Night Falls.
2002 – Salma Hayek Jiménez (Mexico) nominated for best actress for Frida.
2003 – Del Toro nominated for best supporting for 21 Grams.
2004 – Colombiana Catalina Sandino Moreno nominated for best actress for Maria Full of Grace.

That’s a total of 19 nominations and five wins (two by Quinn and only one by a woman). No latina has won for best lead actress. Surely other deserving actors of many persuasions have not received even the honor of nomination. There are many films and few spots. Yes, the politics of the country and the Academy have probably slighted Latin actors, but there is a larger factor at work here, beyond the awards, an industry-wide problem. To this day, the parts minorities play often leave no room for greatness. How many great parts have there been for maids? (Despite Hattie McDaniel’s Oscar-winning “Mammy” in Gone with the Wind.) Janitors? Stupid criminals? Silly sidekicks? Whores and mistresses? Even Antonio Banderas hasn’t received a nomination; he just wears leather pants and sings.

Directors have had an even tougher time even getting nominated (or getting into positions to make films for which they could received nominations). Hector Babenco (Argentina/Brazil) may have received the first directing nomination, for Kiss of the Spider Woman — in 1985. Pedro Almodóvar (Spain) got his first nom in 2002 for Talk to Her, as did Brazilian Fernando Meirelles for City of God the following year.

Even in the Foreign Language category, Latin America has felt the cold shoulder of the Academy.  Europe — particularly the important traditions in France and Italy — has dominated.  This category didn’t really exist until 1956. (From 1947 until then, with the exception of 1953, the Academy presented Special Award but did not nominate a field.)

Spain has done very well. It received its first nomination in 1958 for La Venganza. It has won four Oscars, the first in 1982 for Volver a empezar, and has received 14 other noms. In the West, Mexico received its first for Macario in 1960, with 5 noms following, but has never won. Brazil has garnered 4 noms, the first in 1962 for Keeper of Promises. Argentina didn’t receive the first of its 4 non-winning nominations until 1974 but won in 1985 for La historia oficial. Nicaragua was nominated in 1982 (Alsino and the Condor), Puerto Rico in 1989 (What Happened to Santiago?), and Cuba in 1994 (Fresa y Chocolate).

Why only a dozen nominations for Latin American countries in 49 years? Granted, those decades have seen more chaos in Latin America than in Europe, and generally it has taken longer for sophisticated film industries to develop in our hemisphere. Evading death squads doesn’t leave much time to make art films. But Cuba certainly seems to have been kept out in the cold, and politics appears the obvious culprit. The already suspected niche of Hollywood may have held some reservations about nominating the Communist country during the Cold War — but the USSR received 9 Foreign Language noms in those years and won 3 of those. Let’s take it as a challenge.

This year’s nominees include a Mexican film in Foreign Language. That film, Pan’s Labyrinth, and two other films out of Mexico have made splashes in the fields of nominations — from screenwriting to makeup. Babel even joins in best picture and best director. No latinos made the actor groups, but one española and one mexicana have noms for acting. This year might turn out historic after all.
For a pre-Oscar analysis see “Oscars Present“, also on the Cine page.