Most of us don’t need a scientific study to know that Latinos of all backgrounds have some serious longevity, but the exceptionally long and eventful life of actress Lupita Tovar – who died this weekend in Los Angeles at 106 – plays out like one of those unlikely fairytales that only the Hollywood dream factory could produce.
Known principally for her role in the erotically charged Spanish-language version of Drácula (shot concurrently with the iconic 1931 English-language version with Bela Lugosi,) Tovar’s 16-year stint on the silver screen brought her credits alongside some of Hollywood’s most legendary figures, including Buster Keaton and Gary Cooper. And in the seventy-plus years between her retirement and her unfortunate death, the Oaxaca-born beauty watched her descendants thrive as actors, directors, writers, and producers.
Born in Matías Romero, Oaxaca to a Mexican father and an Irish mother, Guadalupe Tovar moved to Mexico City at a young age, and was discovered by Hollywood talent scouts during a high school gymnastics practice. After encountering initial resistance from her father, Tovar signed a contract with Fox studios and moved to Los Angeles with her mother. There, the advent of sound films made it difficult for the heavily-accented new arrival to land starring roles like previous Mexican starlets, but she quickly found work filming Spanish-language versions of Hollywood talkies.
Tovar’s suggestive take on Eva Seward in Drácula earned the 21-year-old actress her first taste of international recognition, and to this day it is viewed as a defining role in her substantial career. Shot each night after the English-language crew wrapped, Drácula represented an especially moody, atmospheric, and sexy version of Bram Stoker’s vampire classic that is widely recognized as superior to its English-language counterpart.
A year later, the rising star made her way back to Mexico, where she appeared in Santa, credited as the first Mexican sound film and the first commercial hit for the country’s nascent industry. In the classic style of Latin American melodrama, Santa tells the story of a young woman who falls into prostitution after being betrayed by her lover and cast out by her family. With music by Agustín Lara and supporting performances by Carlos Orellana and Juan José Martínez Casado, Santa is still a touchstone of Mexican film history and its importance earned Tovar an appearance on a Mexican postage stamp.
Yet Tovar’s lifelong home was the city that first opened the doors to stardom for her, and after marrying Czech-born Hollywood producer and talent agent Paul Kohner, she stepped back from the public eye and dedicated herself to raising a family. Judging from the long list of accomplishments made by her progeny – which includes her daughter, Oscar-nominated actress Susan Kohler, and grandchildren Paul and Chris Weitz of American Pie and About a Boy – she did a damned good job. Que descanse en paz.