Revisiting Benicio Del Toro’s Oscar-Winning Performance in ‘Traffic’ on 20th Anniversary

Lead Photo: Photo by Jorge Rey/Getty Images.
Photo by Jorge Rey/Getty Images.
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Say what you will about the overabundance of drug cartel films and TV shows featuring Latino characters that Hollywood keeps pumping out every year (its fair and meaningful criticism, by the way). Oscar-winning 2000 drama Traffic, however, evades most of the problems other like-minded projects have succumbed to by featuring a powerful screenplay, outstanding direction and incredible performances by a Latino-heavy cast.

One of those Latinos is Puerto Rican actor Benicio del Toro, who won an Academy Award for his supporting role as Javier Rodriguez, an honorable Mexican police officer hired by the government to apprehend a hitman.

While on his mission, he soon realizes that the corruption he’s become caught up in is far thicker than he could have ever imagined. It’s a multilayered performance by del Toro that is brimming with intensity and depth. From his scene where he seduces a cartel member at a bar to the one where he is forced to dig his own grave to the final haunting and hopeful shot of him watching a kids’ baseball game, del Toro owns his role.

“[Javier] has a little bit of a vision about what would improve the [drug] situation,” he said at the time. “His vision is to do something for the kids, so they don’t become drug dealers for traffickers. He’s got a vision for the near future.”

Del Toro’s role is one of the very few that has earned an Oscar for an actor who performed it mostly in a non-English language. This was a stipulation set by director Steven Soderbergh for the Mexican characters from the start of production. Del Toro challenged himself to learn the Spanish language more fluently by studying with a dialect coach and traveling to Tijuana to shadow some real Mexican police.

Traffic was released in theaters on Dec. 27, 2000. This year is the film’s 20th anniversary. Del Toro’s win at the Oscars marks the last time a Latino has won a coveted Academy Award in the Best Actor or Best
Supporting Actor category. Traffic landed five Oscar nominations that year, winning four—Best Supporting Actor (del Toro), Best Director (Soderbergh), Best Adapted Screenplay (Stephen Gaghan) and Best Editing (Stephen Mirrione). It’s only loss came in the Best Picture category when Gladiator took home the gold.

Other Latinos in the cast for Traffic included Jacob Vargas, Clifton Collins, Jr., Luis Guzmán, Miguel Ferrer, Benjamin Bratt, Tomas Milian, Steven Bauer, Marisol Sánchez and even a small uncredited role by Salma Hayek.