News Column

Hispanics Gaining Oscar Ground

March 17, 2003

Eleanor Ringel Gillespie

Alfred Molina scored a SAG nod for his portrayal of Diego Rivera in "Frida" with Salma Hayek (above)
Alfred Molina scored a SAG nod for his portrayal of Diego Rivera in "Frida" with Salma Hayek (above)

"It's a Doris Day world," Oscar winner Rita Moreno ("West Side Story") used to say. These days, it's probably more of a Reese Witherspoon world. But on March 23, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presents the 75th annual Oscar ceremony, it could be a Salma Hayek world. Or a Pedro Almodovar world.

This year, there are 10 nominations for Latino/Hispanic artists and movies, ranging from Hayek, who's up for best actress for "Frida," which she also produced, to Almodovar, for directing "Talk to Her," to "El Crimen del Padre Amaro," which has a shot at the Oscar for best foreign film.

Plus, there's a screenwriting nomination for Alfonso Cuaron, whose extraordinary "Y Tu Mama Tambien" was inexplicably passed over as Mexico's nominee for best foreign film, in favor of the so-so "El Crimen." But Cuaron has nothing to worry about; he's already signed on as the director of "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," the third movie in the "Harry Potter" series.

Latinos -- or Hispanics, as some prefer (Moreno uses both, sometimes in the same sentence) -- have long been an avid moviegoing minority in this country. According to a recent survey by the Motion Picture Association of America, the Latino audience sees an average of 9.9 movies a year, making up 15 percent of admissions.

That's hardly reflected in the history of Academy Award nominees. African-Americans have had 38 nominations and eight wins in the academy's 74-year history, which is a veritable tidal wave compared with Hispanics, who've garnered 17 nominations and five wins: Moreno, Jose Ferrer (for "Cyrano de Bergerac"), Benicio Del Toro ("Traffic") and Anthony Quinn ("Viva Zapata" and "Lust for Life").

Interestingly, many of the nominations were for non-Latino roles. Andy Garcia played an Italian-American in "The Godfather: Part III"; Katy Jurado was a Native American in "Broken Lance"; Quinn portrayed a Greek in "Zorba the Greek"; and all three of Ferrer's nominations were for playing Frenchmen: Cyrano, Toulouse-Lautrec in John Huston's "Moulin Rouge" and the Dauphin in Ingrid Bergman's "Joan of Arc."

Talking about the special edition DVD of "West Side Story," which will be available April 1, Moreno notes that not all the movie's Sharks and their girls were Hispanic. Some were Jewish or Japanese. "The reason, I think, is that a lot of Latinos were poor and dance lessons were expensive," she says by phone from her California home. "That wouldn't happen today."

Still, things haven't changed all that much. "There're not that many parts," Moreno says of award nominations. "You have to have some product to show, and it's hard when it's not offered."

She's right. Consider: In "Viva Zapata!" (1952), the plum role of the Mexican revolutionary hero was played by Marlon Brando, who earned an Oscar nomination for it. Al Pacino played a Cuban drug lord in "Scarface." Jeremy Irons, Meryl Streep, Glenn Close and Winona Ryder were cast as Chilean aristocrats in "The House of the Spirits." As recently as last year, Jennifer Connelly won the Oscar for best supporting actress for her portrayal of Alicia Nash in "A Beautiful Mind"; the real Alicia Nash is Salvadoran. And when Latino director Luis Valdez was trying to get a Frido Kahlo project off the ground in the late 1980s, and tried to cast non-Latino Laura San Giacomo, the ensuing protest caused the project to be canceled.

"It's gotten a lot better," Moreno says. "Ricardo Montalban used to say, 'The door is ajar, but it's not wide open.' You're still slotted. I'm not saying it's horrible like it used to be, but it's not as good as it should be."

Del Toro, who won his best suporting actor Oscar for "Traffic" 30 years after Moreno won hers, told the press that he refused to believe that things are more difficult for Latino/Hispanic actors. "It doesn't matter what color, what ethnic group you are, " he said. "It's difficult for everyone."

Moreno, who won her Oscar six years before Del Toro was born, almost laughs. "He's living in another world."

Hopefully, that world will be this world in the near future.

Source: Copyright 2003 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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