The Academy Awards and Mexico

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By Marcia Chaiken

January 16, 2014 the U.S. Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will announce their nominees for their prestigious awards, the Oscars. Usually, we film devotees from north of the border pay great attention to the Oscar nominations while our Mexican friends tend to ignore the event. This disinterest, if not distaste, may be a product of the relative lack of Academy acknowledgement of the great success Mexicans have had in the film industry.

Close to 3000 Oscars have been awarded since the first Academy ceremony in 1929. Although, as described in other articles in this issue, the film industry thrived in Mexico, fewer than 40 Mexicans have been nominated for the award compared to over 100 film artists from France. Fewer than 10 Mexican nominees have actually received the sought-after Oscar – less than .003% of the winners. This is particularly ironic since the Oscar statuette is widely rumored to be modeled after Mexican actor and director Emilio Fernandez “El Indio” who was a friend of the sculptor. The official Academy history of the Oscar statuette does not confirm or deny this rumor.

Most of the Mexicans nominated for Oscars and all who won the award in the 20th century were honored for films made before 1975. The Mexican most honored by Academy nominations is Emile Kuri – a name not likely to be recognized by the youngest film fans even in Mexico. Kuri, who was born in Cuernavaca in 1907, received 8 nominations for Best Art Direction, first in 1942 for The Silver Queen. He was awarded two Oscars, one for the 1949 film, The Heiress, and one in 1954 for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Since two of his films are shown over and over again on television, his sets most likely to be recognized are the enchanting London scenery in Mary Poppins and Jimmy Stewart’s home town, Bedford Falls’ Main Street in It’s a Wonderful Life.

 

Only one Mexican-born actor has ever been awarded an Oscar – Anthony Quinn. Born in 1915 in Chihuahua and actually named Antonio Rodolfo Quinn Oaxaca, Quinn’s family moved to Los Angeles where he attended but dropped out of high school to begin professional boxing and then an acting career in the theater. He first was hired to play bit parts in films in 1936. One of his first roles was a Cheyenne warrior in a film directed by Cecil B. DeMille. Eventually he married DeMille’s daughter and was credited with over 150 films.

Quinn was first nominated and won the Oscar for supporting actor in the 1952 Viva Zapata! Quinn played the role of Eufemio Zapata, the brother of the famous revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, played by Marlo Brando. The film, a romanticized version of the Mexican revolution written by John Steinbeck, received four other Academy nominations and multiple other awards from other organizations including a Golden Globe nomination for best supporting actress and a Cannes Film Festival win for Brando.

Quinn also was nominated and won the Academy Award for best supporting actor in Lust for Life the 1956 biographical firm about the artist Vincent Van Gogh. Quinn played the role of Van Gogh’s friend and rival Paul Gauguin. He was nominated twice for best lead actor – for his1957 role as the betrayed husband in Wild as the Wind and for playing the irrepressible Zorba in Zorba the Greek in 1964. The 1957 award went to Alec Guiness for his role in the Bridge on the River Kwai and Zorba bowed to Professor Higgins (Rex Harrison) in My Fair Lady.

Only one other Mexican actor was nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role.   Over 50 years after Quinn took home his second Oscar for a supporting role, Demián Bichir was nominated for his role of a Los Angeles gardener longing for Mexico in the 2011 film, A Better Life.   Bichir, whose Mexico City family is well known known for their leading roles in television, theater and films, began his acting career as a young teen. Bichir went home empty-handed after the award ceremony since the Oscar was given to Jean Dujardin for his role in The Artist.

The first Mexican female actor nominated by the Academy was Katy Jurado. Born in Mexico City as María Cristina Estela Marcela Jurado García, Jurado had credits in over 70 films made in Mexico and the U.S. She was nominated for her supporting actress role as the Native American princess wife of Matt Devereaux (Spencer Tracy) in the 1954 western film, Broken Lance. The award that year went to Eva Marie Saint for her role in On the Waterfront.   While Jurado was type cast in the U.S. She played a wide spectrum of roles in Mexican movies and was a lead figure in the Golden Age of Mexican films.

Mexico had to wait almost 50 years for another women actor to be recognized by the Academy. Based on the life of the artist Frida Kahlo, the 2002 film Frida starred Salma Hayek in the title role for which she received the Academy nomination. The Oscar went to Nichole Kidman for The Hours. Hayek was also recognized for her portrayal of Kahlo by The British Academy Film Awards, the Golden Globe Awards, and the Screen Actors Guild.

Hayek was born in Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz, and had a stellar acting career in Mexico many years before she was “discovered” by American studios. She was well known for her performances on telenovellas and on the film screen. Given her exquisite comedic timing, she brought a light touch to the basically tragic role of Frida.

 

Four years after Hayek was tapped, Toluca-born Adriana Barraza was nominated for the best supporting actress in the 2006 film Babel. Barraza has had a long career in Mexico in theater, television and films, as an actor, director and acting coach. Although she did not receive the Oscar for her Babel role as Amelia, she received awards from four other film organizations and nine other nominations. The film itself garnered seven academy award nominations including Best Picture and Best Director but ultimately received just one Oscar for Best Original Score.

Mexico has submitted 40 films since the category Best Foreign Language Film was created in 1957. Eight received an Oscar nomination: Macario (1960), The Important Man (1961), Tlayucan (1962), Letters from Marusia (1975), Amores Perros (2000), El Crimen del Padre Amaro (2002), Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and Biutiful (2011). Four of these films received the top award for best films in Mexico, the Ariel. Not one received an Oscar.

Although the Oscar for best Foreign Language Film has remained elusive, several of these films also received nominations in other categories. For example, the magical and critically acclaimed Pan’s Labyrinth received nominations for Art Direction: Eugenio Caballero; Set Decoration: Pilar Revuelta; Cinematography: Guillermo Navarro; Make Up: David Martí and Montse Ribé; Music (Original Score): Javier Navarette; and Writing (Original Screenplay): Guillermo del Toro. Oscars were received by the collaborators in all but the last two categories.

One Mexican short film fared a bit better in the Oscar distribution for best film. In 1971, Sentinels of Science, a film about archeological sites in Mexico, was awarded two Oscars. One award was for Best Documentary Short Subject. The other for Best Live Action Short Film. This dual win set an Oscar record.

But in general, brilliant Mexican film artists have been left in the dust at the award ceremony.

Mexico City’s Emmanuel Lubeski has been nominated five times for Best Cinematography but has yet to take home the 13.5”, 8.5 lb. golden symbol of fame and fortune.

Only one Mexican has ever been nominated for best director. Alejandro González Iñárritu was nominated for Babel. I’m going out on a limb here and predicting that on January 16, Mexico City native Alfonso Cuarón will be nominated in that category for Gravity. If past action is the best predictor of the Academy’s decision, he will not win the Oscar. But who knows, maybe the Academy will overcome their long-time snub of talent from south of the border when the awards are on presented on March 2, 2014 and another Mexican will be given a richly deserved top award for a major contribution to the film arts and sciences.

Marcia Chaiken lives half the year in Bahía Chahué and highly recommends this month’s article by Jan Chaiken. She is the two-time first-prize winner of the prestigous Huatulco Academy Awards Predictions Contest.

 

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