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THE ORLANDO SENTINEL
Latinas Lean On Hollywood's Door
By Jay Boyar | Sentinel Movie Critic
May 4, 2003
Becoming a Hollywood star may not be an especially realistic career goal for anybody. But for a Latina, it's like Don Quixote's impossible dream.
America's Hispanic population is estimated at 37 million, with Hispanic moviegoers accounting for about 15 percent of U.S. film admissions. Yet Hispanics with marquee names are few and far between, and for Hispanic actresses the situation is even shakier:
Once you get past Jennifer Lopez, of Puerto Rican parentage, and Mexican-born Salma Hayek, "it's a pretty slim roster," says Pat Hanson, a historian with the American Film Institute. "There really aren't so many, especially females."
"They are the only two Latinas [in Hollywood] who are household names," says director Jose Luis Valenzuela, whose 2000 independent film, Luminarias, deals with Latinas looking for love.
Twentieth Century Fox bills the new Chasing Papi, which features three Latina stars, as "the first major studio comedy to reflect the Hispanic cultural experience in America."
Papi director Linda Mendoza is a rarity among Hollywood film directors in that she is both a woman and Mexican-American. Her movie, she notes, is also the first big-studio release with a largely Latin cast that is not about "the Latino struggle."
"It's about three women dating the same guy and what happens when they show up at his house on the same day in the same red lingerie," Mendoza says. "The fact that they're Latina is, I think, the bonus."
Does Hollywood's general indifference to Hispanic actresses suggest, as Mendoza believes, a "lack of vision" at the studios? Twentieth Century Fox, which released Chasing Papi, would not comment on the issue.
"Part of it is the difficulty of convincing distributors that there's something they can work with," says Chon Noriega, director of UCLA's Chicano Studies Research Center. "They don't have any experience working with Latina-themed material, and they know it won't work if they distribute it the way they distribute other things."
Historically, says the AFI's Hanson, Latina performers, like many other non-Anglos, have been vastly underrepresented in Hollywood films. Dolores Del Rio, Lupe Velez (a k a "the Mexican spitfire"), the fruit-hatted "Brazilian Bombshell" Carmen Miranda and Rita Moreno, who won a supporting-actress Oscar for 1961's West Side Story, have been the rare exceptions.
"We're quite insular in the United States," Hanson says. "We have this sort of 'American Dream' image and it's hard to accept people who aren't that way."
Some actresses, such as Rita Hayworth and Raquel Welch, have sometimes downplayed their Latin roots. Hayworth, says Hanson, became a sensation only after she changed her name from Rita Cansino, "got electrolysis to raise her hairline" and "dyed her hair strawberry-blond."
"It's very hard to work in the American market," says Sofia Vergara, the Colombian-born actress who stars as a fiery cocktail waitress in Chasing Papi. "I have an accent. Most of the Latin actresses that are trying to work here have accents. The problem is that they [studios] don't make enough movies that it would make sense that there's a Latin woman with an accent playing a role."
Director Mendoza notes that Hollywood agents tend to send a Hispanic actress to audition only when the role "is specifically Latin." Hollywood, she says, "thinks of the nationality before the character.
"It's so bizarre."
The J. Lo phenomenon
Some might find encouragement in the popularity of Jennifer Lopez, but Mendoza considers J. Lo "a phenomenon unto herself."
And despite Lopez's success as a singer and her tabloid-fueled fame, her movies Angel Eyes, Enough and The Wedding Planner have made $24 million to $60 million-- hardly the high end for major-studio releases. Only her most recent film, romantic-comedy Maid in Manhattan approached blockbuster status, with ticket sales of $93.9 million.
The so-called "Latin explosion," says Vergara, "hasn't happened in movies."
In some ways, the case of Hayek may be more encouraging. Frida, last year's biopic in which Hayek starred as Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, recently won two Oscars. Hayek says it took her seven years to make the movie, during which time Madonna and J.Lo expressed interest in similar projects.
"She took such a huge step for everybody," says Valenzuela.
Still, despite Frida's six Oscar nominations, its wins were in such minor categories as makeup and score. And despite those Oscars, a high-profile supporting cast and an impressive barrage of publicity, the film made only $25 million in this country.
It had troubles too.
"Poor Selma, she got crucified in Mexico for Frida," says Mendoza. "They were hating her there" because Frida "wasn't done with all Mexican actors," "wasn't done in Mexico" and "wasn't done in Spanish."
In today's Hollywood, each Hispanic-oriented release that fails feels like a major setback.
"I think it's really important that it succeeds because it will prove the marketplace," says Mendoza of Chasing Papi, which finished in 11th place on its opening weekend, with a less-than-spectacular take of $2.4 million for the period. "It'll prove that there is a market for these movies."
Absent such proof, change will be harder.
"All studios have a slate of what they call 'the movies for the African-American market,' " says Mendoza. "Well, there's no Latin slate out there."
Rise of indies
For Noriega, the most encouraging sign is that more Latinas are attempting to put their experience on film. He points to such small, independent productions as 1999's Rum and Coke, from director Maria Escobedo, which have tended to play the film-festival circuit.
"Five or 10 years ago, you would have said, yeah, there's no Latinas making feature films," says Noriega. "That's not the case any more. It's just that they're not making them for the studios."
In addition, heavyweights Hayek and Lopez have set themselves up as producers to develop their own projects.
"It shows that often, for women in general and minority actors, the only way you're going to be cast in a film is if you're also producing it," says Noriega.
Hayek, who has recently moved into directing as well as acting and producing, wishes that she'd thought of branching out sooner.
"You know what makes me mad?" Hayek asks. "I don't understand why I didn't come up with this [earlier]. You know why? I didn't have the courage to have this dream because I had such a hard time with people even taking me seriously as an actress."
"I always say, 'It's not for me, it's for us,' " says Mendoza, when asked about the significance of projectssuch asChasing Papi. "It's important that we all succeed because it just means more opportunities for all of us."
And maybe, just maybe, more possible dreams.