Much has been made of the "Latino explosion" in the entertainment industry in the last few years, with the emergence of stars Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Martin, Marc Anthony and Salma Hayek.
While these performers have achieved household-name status, two lesser-known actors have already secured a more select kind of glory. Benicio Del Toro and Javier Bardem have joined the very small group of Latino actors nominated for an Academy Award.
That short list includes Puerto Rican natives José Ferrer (nominated three times, and a winner for 1950's Cyrano de Bergerac), Rita Moreno (a winner for 1961's West Side Story), and Rosie Perez (nominated for 1993's Fearless); Cuban-born Andy Garcia (nominated in 1990 for The Godfather, Part III); Los Angeles native Edward James Olmos (nominated for 1988's Stand and Deliver); and Mexican-born Anthony Quinn, a four-time Oscar nominee and a two-time winner.
Color Doesn't Matter, Says Del Toro
Santiago Pozo, the founder of the 14-year-old Los Angeles-based Arenas Group, which markets films to the Latino market, tells Mr. Showbiz, "I am thrilled not only for Benicio but for Javier Bardem as well. I believe that Latinos in Hollywood are all in the same boat: The success of one is the success of all."
As for the scarcity of good roles for Latinos, the Puerto Rican-born Del Toro, who is nominated for his role as a Mexican cop in Traffic, told Amazon.com recently, "Actors don't make movies; writers make movies, directors make movies. So, you know, I refuse to believe it that it's difficult. It doesn't matter what color, what ethnic group [you are], it's difficult for everybody."
Pozo, who also served on this year's foreign-language film Oscar committee (which saw the nomination of Mexican film Amores Perros), adds, "I particularly love that Benicio, who is Puerto Rican, is nominated for playing a Mexican. There's one myth in circulation that [actors from one Spanish-speaking country can't play people from another]. That would be [like saying that if] you're from Kansas, you cannot play a Texan. But that, in principle, has been applied to my culture. It was one issue in the marketing of Selena, that a Puerto Rican actress like Jennifer Lopez was playing a Tejano."
Bardem's Way With Accent Rivals Streep's
For his role as the late Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas in Before Night Falls, Bardem became the first Spanish actor ever to receive an Academy Award nomination. To play Arenas, Bardem had to learn English and, like Del Toro, he had to learn a different Spanish dialect to play a Cuban.
While few outside the academy have seen the film, Pozo gives Javier the thumbs up. "I've been talking to my Cuban friends and some of them thought that this guy really was a Cuban. Some of my friends compare his performance to Meryl Streep in Sophie's Choice. The job he did is … remarkable; his [Cuban] accent is as good as Streep's Polish accent."
Is There a Latino Explosion?
Most would agree that any fault lies not with the academy for overlooking Latino performances, but with the film industry as a whole for not providing opportunities for Latino actors.
In a 1999 interview with Mr. Showbiz, Mexican-born actress Hayek referred to the so-called Latino explosion as "BS." She added, "Hey, I'm doing great, but I can't sit here and say, 'Yeah, we're doing great! Latino power!' That's not true. It's two of us. If I don't do it, if Jennifer [Lopez] doesn't do it, the movie doesn't get done." (Coincidentally, Hayek and Lopez are now developing rival films about Mexican painter Frida Kahlo.)
Perez, a 1993 Best Supporting Actress nominee, told Bigstar.com last year, "There's no explosion, I'm sorry. Four or five top box-office people do not make an explosion, and it's disgusting to me that people are perceiving it that way, you know? It's really sad."
Actress Elpidia Carrillo, whose credits include Bread and Roses, which just played at Cannes, and 1982's The Border, told Mr. Showbiz last year, "There is a certain fashion for Latinos as actors and performers. But if Jeremy Irons, Glenn Close, and Meryl Streep can play Latinos [in the 1993 film The House of Spirits], why can't we play Jews or blacks? It's always the same Latino characters: the prostitute, the drug dealer."
Academy Nom Means Progress, But Not Always Respect
When Moreno became the first — and still the only — Latina actress to win an Oscar, her prospects should have brightened in Hollywood, but the actress says she kept being offered nothing but stereotypical roles. In the 1990 book Hispanic Hollywood, Moreno is quoted as saying, "I was offered them all — Gypsy fortune-tellers, Mexican spitfires, Spanish spitfires, Puerto Ricans — all those 'Yonkee peeg, you steal me people's money' parts."
She turned them down and turned to other avenues, including TV's The Electric Company and The Rockford Files, and Broadway. One of the only performers to ever win an Oscar, a Tony, a Grammy and an Emmy, Moreno is now a regular on HBO's Oz.
Do this year's Oscar nominations change anything for the Latino community? "Well," says Pozo, "I don't think it's a dramatic change. The amount of Latinos in the business is very, very low. [But] this is a step forward. That's what the academy, all these nominations, is reflecting."
Pozo, whose company is currently working on the campaign for DreamWorks' The Mexican and Universal's The Mummy Returns, adds, "Mainstream America is realizing that this is becoming a bicultural and bilingual country and that it is accepted to speak Spanish. About 15 years ago, when I was marketing Born in East L.A., speaking Spanish was not that cool. Now even Latinos that have forgotten how to speak Spanish are learning again."