?Quien es M?s Macho?
A discussion on the Latin lover summer.
By Gustavo Arellano
Published on LatinoLA: August 8, 2001
If you are assigned to murder a Hispanic male in Hollywood, count on this: you will end up falling in lust with him.
Consider Original Sin, in which Luis Vargas (Antonio Banderas) is about to be killed when his assassin-a man-loses control and kisses Vargas instead. On the lips. Tongue and all.
Vargas shoots him.
Banderas' character is the latest incarnation of the Latin Lover, a stereotype played at least once in TV and film by every male Hispanic actor, including the Taco Bell Chihuahua. The Latin Lover talks like Ricky Ricardo (played voluble and apoplectic by Desi Arnaz), lives like Mr. Roarke (Ricardo Montalb?n on the palatial estate of Fantasy Island), and loves to sing and dance (Ricky Martin).
The Latin Lover is one of the few roles Hollywood offers Hispanic men. The other is the bandido/cholo/drug dealer, and they are not mutually exclusive. The actor portraying the Latin Lover doesn't have to be Latin (witness Charlton Heston's brownface turn in Touch of Evil), but he must act on a hair-trigger temper (Al Pacino's Tony Montana) and, of course, get any woman he wants (Rudolph Valentino).
This summer has been an especially busy one for Latin Lovers. Banderas' art-imitates-life portrayal in Original Sin is the most obvious, but two other releases-America's Sweethearts and crazy/beautiful-also lead with Latin Lovers. There are subtle differences in the depictions, each designed to reach a particular target audience.
Banderas' Latin Lover reflects the traits middle-aged audiences have been conditioned to expect from their onscreen Hispanics: aristocratic lifestyle, cold heart, and white-hot phallus honed by almost constant practice; when they're not frowning and fighting, these guys are frowning and fucking. Thus, Banderas' Vargas is a rich plantation owner in late 19th-century Cuba who is an atheist when it comes to romance.
Then he meets Julia Russell (Angelina Jolie). Disguised as a mail-order bride, she has come to Cuba with a sanguinary assignment: kill Vargas. But-supresa-Vargas seduces her so thoroughly that she finds a way to remain with Vargas AND kill her partner (the assassin who fell for Vargas' charm).
Original Sin's technical aspects (hot salsa music and Spanish guitars for the ears, native dances and lush and luxuriant scenery for the eyes) accentuate the exotic appeal of Luis, who spends what time he has when not making love to Julia in either fighting men or plotting to kill them.
His dialogue is classic Latin Lover, ranging from the insincere "I love you" to the more sincere "I'm going to kill her." Banderas is a talented actor (see his work with Spanish director Pedro Almod?var-please!), but for Hollywood and American audiences, he is a Spanish sex machine.
Hank Azaria's portrayal of H?ctor in America's Sweethearts reveals other characteristics of the Latin Lover: destroyer of happy white couples. As vain as Luis Miguel, Azaria's Latin Lover is also unintentionally funny: Azaria cannot decide whether to employ the lisp native to Madrid or the guttural Castilian of Moorish Spain. But in his jealousy and obsession with penis size, H?ctor is true to type, even calling Eddie Thomas (John Cusack) "Pussy Boy" in order to provoke a fight.
Some people might dismiss H?ctor as just another unfunny joke in an unfunny movie. But Hollywood's historical cultural myopia suggests otherwise: H?ctor's mangled lisp is universally derided in the Hispanic world, where critics have wondered why Azaria threw in overenunciated H's and G's. We can tell them: because in Hollywood, every Hispanic character is a universal spic.
Crazy/beautiful stands as a beautiful antithesis to the crazy caricatures of Original Sin and Sweethearts, subverting all the Latin Lover traits. Yes, Carlos (Jay Hern?ndez) speaks in an "exotic" accent, but it's the street-smart argot of East Los Angeles.Yes, he is eye candy, and Nicole (Kirsten Dunst) originally treats him as her little Hispanic pet (early in the film, she wants Carlos to talk in Spanish because "it's hot").
But his main allure is that he's a multidimensional success. Most surprisingly, crazy/beautiful's Latin Lover is not a purely European type or from a country where the mestizaje didn't really take place (like Cuba or Argentina) but a Chicano with brown skin.
Although crazy/beautiful is a teen flick-one that has already left theaters; catch it on video or DVD soon-it's extraordinary in its depiction of the Latin Lover and of the interethnic relationships that today's youth view as the norm rather than as bizarre anomalies. Hollywood's original fascination with the Latin Lover was largely based on barely repressed fears of miscegenation and the seduction of white women.
But Carlos does not conquer the white woman; the white woman conquers him. And he does not ruin Nicole's life; instead, she nearly ruins his, but he ends up saving her nevertheless. Most remarkably for any Hollywood film, let alone those with Latin Lover roles, the pair builds a relationship based on love rather than mere lust.
Hern?ndez and Dunst have eaten a fruit forbidden to our parents, but not to us: we recognize the couple as partners in a relationship based on real affection-and therefore truly America's sweethearts.
By Gustavo Arellano:
Gustavo Arellano is a graduate student at UCLA and a contributing writer to OC Weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To view it, go to http://www.ocweekly.com/ink/01/50/weekly-arellano.shtml.