The Bronze Screen

100 Years of the Latino Image in Hollywood Cinema debuts on Cinemax

Published on LatinoLA: September 25, 2002

The Bronze Screen

Since the first cameras rolled, Latinos have helped shape one of the 20th Century?s great art forms. Telling a remarkable, often overlooked story of the American motion-picture industry, "The Bronze Screen: 100 Years of the Latino Image in Hollywood Cinema" celebrates the contributions of Latinos in Hollywood, from the silent films of the early 1900s through the 1990s. In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, the CINEMAX Reel Life presentation will debut Wednesday, October 9 from 7 to 8:30 pm. on the CINEMAX cable network. It also plays on October 28 at 8:30 am.

Using clips from more than 100 feature films, The Bronze Screen takes a comprehensive, chronological look at how Latinos have been portrayed ? and have portrayed themselves ? in film through the years. The documentary follows the struggle of gifted artists to bring a measure of reality to their screen images, and transcend the clich?d roles that often determined how other Americans, and the world, view Latinos.

Among those interviewed are such leading Latino actors as Jimmy Smits, Raquel Welch, Ruben Blades, Edward James Olmos, Ricardo Montalban, Rita Moreno, Cesar Romero and John Leguizamo, along with Lalo Schifrin, the Argentinean film score composer best known for ?Mission: Impossible,? and Nestor Almendros, the Cuban-born cinematographer who won an Oscar for the 1978 film ?Days of Heaven.? It is narrated by Wanda de Jesus (pictured).

The Bronze Screen examines the role of Latinos in the movies through chronological segments, including: ?Hollywood?s First Bad Guy? ? With the earliest silent movies pitting ?good guys? vs. ?bad guys,? Mexicans were invariably cast as villains, often called ?greasers,? a name derived from the grime Mexicans accumulated while working as boat loaders. But as the stereotype of the Mexican as ?dark, dumb and violent? increased, so did threats of boycotts of U.S. films by Latin-American countries. Even President Woodrow Wilson implored Hollywood to ?please be a little kinder to the Mexicans.?

?Enter the Latin Lover? ? Although Italian Rudolph Valentino is widely acknowledged as the first ?Latin lover,? the craze was actually started by Antonio Moreno, a Spaniard who cultivated the idea of Hispanic men as sensuous and romantic. This character evolved over the century, through such notable practitioners as Ramon Novarro, Cesar Romero, Ricardo Montalban and Antonio Banderas. Female stars like Lupe Velez and Dolores Del Rio helped reshape Latinas (initially portrayed as ?loose?) into cultivated sirens, an image taken to dizzying heights in the talking-picture era by Margarita Cansino, a.k.a. Rita Hayworth. While talkies relegated many Latino men with accents to supporting roles, accents in women were often considered assets.

?The Graveyard Shift? ? To satisfy the burgeoning Latin-American market, producers began shooting Spanish-language versions of American films on the same set after hours, using Latino actors. Lupita Tovar remembers how the Spanish version of ?Dracula? was shot with far fewer takes and in less time, and was considered by many to be superior to the English-language movie starring Bela Lugosi.

?Escaping the Depression? ? Job worries during the Great Depression led to the deportation of many Mexicans, including those in the movies. With fewer Latinos represented, the few who remained, including Dolores Del Rio, were usually cast as aristocratic South Americans. Del Rio, who wore a two-piece bathing suit in one film, contributed to the enactment of Hayes Code censorship.

?Some Kind of Hero? ? The concept of ?good-guy? Latinos got a boost from films about fictional heroes such as Zorro and the Cisco Kid, who was played by everyone from Cesar Romero to Jimmy Smits. Real-life heroes also made it to the screen, though were often portrayed by non-Latinos like Paul Muni (?Juarez?).

?The Name Game? ? As Latino actors became stars, studio executives encouraged them to change their names. Among those who cooperated was Rita Hayworth, who also dyed her hair and underwent electrolysis to look more ?white.? Others refused, including Ricardo Montalban, who declined to become Ricky Martin.

?Cowboys and Mexicans? ? In the western era, Mexicans reemerged as outlaws, but with more complex and positive traits. Anthony Quinn?s role as a wrongfully accused Mexican in ?The Ox-Bow Incident? brought him stardom, and he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for 1952?s ?Viva Zapata!,? two years after Jose Ferrer won a Best Actor Oscar for ?Cyrano de Bergerac.? Katy Jurado?s role as a principled mistress in ?High Noon? gave brains, as well as beauty, to female Latino characters.

?Something?s Coming? The Sixties? ? Having endured the 1950s blacklist, Latinos saw their image improve with ?50s films like ?Giant? and Marlon Brando?s ?One-Eyed Jacks.? Though non-Latino Natalie Wood had the lead in 1961?s ?West Side Story,? the movie also made stars out of Latino actors like Rita Moreno, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance. Many Latino actors, including Anthony Quinn, went to Europe to build leading-man credentials before returning to the U.S.

?From Silver to Bronze? ? By the 1970s, more and more Latinos had achieved success behind the scenes, from directors such as Leon Ichaso, Gregory Nava, and Luis Valdez, to composers like Lalo Schifrin and graphic designers such as Pablo Ferro (?Bullitt?). By gaining artistic control, Latinos sought to defuse the greaser stereotype that reemerged with modern gang films and convey a contemporary Latino experience in such films as ?El Norte? and ?Stand and Deliver.?

?El Futuro? ? A new generation of talent, including actors Salma Hayek, Esai Morales, John Leguizamo and Jennifer Lopez, and directors Robert Rodriguez, Alfonso Arau and Moctesuma Esparza, now stands on the foundation built by Latinos in the 1900s. As The Bronze Screen concludes, ?The legacy now continues with a new century, lighting up the silver screen in shades of glorious bronze.?

?The human experience is the human experience, no matter what color, race, religion, whatever you are,? says John Leguizamo. ?It?s the same damn thing, with different packaging. All the leading roles are opening up. You don?t have to be a drug dealer or gang member, or the villain of a movie, or die in the first 30 seconds. You can last the whole movie.?

The Bronze Screen was produced and directed by Susan Racho, Nancy Alicia De Los Santos and Alberto Dominguez; written by Nancy Alicia De Los Santos and Susan Racho. Produced by Bronze Screen Productions in association with the Latino Entertainment Media Institute. For CINEMAX Reel Life: supervising producer, Julie Anderson; executive producer, Sheila Nevins.

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