Laughing. Liberated.

Real Women Have Curves finds truth in imperfection

Published on LatinoLA: October 9, 2002

Laughing. Liberated.

B e a u t y? Is it really in the eye of the beholder ? only skin deep? Rarely have these old adages come under such rousing comic scrutiny as in Real Women Have curves, winner of the Dramatic Audience Award at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival and the Youth Prize at the 2002 San Sebastian International Film Festival.

Two strong-willed women, mother and daughter, square off in a contest only one can win. Will Ana get to Columbia University on a scholarship? Or will her mother, Carmen, persuade her to join the family sewing factory?

Real Women Have Curves is directed by Patricia Cardoso from a screenplay by George LaVoo and Josefina Lopez. It stars newcomer America Ferrera and character actress Lupe Ontiveros as the embattled pair, honored at Sundance with a Special Jury Prize for Acting.

Based on Josefina Lopez? hit play, the movie explores the lives of hard-working immigrants in East Los Angeles with humor and compassion. Ana?s father, Raul (Jorge Cervera, Jr.), is a gardener and her older sister, Estela (Ingrid Oliu), owns the dress factory.

The story emerged from Josefina Lopez? personal experiences in her elder sister?s similar business. ?I wanted to be an actress but my high school teacher told me,
with kindness, that I needed to lose weight in order to have a career,? recalls Lopez.
?All my life, I?d been told something was wrong with me---Mexican, woman, undocumented, overweight, a dreamer. I decided to make something positive of these disadvantages: I became a writer.

?At my sister?s sewing factory, I met Latinas who were proud of their work and carried themselves with dignity. While they sewed, they shared gossip and stories. It is these women who inspired me to write Real Women Have Curves.?

The factory is an airless space where size 14/16 ladies assemble evening dresses in sizes 6 & 8. It takes the upstart Ana to point out that these dedicated seamstresses will never be able to afford, or even get into, the very clothes they?re making. ?You?re sweating for Bloomingdale?s!? Ana pronounces.

?Josefina?s spirit permeates this story,? remarks George LaVoo who optioned the play one day after seeing it in 1998. He and Lopez collaborated on the screenplay and won the coveted 2002 Humanitas Award.

Eighteen-year-old America Ferrera makes her film debut as Ana. ?I was immediately attracted to the character because I?ve been experiencing similar things myself.? Born and raised in Woodland Hills, a suburb of Los Angeles, Ferrera began to study acting when she was 15 and made her debut in the Disney Channel?s ?Got to Kick It Up.?

Lupe Ontiveros plays Carmen, Ana?s wily, formidable mother. A member of the original cast of ?Zoot Suit,? the first Mexican-American play on Broadway, Ontiveros has developed a following over the years in such high profile independent films as ?El Norte,? ?Selena,? Todd Solondz? ?Storytelling? and ?Chuck & Buck,? for which she won the National Board of Review?s best supporting actress award.

?America and I were the perfect match,? says Ontiveros. ?We took no prisoners.
We bared all emotionally as well as physically.? She describes the push-pull relationship between mother and daughter as ?not ignorance but a major cultural clash. The mother can?t figure out how the girl will make a living if she doesn?t learn to sew.?

The movie?s key scene takes place in the sewing factory. Estela refuses to turn on the air conditioner because it blows dust on the beautiful dresses she so lovingly assembles. The room is hot, especially hot at Ana?s steam table. Fed up, she takes her blouse off?then keeps going, stripping down to her underwear. Soon, it?s a party. All the seamstresses except Carmen remove their clothes, letting bumps and bulges show, pointing out their surgical scars and birthmarks.

Laughing. Liberated.

The actresses found the scene as difficult as their characters. Ingrid Oliu: ?We all wanted body make-up, but Patricia persuaded us they were part of who we are, of our beauty.? America Ferrera: ?I wasn?t comfortable stripping down. Inside myself, I had doubts, but outwardly I had to portray a character with confidence. It turned out to be very liberating, a celebration of all our imperfections. What is perfection, any way? Does it even exist??

The stripping scene provoked a wide range of highly emotional reactions from men as well as women when the film was shown at the Sundance Film Festival. A man with obvious weight issues wept when he spoke with Oliu, who was cast as Estela in part because she herself is plumpish. America was astounded that ?so many women came up to say ?thank you?.?

But Josefina Lopez was not surprised by these reactions. She has seen them often, during the play?s many productions. ?It?s rare to see women speaking so frankly, and at the same time being in their underwear. The play surprises people. It starts out looking like an innocent coming-of-age story and evolves into something else. It?s about dignity?about not letting yourself be erased.?

Patricia Cardoso, a Fulbright Scholar from Colombia, makes her feature directorial debut with the movie. She says: ?The most important thing is to tell some truth about human experience. Making a movie is so hard that you need to believe on a spiritual level that it will be good for the world. I would love to help change perception through images ? to encourage us to accept ourselves as we are and know that we don?t have to be beautiful.?

In addition to the seamstresses whose life she shared for a period of time, Josefina Lopez also wrote her play for Lupe Ontiveros. ?She was mostly getting cast as maids when I met her. I wanted to create a role that would let people see her range and incredible talent.? Ontiveros subsequently appeared in several of the play?s many productions.

Ontiveros was also the film?s touchstone during shooting. ?She shared technique and everything else she knows with all of us,? comments Ingrid Oliu, a point seconded by young Ferrera. ?Though our backgrounds are different, there?s a special quality of friendship among Latinas,? she says. As for Ontiveros, she praises Cardoso for ?giving me great latitude in creating the character. If a man had directed the film, it wouldn?t have been the same; it wouldn?t have the heart.?

Real Women Have Curves may be the first American film written and directed by Latinas. Though Cardoso and Lopez weren?t acquainted until they made the film, they have quite a lot in common. They both hold MFA degrees from the UCLA Film and Television School ? and both expect their first child before year?s end. Cardoso won the student Oscar with ?The Water Carrier,?a faux documentary about an old man. Lopez is currently making a documentary about her 96-year-old grandfather.

Cardoso was involved for five years with Sundance?s Latin American Program, eventually becoming its director. She too is a writer. Lopez founded CASA 0101, an art space in Boyle Heights, to teach writing and digital filmmaking to Latino youth. She will make her directorial debut next year with her own original screenplay, ?Add Me To The Party.?

The featured players include Ingrid Oliu (Estela) who appeared in ?Stand and Deliver?; George Lopez (Mr. Guzman), comedy star of his own ABC-TV series; Jorge Cervera Jr. (Raul), a seasoned television performer of shows such as ?The Wrong Man? and ?Drug Wars: The Camarena Story?; Felipe de Alba (Grandfather), a veteran of Mexican cinema including Luis Bunuel?s ?Robinson Crusoe?; and Brian Sites (Jimmy), who appeared in ?Terminator 3.?

Real Women Have Curves opens on October 18 in a theatre near you!

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