"We're Ready for our Close-up Tió Oscar" - A $5.00 ticket would have bought you a seat to the first Academy Awards on May 16, 1929 at the Hotel Roosevelt in Hollywood, California. At the dinner ceremony 275 guests watched as statuettes were presented including two special awards to Charles Chaplin for producing, directing, writing and starring in "The Circus" and Warner Brothers for producing "The Jazz Singer" - a pioneering talkie.
The Oscar made its debut that evening but guests weren't aware they were looking at an award inspired by Emilio "El Indio" Fernandez, a Mexican film director and actor. Actually a nude version of Emilio inspired the Oscar figure. MGM's art director, Cedric Gibbons, needed a model for his statuette and was introduced to Emilio by Dolores Del Rio, a very close friend of "El Indio" and future wife of Cedric. Reluctant at first, Emilio agreed to pose nude to create the Oscar. Who knew the prized Oscar is Mexican!
Since then the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has grown into a professional honorary organization with a voting membership of 5,783 actors, cinematographers, screenwriters, directors, costumers, musicians, makeup artists, etc. They are the talent who transport audiences to magical storytelling in dark theatres.
In the eighty-four year history of the academy 102 Latinos have been nominated including Thomas Gomez in 1947. He is the first Latino ever be nominated for an Academy Award and did so in the Supporting Actor category for his portrayal of a carousel operator in "Ride the Pink Horse," a film noir set in New Mexico. He lost the Oscar to Edmund Gwenn, portraying Kris Kringle in "Miracle on 34th Street." The first Latino to ever be nominated for an Oscar lost to Santa Claus. Since 1947 nineteen Latinos have won Oscars. This year there are six categories with Latino nominations - two for talent in front of the camera and four for work behind the camera.
The biggest buzz this year is in the Best Actor category as Mexican actor Demián Bichir is nominated for his performance in "A Better Life." He is the second Mexican-born actor in history to be nominated in the leading actor category and the fourth Latino in this category.
"A Better Life" puts a face on the immigration debate and opens eyes and hearts to the toil of hard working people who wash restaurant dishes, mow yards, and do all kinds of work that most of us would never think of doing. Bichir plays an undocumented gardener living in East L.A. who struggles to keep his son away from gangs while trying to give him opportunities he never had. His eyes express the sadness he endures for his rebellious son who doesn't respect Mexican culture and is turning down a wrong path. Through this movie we learn that the American Dream can be as simple as owning a beat up truck with hope that its wheels will drive to increased clients, business and money to buy a dream. Or, a better life can simply involve walking or driving without fear of police and immigration agents. The day he was nominated Bichir said "I dedicate this nomination to those 11 million human beings who make our lives easier and better in the U.S."
The first Latino to win an Oscar for Best Actor was José Vicente Ferrer de Otero y Cintron in 1950 for his portrayal of Cyrano de Bergerac. Known in Hollywood as José Ferrer the Puerto Rican actor attended Princeton University and later married singer Rosemary Clooney, aunt of George Clooney. José Ferrer was also nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Supporting Actor category (Joan of Arc, 1948) but did not win.
The last Mexican-born actor to be nominated as Best Actor is Antonio Rodolfo Quinn-Oaxaca of Chihuahua, Mexico. Anthony Quinn was nominated in 1957 for his role in "Wild is the Wind" and in 1964 for is role in "Zorba the Greek" but did not win either award. However, he was nominated and won in the supporting role categories for "Viva Zapata" (1952) and "Lust for Life" (1956). A renaissance man he studied art and architecture with Frank Lloyd Wright who ultimately convinced him to become an actor. Anthony Quinn's first wife of 28 years was the adopted daughter of Cecile B. DeMille, one of the greatest directors of Hollywood blockbusters.
In 1988 Edward James Olmos was nominated for Best Actor in "Stand and Deliver." Born in Los Angeles, his performance became his signature role as he brought real-life math teach, Jaime Escalante, to life. That year the Best Actor award was presented to Dustin Hoffman for his role in "Rain Main."
Best Supporting Actress
Throughout the academy's history, nine Latinas have been nominated as Best Supporting Actress. The first Latina to be nominated in this category is María Cristina Estela Marcela Jurado García of Mexico City for her 1954 role in "Broken Lance" as the Indian wife of Spencer Tracy and mother of Robert Wagner. Discovered by "El Indio" the inspiration for the Oscar, she became known as Kathy Jurado, and later starred in one of Hollywood's classic movies - "High Noon" with Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly. Before she starred in her first Hollywood movie she paid her bills, not as a waitress, but as a bullfight critic.
In 1959 Susanna Kohner, the daughter of Mexican actress Lupita Tovar, was nominated for her performance in "Imitation of Life." Two years later a Puerto Rican actress won the distinction of being the first Latina to win an Oscar and did so in the Best Supporting Actress category for her performance in "West Side Story." Rita Moreno went on to win an additional Triple Crown of entertainment awards: Grammy, Tony, Emmy.
Norma Aleandro, an Argentine actress was nominated, but did not win, for her 1987 performance in "Gaby: A True Story." In the early 1990s two Latina actresses were nominated in this category but did not win: Mercedes Ruehl for her 1991 performance in "The Fisher King" and Rosie Perez for her role in the 1993 film "Fearless."
In 2006 Mexican actress Adriana Barraza was nominated as Best Supporting Actress for her performance in "Babel." Penelope Cruz was nominated and won in 2008 as Best Supporting Actress for her role in Vicky Christina Barcelona.
This year Bérénice Bejo, an Argentine/French actress is nominated as Best Supporting Actress for her role as Peppy Miller, a glamorous, sweet, silent film star in "The Artist." Her family is originally from Argentina but fled when she was three years old to escape the Argentine Dirty War.
Behind the Camera
In 1983 Gregory Nava's "El Norte" was nominated for Best Original Screenplay/Story but that year the award was presented to Robert Benton for "Places in the Heart." This year four behind the camera categories have Latinos nominees. If you've seen "The Tree of Life" you know the nomination of Mexican Emmanuel Lubezki in the Best Cinematography category is well deserved. He has been nominated five times previously for his cinematography work including "Burn after Reading." Spanish filmmakers Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal are nominated in the Animated Feature Film category for "Chico & Rita." Fernando previously won an Oscar for "Belle Époque" as Best Foreign Film in 1994.
Latino musicians are also nominees this year. "Real in Rio," a song by Brazilian musician Sérgio Mendes is a nominee for Best Song. Spanish composer Alberto Iglesias is also in the Original Score competition for the music of "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy." Mexicans, Spaniards and Argentines have earned several Oscar nominations and are included in the definition of Latino. If we pull out foreign nationals the numbers of Latinos drop significantly.
It's been almost 50 years since a Latino won for Best Actor and history will be made if Demian Bichir wins. He's in competition with popular actors like George Clooney and Brad Pitt but maybe, just maybe, Hollywood will honor a talented actor whose character stepped off the movie screen to shine light on 11 million undocumented workers.
But if George Clooney wins, let's remember he is the nephew of the first Latino to ever win an Academy Award. Oh, let's also remember he is holding a Mexican inspired statuette.
Mr. DeMille, we're ready for our close-up.
Elaine Coronado is the Founder of RSVP-Latino and loves the Academy Awards!