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Celebrating 100 Years of Hispanic Influence on  Hollywood - 2002-09-23


The American film industry, now about a century old, couldn't have developed without the contributions of many kinds of people from nations all over the world. That is the theme of the new book, Hispanics in Hollywood: A Celebration of 100 Years in Film and Television. In his book, author Luiz Reyes recounts the Hispanic influence in the movies, going back to Hollywood's earliest days.

Brazilian singer and dancer Carmen Miranda was the highest paid actress in America in 1945, but still could not get past being typecast in cameo roles as a comic dancer with fruit piled high upon her head. For the first half of the 20th century, film studios cast Latino males as lazy or untrustworthy characters, or had them play the comic sidekick. Even roles described specifically as Latino or Mexican were often cast with white actors who used brown make-up to darken their skin.

But in Hispanics in Hollywood, Luiz Reyes says in the industry's earliest years, Hispanics were involved with all aspects of movie-making, in front of and behind the camera.

"One of the reasons they came to make movies in Hollywood was the fact that there was an available labor pool of Mexican and African-American workers. In a lot of those silent movies a lot of the people you see riding horses are Mexican-Americans who worked the ranches in southern California," he said. "The first big Latino star was Antonio Moreno, who was a matinee idol. He was the first 'Latin lover.' And he was kind of eclipsed by Rudolf Valentino. You have someone like Ramon Novarro who starred in the original Ben Hur in 1926 and that film helped MGM out of bankruptcy at that time."

The Mexican-born actor went on to star in "talkies" like Mata Hari in 1930, in which he played the "Latin lover" to Greta Garbo as the famous spy.

Author Luiz Reyes says the silent film era was a profitable one for many Hispanic actors, whose accents were irrelevant and darker complexions versatile enough to fit any number of ethnic, non-Caucasian roles.

"Because silent cinema was really a cinema of faces. So the challenges didn't start happening really until sound came in," he said. "But Latinos seemed to play all the different kinds of roles. We played American Indians, we played Arabs, Jews, Eskimos, everything Latino I mean, Latino in those days meant anyone of Latin extraction. It wasn't until sound came in that accents became a problem."

In 1961, Rita Moreno made a departure from what she described as a career of "Mexican Spitfire" and "Indian Maiden" kinds of roles when she played Anita in the film version of the musical, West Side Story.

Author Luiz Reyez says this part, the Latina girlfriend of a Puerto Rican gang leader, was a breakthrough on many levels.

"There's a lot of lines in the movie - songs that say, 'I love to be in America,' it's great to be in America if you are white in America," he said. "So some of the prejudice that Puerto Ricans were facing and other ethnic groups as well were displayed in the movie. And the fact that you had a Puerto Rican actress playing a Puerto Rican, which is Rita Moreno, and winning an Oscar for that role, you talk about breakthroughs, that was a breakthrough."

"When you have Latinos playing Latinos in movies, they bring that something extra, as Anthony Quinn did in Viva Zapata. But then he also won a Best Supporting Actor for playing a French man in Lust for Life," he said. "As far as my book is concerned, Anthony Quinn is really the most important Hispanic actor of his generation. Because of his long career, because of the different roles he played. He played just about every ethnicity known to man."

Today Hispanics have more opportunities than ever, both onscreen and behind the camera. Sam Mendez directed of American Beauty in 2000 won that year's Academy award for both Best Direction and Best Film.

Actors such as Jimmy Smits, Andy Garcia and Jennifer Lopez have created careers based on a wide rage of characters, not necessarily reflective of their ethnic origins. And in the upcoming Martin Scorcese film, Gangs of New York, Cameron Diaz will star opposite Leonardo diCaprio.

Hispanics in Hollywood author Luiz Reyes says this is a natural progression.

"The Hispanic participation in Hollywood is part of that great mix that is the American cinema," he said. "One of the guys that directed one of the greatest film comedies was a gentleman named Frank Capra, who was an Italian immigrant. Charlie Chaplin was English. Bob Hope is English. Michael Curtiz directed Casablanca. ... The African-American experience in movies, Sidney Poitier, Paul Robeson, it's all a part of history and we're all enriched by it."

In his book, Hispanics in Hollywood: A Celebration of 100 years in Film and Television, Luiz Reyes also dispels some myths - such as the story that Hispanics always had to change their names. Not quite true, he says. In the early days of the studio system, almost every actor took on a new name, to reflect little if any ethnic heritage at all.

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