It was my pleasure to sit back and watch two of my favorite all time movies on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) last night. “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962) followed by “Sahara” with Humphrey Bogart (1943) were the movies. In these spectacular wartime films I rediscovered why Hollywood can show us the way on race and ethnic relations.
Specifically, I point to a minor scuffle among some in the Hispanic community over whether or not Hispanics were honored by Ben Afleck in his Academy Award winning “Best Picture “Argo.”
Former California State Senator Gloria Romero brought up the subject in an Orange County Register Op-Ed in which she questioned why Hispanics were not given their Hollywood due. Why? Because Afleck chose to portray Antonio Mendez who masterminded the escape of six American diplomatic staff from Iran after Iranian radicals took the American Embassy and its staff hostage for over a year in 1979.
Romero posited that a Hispanic should have portrayed Antonio Mendez because Mendez is Hispanic. Is she right? No.
Afleck portrayed Mendez. But first comes the question is Mendez a Hispanic? He told NBCLatino that he was just an American; that he was just a “desert boy” from Nevada and he didn’t even know if his name is Mendez or Gomez. His father apparently abandoned the family when Antonio was a little boy. And though Mendez states he is not Hispanic, he is.
Not through his typical American mother with Northern European heritage but Mendez says his father was from Mexico and that he was Mexican. Mendez is Hispanic by all objective measures that include a Mexican father, a Spanish surname and even a Spanish Christian name, Antonio.
That settled we must examine the charge that Hispanics should always portray Hispanics in Hollywood.
The best known Mexican actor in our lifetime is Anthony Quinn born in Chihuahua, Mexico to an Irish father and a Mexican mother. He matured into a very fine Academy Award winning actor. Did he do so portraying Mexicans always? No.
Who can forget him as Zorba the Greek; Or his portrayal of a Filipino patriot fighting the Japanese, or a Mexican American Marine in “Guadalcanal Diary?” Or, a crucified man next to Jesus named Barabas? And, who can forget his portraying a boisterous corrupt Arab tribal leader in “Lawrence of Arabia?”
In “Sahara” there was J. Carroll Naish (Irish) portraying a captured WWII Italian soldier in North Africa in which his accent, demeanor and everything he did and said earned him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
What Gloria Romero and others possibly don’t see is that acting is acting and any good actor should be able to play almost any role. Certainly a White man can’t portray Martin Luther King Jr. but one recalls a “Law and Order” episode where a White man portrayed a grandson of a Black woman who killed to keep his secret. That was the plot, it was perfect.
Could a Mexican actor portray a Greek neer-do-well? Of course, superior actor Antony Quinn did.
Could a blonde blue eyed Charleton Heston play a Mexican cop from Mexico City in a 1958 movie by Orson Welles (Touch of Evil)? Yes, though it was ridiculed at the time. Reality: there is more than one real life blonde blue-eyed Mexican government cop in Mexico. I once knew a police chief named Jesus in Mexico. He was six foot six inches tall and weighed a well-honed 250 pounds who once played American college football in the Big Ten.
Hiring the best person for the job is basic to success not only in acting but in picking strawberries, or being a chef, or portraying Greeks, Arabs or crucified Jews in a movie. Therein lays the secret to free enterprise’s success. Hire the best person and let them do the job. Forget hiring your girl or boy friend. Hire the best.
Hollywood doesn’t always do that but when it does, we get an Irishman portraying an Italian so well we think he really is an Italian. Or Puerto Rican Jose Ferrer portraying a Turkish Army General in “Lawrence of Arabia” or, of course, Englishman Alec Guiness portraying an Arab prince, soon-to-be King Faisal of Arabia also in “Lawrence.”
On the other hand, Hollywood made a WWII movie about Mexican American Marine Guy Gabaldon who captured over 2000 Japanese soldiers and civilians on Saipan for which he received the nation’s second highest war medal, the Navy Cross.
The Hollywood movie never mentioned that he was East L.A. Mexican American Guy Gabaldon. He was portrayed by Jeffrey Hunter, blue eyes and all. At least Orson Welles identified Charleton Heston’s role in “Touch of Evil” as a Mexican cop. Was that believable? Why not? We were told he was Mexican. We were never told that of Jeffrey Hunter.