Mexican cinema’s tryst with the Oscars down the decades before ‘Roma’
On Sunday, the Alfonso Cuaron -directed “Roma” became the latest Mexican film to emerge as one of the winners at the Academy Awards , taking home the Oscars for best director, best foreign language film and best cinematography.
Anthony Quinn was the first Mexican-born American to win an Academy Award.
The actor, who was born in Chihuahua in Mexico, won two Oscars for Best Supporting Actor, the first in 1953 for “Viva Zapata!” and the second in 1957 for “Lust for Life” and was the most famous Mexican in Hollywood until Alfonso Cuaron, Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu and Guillermo del Toro , also known as ‘the three Amigos’ burst into the scene.
But Mexico’s tryst with the Oscars began much earlier, in 1950, when Emile Kuri, a Mexican-American set decorator of Lebanese heritage, took home the Academy Award for best art direction for the movie “The Heiress” and another in 1955 for “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.”
It was the 1950s, a period known as the “Golden Age of Mexican Cinema,” although that did not translate into nominations for the country in the Best Foreign Language Film category - the first nomination came in 1961 for “Macario” by Roberto Gavaldon.
However, neither this movie nor the others that represented Mexico at the Oscars over the years, including “Amores Perros,” and “Biutiful” by Iñarritu, “Pan’s Labyrinth” by Del Toro, won.
It was Cuaron, who finally won Mexico its first-ever foreign language Oscar as well as another two for the best director and best cinematography.
Cuaron had already won trophies for best director and best film editing (shared with Mark Sanger) for “Gravity” in 2014, a science fiction movie set in space that finally ushered in the new golden-age of Mexican cinema, this time in Hollywood.
The following year, it would be Iñárritu’s turn to win. His film “Birdman” won best picture, best director and best original screenplay - which the filmmaker shared with Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo - as well as best cinematography for Emmanuel Lubezki.
“Chivo” Lubezki, a frequent collaborator with Iñarritu and Cuaron, has won three Oscars for his work in their movies, in 2014 for “Gravity,” in 2015 for “Birdman” and in 2016 for “The Revenant.”
“The Revenant” continued the best director dominance of the Mexican trio with Iñarritu scooping the award for best director.
In 2017, the Mexicans drew a blank in the traditional categories although Iñarritu took home an Oscar for his virtual reality project “Carne y Arena” (Flesh and Sand) about the plight of immigrants, who illegally cross the border between Mexico and the United States, a subject all three directors have mentioned in their acceptance speeches.
“And the ones that live in this country, who are part of the latest generation of immigrants in this country, I just pray that they can be treated with the same dignity and respect of the ones who came before and built this incredible immigrant nation,” said Iñarritu after receiving the Oscar for best director from Sean Pean.
Two years later, in 2018, while accepting the Oscar for “The Shape of Water,” Del Toro also mentioned immigrants in his speech.
“I am an immigrant, like Alfonso and Alejandro, my compadres, like Gael and Salma and like many, many of you, and in the last 25 years, I’ve been living in a country all of our own,” said the director, whose movie took home four Oscars that night - for best picture, best director, best original music score and best production design.
This year, Cuaron thanked the Academy for recognizing a movie like “Roma” which is “centered around an indigenous woman, one of the 70 million domestic workers around the world ... historically relegated at the background of the cinema.”
But before the start of this golden age, Del Toro came close to winning for “Pan’s Labyrinth” in 2007 - it was nominated for best foreign language film - but had to be content with three technical Oscars, two of them for Mexicans - best cinematography for Guillermo Navarro and best art direction for Eugenio Caballero (shared with Pilar Revuelta).
Mexican sound technician Gonzalo Gavira was part of the team that won an Oscar in 1974 for “The Exorcist” although he was not included in the Academy’s official list, while Beatrice de Alba won a Best Makeup Oscar in 2003 for “Frida.”
In 1972, Manuel Arango took home two trophies for “Sentinels of Silence,” the first and only short film to win two Academy Awards for Best Short Subject and for Best Documentary Short Subject.
And some believe the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Lupita Nyong’o in 2014 for “12 Years a Slave” belongs to Mexico, the country in which she was born and where her name comes from.
But although the actress has dual Kenyan and Mexican citizenship, she has spent almost her life in Nigeria and the US.
By Alicia Garcia de Francisco