My experiences into life’s drama… were immeasurable… they provided me a vast treasure and range of emotions, a front line se to pain and the surrealism of life’s real drama….” Lupe Ontiveros
By Robert T. Wood
Last Sunday, February 24, 2013, was arguably the most significant day in the year for the world of film. For eighty-five years running, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has rewarded the most distinguished visionaries with what many consider to be the penultimate prize in the field of cinematic arts. Among the accolades respecting the finest achievements in each layer of the collaborative process that is filmmaking is the “In Memoriam” segment, a posthumous tribute to the performers, producers, and other players in the production of motion pictures. People ranging from actors Ernest Borgnine, Jack Klugman and Michael Clarke Duncan to auteurs Nora Ephron and Tony Scott were included in the illustrious eulogy. But a certain distinguished, visionary performer who made major contributions to the motion picture industry was spectacularly snubbed.
In December of last year, Entertainment Weekly magazine released their tribute to the stars of sound, stage, screen, and sundry splendor: all elements of the contemporary entertainment world. The collection of homages ranged from children’s authors such as Maurice Sendak, chanteuses including Donna Summer, cinematic visionaries like Tony Scott and a trailblazer in comedy named Phyllis Diller. While the list of legends was extensive it was not entirely comprehensive. There is at least one incredible individual who was inexplicably excluded from EW’s Late Greats of 2012. Someone who was also a star of the stage and the screen. A character actress who was known amongst her contemporaries as much for her venerable character as for her achievements as an actress. Someone who should be remember for her contributions to both her craft and her community. Lupe Moreno Ontiveros.
The vast majority of moviegoers and small screen viewers probably only remember her as a player in the background, a portrayer of minor characters who were relegated to shorter screen time and a smaller number of scenes. The maid. The mother. The multitude of roles for which there would be no scripted character development or designated opportunity to hold the spotlight for even a second. Yet Lupe Ontiveros managed to develop and dignify roles that were not designed for depth. For it is not the written dialogue or textual directions that emerge in the final filmed product, but the delivery of that dialogue and interpretation of those directions that are captured on camera.
Very few performers, much less Latina performers active during the past decades of the twentieth century, have had a career enduring for four decades. In the 1970s, if you had your rabbit ears at the right angle, you would have been able to see her appear on Charlie’s Angels, Eight is Enough, Police Story, Alice, and The White Shadow in a variety of parts. If you were an arthouse aficionado in the early 1980s and watched her in Gregory Nava’s magnum opus El Norte, you witnessed her favorite film role, as Nacha, the compassionate figure who assists the Guatemalan refugee protagonists adjust to their new lives in Los Angeles. If you enjoyed the works of public television a decade later, you may have caught her in Luis Valdez’s Christmas classic La Pastorela and Carlos Avila’s dramedic exploration of farmworker culture in La Carpa. Heading into the new millennium you probably saw at least one episode of Desperate Housewives pitting her as a recalcitrant matriarch opposite Ricardo Antonio Chavira and Eva Longoria. Or her cameo as a campus doctor in Patricia Cardoso’s thriller Lies in Plain Sight. I could go on.
Lupe’s contributions por la pantalla y la tele are well documented and accessible for future generations of devotees of her work. The myriad of theatrical masterpieces in which she played a pivotal part in the production is more obscure to a contemporary audience but should be just as remember as her filmed roles. She developed the personaje of Dolores, the mother of protagonist Hank Reyna, in the acclaimed stage drama Zoot Suit. Her performance was integral to the Luis Valdez production that has become canonical to Chicano theater. Her ability to captivate the public on stage was such that she drew acclaim for her one-woman performance in the Evelina Fernandez play How Else Am I Supposed To Know I’m Still Alive? A plethora of performers depend upon each other for the unique chemistry and timing that draws the laughs or the tears out of the audience, but Lupe did both with the stage all to herself.
Lupe Ontiveros complimented her acting abilities with forays in playwriting. She collaborated with a team of players in the Latino Theater Company to write August 29, a time-bending retrospective tribute to journalist Ruben Salazar. Lupe played a principal role as the mother of the protagonist Lucero in addition to co-writing the directions and dialogue. At the time of its release, she and her co-writers assumed a pseudonymic identity, Violeta Calles, to memorialize students lost to state-sponsored violence. As such, her efforts as a playwright would not be known to the public until much later.
One could acquire copies of every single Lupe Ontiveros film and box set of every television series she starred in and read journalists’ and cultural critics’ interpretations of the plays that comprise her theatrical oeuvre, and still not grasp the incredible impact that Lupe had on many people, past and present. It is true that the vast majority of articles honoring Lupe mentioned her role in The Goonies as the family maid or in Real Women Have Curves as the hero’s mother. These are the roles for which millions of moviegoers and throngs of TV watchers might recognize the versatile virtuoso when they see her face. But this is not the way I will remember Lupe Ontiveros.
I had the rare opportunity to interact with the woman who had made millions of people laugh, cry, and hope three years ago in the final months of 2009 and the first few weeks of the new decade. As a student in my last year at the College of William and Mary, I was required to complete a writing project for graduation as a Hispanic Studies major. While some students wrote of their adventures abroad in Spain, and others recollected their journeys south of the equator in Argentina, I had chosen to focus my project around the Latina experience in Hollywood. My project, my graduation, my future hinged upon finding someone who was willing to participate in the project.
Another friend of mine asked individuals who she knew in the industry and Lupe Ontiveros was the first individual willing to give me an interview for the project. She explained to my friend, “I would like nothing more than to share some of my own thoughts on the Entertainment Community.” Then, through an email addressed directly to me, she said “I will make the time for you”.
Perhaps it was her experience uplifting the underprivileged off-screen that allowed her to provide honest and sympathetic portrayals of them in front of the camera. Lupe spoke of her experience as an advocate for people in need. She was a social worker with a Sociology degree from Texas Woman’s University who spoke five languages, something that those who saw her early appearances in film and television would never had guessed. She stated,
“My experiences into life’s drama during this time were immeasurable, as they provided me a vast treasure and range of emotions, a front line seat to pain and the surrealism of life’s real drama, and most fascinating of all, the complexity of human behavior. This would prepare me for what was to come later at the same time they provided me with the sensory memory every actor so desperately seeks to drawn upon for character development.”
She was a method actor. When Hollywood historians compile the definitive list of performers who practiced method acting- a collection including Dustin Hoffman, Robert DeNiro, and Al Pacino among countless others- there is no reason why Lupe Ontiveros should not be featured.
She told of the disparities between the types of roles that she was initially offered to play and her own personal history: she was a social worker with a post-graduate education who spoke five languages, something that people who saw her early appearances in film and television would never had guessed. She worked with Head Start, impoverished families, for immigrants and seniors, and for families of children with developmental disabilities. She noted that she drew upon her experiences to give voice to the deaf community in particular. She was very kind and had many thoughtful things to say about her experiences. When describing the struggles when it came to first breaking into the industry, how she couldn’t get work without belonging to the union but couldn’t get into the union without getting work as the “same ole, same ole catch-22”.
The venerable entertainment veteran’s dedication to her community can be witnessed in her words to the Los Angeles Times about fellow actor Trinidad Silva following his death in 1988: “He was a very proud, deeply spiritual man who projected his love for his people, his culture and, above all, his family to every person. He was very proud of his work, and he believed that, in the immediate future, things would change and that our talents would be recognized.” The words that Lupe said about Trinidad Silva were very much true about herself. “He believed that the only way things would really change would be for Latino actors to produce their own feature projects”. This is fundamentally similar to what she told me in her interview, that “we have come full circle to the 70s” with regards to the perpetual rehashing of the same hoary, hackneyed stereotypes in mainstream features and series. But she also managed to bring dignity to what would usually be an undignified role:
Time has taught me the greatest lesson that the size of the role matters little when an true actor knows his craft he/she can work miracles out of nothing. This has certainly been proven throughout the ages. and I can only attest to this with my life’s investment in my career. I credit tenacity and creativity as a professional to make these roles as authentic and entertaining as possible.”
It is ultimately ironic that she was relegated to supporting parts throughout her career, because she played a leading role in improving the real lives of others. She only played a supporting role in my life, I am forever grateful for her willingness to discuss her experiences for my academic research, and with her participation in the project, she helped me graduate on time. Without her help, my project would not have been the same.
Eight months ago, on July 26, 2012, Lupe Ontiveros passed away due to complications from liver cancer. She will forever be missed by many who knew her, who worked with her, whose lives were touched by her. She was a mother of three, and as several of her co-stars can attest, a matriarch to all of the actors in the Latino entertainment community. It is truly unfortunate that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and Entertainment Weekly left Lupe out of their annual memorials to the legends who have left us. Not just for her but for the millions of people who never had the privilege of knowing her personally, for this simple reason: how else are they supposed to know about her life?