We are in the midst of Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15th – October 15th)! While not of Hispanic or Latino descent myself, I’ve always felt that it’s vital to support those who are, in movements for justice and in representation onscreen. And I just naturally feel kinship to other people of color. Aurora of Once Upon a Screen and Raquel of Out of the Past are hosting a platform for HHM, #DePelicula. The purpose is to feature a variety of posts on Hispanic contributions to film.
Although classic Hollywood often portrayed Hispanics/Latinos in tired stereotypes, as they did with other people of color, there were some who were able to carve out successful careers for themselves. One actor whom I deeply respect and admire is Puerto Rico native Jose Ferrer.
One of the things I find most remarkable about Ferrer’s career is the “color blind” casting he benefited from. I’ve only seen one film in which he played a Latino (thankfully not some stereotypes masquerading as an actual person). Ferrer was excellent in The Caine Mutiny (1954). He received second billing after Humphrey Bogart, even though his character (ethnicity not specified) didn’t appear until the third act! Talk about star power. He even got to sing in Deep In My Heart (1954), where he portrayed Austrian composer Sigmund Romberg.
The other famous European that Ferrer portrayed was Frenchman Cyrano de Bergerac. Cyrano was a highly accomplished and eloquent member of French nobility. Some of the hats he wore were poet, novelist, and duelist. His most striking physical feature was his nose; big doesn’t even begin to describe it.
It’s astonishing. But Cyrano’s nose doesn’t diminish his opinion of himself. Privately it causes him woe. That’s the beauty of Ferrer’s performance. To the public Cyrano de Bergerac is arrogant. There’s an excellent scene when he chides a man for failing to insult his nose properly. All the man says is that it’s rather large. But Cyrano shows off his impressive vocabulary with a range of descriptions, fooling the man into shocked silence. But he’s acutely aware that he isn’t handsome.
Cyrano secretly loves his cousin Roxanne (Mala Powers), who he could never hope to woo. Roxanne’s heart belongs to another. Her beloved is Christian de Neuvillette (William Prince), a guardsman. Roxanne and Christian have never spoken to each other. Cyrano agrees to help bring them together. Christian it turns out, lacks Cyrano’s eloquence, so the latter composes all of his love letters to Roxanne. It’s really Cyrano she falls in love with.
Jose Ferrer won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal. Three years later, at the 1954 Academy Awards, William Holden won the top prize for Stalag 17. Some people believe Holden won that Oscar as a consolation prize for losing to Ferrer in 1950. Holden was up for Best Actor in Sunset Boulevard. But he was nominated for a Gloria Swanson film. Jose Ferrer was nominated for a Jose Ferrer film. Cyrano de Bergerac only succeeds because of his gallant performance. Worth noting that he was the first, and so far only Latino to win the Best Actor prize.
The film is currently in the public domain and available on youtube and other streaming services. I definitely recommend it. Jose Ferrer was a singular talent and I’m eager to discover more of his work.