A $5.00 ticket would have bought you a seat to the first Academy Awards on May 16, 1929 at the Hotel Roosevelt in Hollywood, California. At the dinner ceremony 275 guests watched as statuettes were presented including two special awards to Charles Chaplin for "The Circus" and Warner Brothers for producing "The Jazz Singer" - a pioneering talkie.
The Oscar made its debut that evening but guests weren't aware they were looking at an award inspired by Emilio "El Indio" Fernandez, a Mexican film director and actor. Actually a nude version of Emilio inspired the Oscar figure. MGM's art director, Cedric Gibbons, needed a model for his statuette and was introduced to Emilio by Dolores Del Rio, a very close friend of "El Indio" and future wife of Cedric. Reluctant at first, Emilio agreed to pose nude to create the Oscar. Who knew the prized Oscar is Mexican!
Since then the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has grown into a professional honorary organization with 5,783 voting members. In the eighty-four year history of the academy 102 Latinos have been nominated including Thomas Gomez in 1947. He is the first Latino ever be nominated for an Academy Award and did so in the Supporting Actor category for his portrayal of a carousel operator in "Ride the Pink Horse." He lost the Oscar to Edmund Gwenn, portraying Kris Kringle in "Miracle on 34th Street." So, basically he lost to Santa Claus.
Since 1947 nineteen Latinos have won Oscars. If we pull out foreign nationals from this list the numbers of Latinos drop significantly. This year there are six categories with Latino nominations - two for talent in front of the camera and four for work behind the camera. Let's talk about those in front of the camera.
The biggest buzz is in the Best Actor category as Mexican actor Demián Bichir is nominated for his performance in "A Better Life." He is the second Mexican-born actor in history to be nominated in the leading actor category and the fourth Latino in this category.
"A Better Life" puts a face on the immigration debate as Bichir plays an undocumented gardener living in East L.A. struggling to earn a piece of apple pie for his son. Through this eyes we learn that the American Dream can be as simple as owning a beat up truck with hope that its wheels will drive to increased clients and money to buy a dream. Or, the dream can be walking or driving without fear of police. The day he was nominated Bichir said "I dedicate this nomination to those 11 million human beings who make our lives easier and better in the U.S."
The first Latino to win an Oscar for Best Actor was José Ferrer for his 1950 portrayal of Cyrano de Bergerac. The Puerto Rican actor married singer Rosemary Clooney, aunt of George Clooney, and was also nominated as Best Supporting Actor (Joan of Arc, 1948) but did not win.
The last Mexican-born actor to be nominated as Best Actor is Antonio Rodolfo Quinn-Oaxaca of Chihuahua, Mexico. Anthony Quinn was nominated in 1957 for his role in "Wild is the Wind" and in 1964 for is role in "Zorba the Greek" but did not win either award. However, he was nominated and won in the supporting role categories for "Viva Zapata" (1952) and "Lust for Life" (1956). He studied art and architecture with Frank Lloyd Wright who convinced him to become an actor. Anthony Quinn's first wife of 28 years was the adopted daughter of Cecile B. DeMille, one of Hollywood's greatest directors.
In 1988 Edward James Olmos was nominated for Best Actor in "Stand and Deliver" but lost the award to Dustin Hoffman for his role in "Rain Main."
Best Supporting Actress
Throughout the academy's history, nine Latinas have been nominated as Best Supporting Actress. The first Latina to be nominated in this category is Kathy Jurado of Mexico City for her 1954 role in "Broken Lance" as the Indian wife of Spencer Tracy. Discovered by "El Indio" the inspiration for the Oscar, she later starred in one of Hollywood's classic movies - "High Noon" with Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly. Before she starred in her first movie she paid her bills, not as a waitress, but as a bullfight critic.
In 1959 Susanna Kohner, the daughter of Mexican actress Lupita Tovar, was nominated for her performance in "Imitation of Life." Two years later a Puerto Rican actress won the distinction of being the first Latina to win an Oscar and did so in the Best Supporting Actress category for her performance in "West Side Story." Rita Moreno went on to win an additional Triple Crown of entertainment awards: Grammy, Tony, Emmy. She was followed by the 2008 win of Penelope Cruz for her performance in "Vicky Christina Barcelona."
Other Latinas who were nominated but did not win Oscars as Best Supporting Actress include: Norma Aleandro for her 1987 performance in "Gaby: A True Story"; Mercedes Ruehl for her 1991 performance in "The Fisher King"; Rosie Perez for the 1993 film "Fearless"; and Mexican actress Adriana Barraza for her 2006 performance in "Babel." This year Bérénice Bejo, an Argentine/French actress is nominated as Best Supporting Actress for her silent role in "The Artist."
It's been almost 50 years since a Latino won for Best Actor and history will be made if Demian Bichir wins. He's in competition with popular actors like George Clooney and Brad Pitt but maybe, just maybe, Hollywood will honor a talented actor whose character stepped off the movie screen to shine light on 11 million undocumented workers.
But if George Clooney wins let's remember he is the nephew of the first Latino to win an Academy Award. Oh, let's also remember he is holding a Mexican inspired statuette.
Mr. DeMille, we're ready for our close-up.