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Obituaries

Maria Felix, 88; Mexican Film Icon, Worldwide Sex Symbol

April 09, 2002|CHRIS KRAUL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEXICO CITY — Maria Felix, an icon of the golden age of Mexican cinema and one of the 20th century's classic Latin beauties, died here early Monday on her 88th birthday. The cause of death was congestive heart failure, her doctors said.

In a career that spanned 47 movies--including the classics "Dona Barbara," "La Cucaracha" and "Enamorada"--Felix became an international sex symbol while creating the prototype of the strong Latin woman, humble yet noble, irresistible yet untamable, tender yet authoritarian.

President Vicente Fox led Mexican political and cultural leaders in eulogizing her, saying, "As an artist she gave everything to Mexico, [including] a great international presence.... I admired her very much, and we Mexicans have suffered a huge loss."

As was the case after the deaths of other prominent Mexican cultural figures, from painter Frida Kahlo to poet Octavio Paz, Felix was honored Monday evening at the ornate Palacio de Bellas Artes, where her body lay in state. Among those paying tribute were Fox and first lady Martha Sahagun de Fox.

Felix and rival actress Dolores del Rio, who died in 1983, are widely considered the greatest Mexican movie stars. But unlike Del Rio, who achieved a modicum of Hollywood success, Felix never sought a career in the U.S. and so is unknown to many non-Latino film fans.

But Felix, whose middle-class roots were in Sonora state, became an icon in the Spanish-speaking world thanks to her mesmerizing beauty and the vast reach of Mexican movies during the industry's so-called golden age, which lasted from the late 1930s to the mid-1950s.

Felix was the last survivor of the epoch whose stars included Pedro Infante, Jorge Negrete, Cantinflas and Pedro Armendariz.

"She was beautiful but had a new kind of personality that [conveyed] the idea of dominion," Mexican writer Carlos Monsivais said Monday. "She created an alternative to the Mexican woman on screen, who until then was just beauty or the modesty of suffering. She empowered the idea of Mexican woman as no one before."

That strength was perhaps best captured in her leading part as the villainous rancher Dona Barbara, in the 1943 adaptation of the novel of the same name by Venezuelan Romulo Gallegos. She also appeared in the classic melodramas "Rio Escondido," "Mujer de Todos" and "Tizoc." She won three Ariel awards, Mexico's equivalent of the Oscar, for her performances.

"She was unique in Mexican cinema. She may not have been our greatest actress, but her face was certainly the most beautiful," said Patricia Millet de Fuentes, former president of Mexico's National Film Chamber and granddaughter of Fernando de Fuentes, who directed Felix in "Dona Barbara."

The actress was awarded a lifetime achievement award at the 2000 Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival. The festival's co-founder and artistic director, Edward James Olmos, said in a telephone interview Monday that Felix's charisma combined "Garbo sensuality" with the strength of Bette Davis.

"She was a true giant of Mexico's golden age, and she helped make world cinema. She had a dignity and sense of strength that changed the course of women's image on the screen," Olmos said.

Felix was scheduled to appear to accept her award. Instead, she addressed the audience of 1,000 by telephone.

"She was very conscious of her looks, and her looks had changed so much at her age,she didn't want to be out in public anymore," Olmos said.

Born in Alamos, Sonora, in 1914, Felix grew up in Guadalajara and won a beauty contest as a teenager. She married a cosmetics salesman named Enrique Alvarez and gave birth to her only child, Enrique Alvarez Felix, in 1934. The boy later became a respected actor himself. He died in 1996.

Felix made her screen debut opposite Negrete, who was already a star, in the 1942 film "Penon de las Animas."

A cult figure to fans in Latin America and Europe long after her career ended, Felix led a lavish and tempestuous private life that included marriages to Negrete and to Mexican composer Agustin Lara. Her last marriage was to French millionaire Alex Berger, who died in 1974. After that, she divided her time between Mexico and France.

Mexican publisher and memoirist Sealtiel Alatriste said in an e-mail that he, like countless Latin American men of his generation, considers Felix and her movies to have been part of his initiation into adulthood.

"The moment I left my childhood behind was in the house of a friend, where I saw a photo of a semi-nude Maria Felix, covering her breasts, undaunted and looking off toward I don't know where. Maybe I was 10 or 12, but the photo signaled the end of one era and the start of another," Alatriste said.

Monsivais said the beauty of Felix was "incredible.... To borrow from Norma Desmond in the movie 'Sunset Boulevard,' I can only say that 'We had faces then.'"

"In the next few days, we will mourn someone who intimately survives in each one of us," Alatriste said.

*

Rafael Aguirre in The Times' Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.

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