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An Appreciation

Recalling Maria Felix: Frailty, Thy Name Is Not Woman


"Frailty, thy name is woman!" When Shakespeare wrote those words for "Hamlet," he could not have imagined there would someday be a woman such as Maria Felix.

First, full disclosure: Her death doesn't touch me as much as it moves me to reflection. I never met her, I don't idolize her, and I'd be lying if I said her films influenced me in terms of becoming a film director. By the time I was born, Maria Felix--Mexican actress of mythical proportions, inimitable life force, the yardstick by which the character of Latin women is often measured--had made 46 out of the 47 films that made her famous in Mexico and abroad.

She didn't see any films of my generation because in her eyes all post-golden-age Mexican cinema was worthless: In one of her last interviews she said, "I don't see any Mexican movies because I don't feel like seeing bad stuff."

Notwithstanding her contempt for us, there's something about Maria Felix's image as a celluloid heroine that is forever embedded in Mexican cinema--past, present and future--and something about her fastidiously designed image in real life that is part of Mexican identity.

Perhaps because my lovely wife, Andrea, is English and I'm Mexican, we're always finding surreal parallels between our cultures. The latest has to do with the deaths, barely a week apart, of two iconic women from our glorious nations: the very Mexican Felix ("The Diva of Divas," "Maria Bonita," "La Dona") and the very British Queen Mother ("The Icon of the Century," "The Nation's Favorite Grandmother," "The Queen Mum").

In the days since Felix's death on April 8, a few lost souls have been vying for succession to the anachronistic title of "Diva of Divas," a notion as preposterous as the idea of royalty in a country like Mexico. What is the purpose of royalty, or of divas for that matter, as we face the new century?

Does their "highness" help us cope with our lowness? Can we escape the vicissitudes of reality by attempting to fly with their melted wings? Felix asserted that being an actress means dreaming your life away so that others can partake of the illusion. Granted that "La Dona" was the quintessentially Mexican take on royalty. Was she completely out of touch with common people, or did she understand them so profoundly that she sacrificed her own person to create an everlasting myth? She held that she behaved exactly the same way in public as when she was alone in the sanctity of her restroom: always beautiful, invulnerable and dignified.

For the sake of her and our sanity, I want to believe that when she was truly alone she would remove the other mask, the one that cannot be covered with makeup, and occasionally shed a tear like those miraculous Madonnas that can't be held wholly accountable for all the folly committed in their names.

For a crash course on Maria Felix I'd suggest the not-so-celebrated 1958 film "La estrella vacia" ("The Empty Star"), a grueling portrait of a beautiful woman who sacrifices it all in order to become a movie star. What's fascinating is that it's not one of those melodramas in which the protagonist is severely and misogynistically punished for her sins. She actually becomes rich, famous, independent and powerful. And she chooses to remain empty inside. Literally.

Due to an abortion, she cannot bear children anymore, but she takes it stoically, more like Clytemnestra than like the actress Sara Garcia (Mexico's own favorite grandmother). There's a certain sincerity and poignancy in this film that stands firm ground against the lifelong criticism that Felix received for being a diva, yes, but not a good actress. I was drawn to her precisely because she doesn't view herself as a victim. On the contrary, she's creating her own destiny, and if it's hard being a woman, it's even harder to be Maria Felix. Here's a precursor of the great female roles that we are yet to see in this un-golden age of ours. Near the end of "La estrella vacia," there's a scene in which her father reassures her, "But you're a good person," and she vehemently replies, "Don't say that!"

Which brings me back to the analogies with the Queen Mum, always full of palatable quotes: "You think I am a nice person. I'm really not a nice person," the Icon of the Century once told a confidant.

It would seem that the primary raison d'etre of royalty in general, and of Felix and the Queen Mum in particular, has been to cultivate legendary images of themselves for the sake of "their" people. Despite the obvious differences--Felix exuded sex, the Queen Mum did not--both came from large families, became paradigms of longevity and ascended from simple origins to considerable wealth. Both were passionate about breeding horses.

Felix inherited 87 thoroughbreds from one of her five husbands, the one who called her "Puma," and became, in her own words, the Queen of European Hippodromes. For the Queen Mother, racing horses allowed her a much-needed breathing space from the royal family.

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