It can be argued that one of Mexico’s most famous actresses, the legendary María Félix, made a career of playing herself on screen. Her characters are all, as was the woman who played them, beautiful, strong and tempestuous. They are women who are aware of their beauty and use it to its fullest potential. To put it in classic Hollywood context, María Felix could enchant like Garbo and crush like Bette Davis as noted in her obituary in the LA Times in 2002. These were “women with the hearts of men” as Félix described herself in real life. The actress believed that success is inferior to celebrity and she lived her life with an attitude as unforgettable as her beauty, both of which has probably led to her being overlooked as a serious actress in retrospect, which is not merited. María Felix received five Silver Ariel Best Actress nominations with three wins. In 1986 she was honored with the Golden Ariel for lifetime achievement. All that aside from the fact that I enjoy her films and performances very much. What she brought to each was unique, much more than the famous looks and attitude, which she emphasized often using one of the most talented eyebrows in the business – from any country.
Among the monikers María Félix earned throughout her career was, “Devourer of men,” due in part to her many conquests and interviews during which she’d undoubtedly demonstrate her forceful will in cogent form. It also helped that early in Maria’s career she starred in such movies as La Mujer Sin Alma (The Woman Without a Soul) (1944) and La Devoradora (The Devourer) (1946) both directed by Fernando de Fuentes. Whether in time or innately Félix was that part, a part she so relished that she insisted it be mentioned in a museum exhibit dedicated to her, “…from this land of machos, she took their machismo and flung it back at their faces with supernatural force.” And that’s exactly how María comes across in her roles. reminiscent of the memorable femmes of noir. A Félix character is never a victim except by her own actions. In that regard María Félix is refreshing to watch. Not because she devoured men, but because she dared to go against the grain continuously, which of course became part of her legend. That attitude is evident on screen starting with 1943’s Doña Bárbara, directed by de Fuentes and Miguel M. Delgado, which catapulted her to fame. Doña Bárbara earned her her most recognized title, “La Doña,” which simply means “Mrs.” when referring to mere mortals, but is also used as a sign of respect and social stature. Félix’s portrayal in that movie is also the one that set the standard for future roles, which often resulted in her being more memorable than the movies themselves. That’s the case with Antonio Moplet‘s Vértigo from 1946, which features María at the height of her box office power playing opposite a well-noted cast.
A period melodrama, Vértigo tells the story of Mercedes Mallea (Félix), a recently widowed mother who falls in love with her daughter’s fiancé. As far as love triangles go this is as off-putting a scenario as one could fathom. Spanish actor and singer of repute, Emilio Tuero, plays Arturo and Lilia Michel plays Gabriela. Michel won the Silver Ariel for Best Supporting Actress for her fine performance as the suffering daughter/fiancé. Tuero also convinces as the love interest of both women bringing enough of the cad to the affair as one can muster. Aside from the main players the movie also features several experienced, prolific actors such as Julio Villareal, Emma Roldán and Manuel Noriega in supporting roles. The Ariel Awards also honored Vértigo with a win for Best Special Effects and nominations for Roldán who plays Nana Joaquina, Mercedes’ loving and dedicated maid, Best Production Design and Best Costume.
According to an Alamos History Association entry, Vértigo was written and intended for Dolores Del Rio, but the messenger sent the script to María Félix instead. One has to wonder if that was the last day on the job for the messenger. Del Rio was the other major actress to rival María Félix’s popularity during the golden age of Mexican cinema. The more seasoned of the two and ten years María’s senior, Dolores would have been a better fit for the part of the mother in the movie. Félix is fine in the role and it’s no problem believing Arturo would fall heads over heels in love with her the moment he sees her, but it’s a bit difficult to believe she would live such a sheltered, colorless life. Also, Félix seems a contemporary of Michel who plays her daughter and younger than Arturo. Tuero was, in fact, two years older than María and looks a bit older than that.
Vértigo opens with a montage of Mercedes’ life. As the credits roll we see the young woman marry, have her baby daughter and too few years later become a widow. When Mercedes’ daughter is fourteen she is sent off to school in the big city leaving Mercedes a broken woman with little to live for. Several years pass and Mercedes has little to no social life excepting her trusted Nana Joaquina. That is, until she receives notice from Gabriela saying she’s coming home and when she does Arturo is with her. The reunion should be a joyous occasion, but this story doesn’t allow for joy. As soon as Arturo lays his lustful eyes on Mercedes he’s in love. And that’s before Mercedes starts wearing make-up and before she replaces her drab clothing with the latest fashions Gabriela has brought for her. If you’re thinking this can’t be good you’d be right. True to form the cad proves he’s no gentleman.
Everyone is taken with Mercedes’ renewed beauty, but no one as much as Arturo who makes little effort to hide his infatuation for his soon-to-be mother-in-law. Gabriela, of course, is oblivious to the entire thing. At first we think Mercedes is feeling a tinge of jealousy for her daughter’s happiness. After all, she was widowed at a young age and has been living in virtual seclusion ever since. But then we realize she feels for Arturo as he does for her. Her demeanor screams guilt as does the fact that she hides her daughter’s wedding dress when it arrives. Together Mercedes and Arturo walk around with betrayal on their faces as Gabriela begins to suffer due to the lies, loaded glances and whispers that surround her. It’s an ugly scenario that I want to walk away from, but then there’s a scene between mother and daughter featuring full María Félix melodramatic eyebrow action and I must sit still and see it through. And it’s worth it, Félix is at her best in the scene. The payoff in the story comes soon enough too when Mercedes realizes that her daughter comes first, that it’s Gabriela’s happiness that matters most. Unfortunately, by that point Arturo is willing to do anything to be with Mercedes and eventually he does the unthinkable.
Vértigo is not the best María Félix vehicle, but it certainly offers plenty of what made her a legend. She will have an impact and is the reason to watch this movie. I’ve listened to many interviews Félix gave late in her life and career, but there’s one that has stayed with me. The interviewer in this case is Enrique Krauze, a famed Mexican essayist and critic who interviewed the diva in 1991. Krauze asks Félix if she’s been selfish and she immediately responds, “enormously so.” She goes on to say she’s been so selfish that if she hurt people during her life she’s never known it and follows that by saying that she’s never loved anyone in her life as much as she’s loved herself. I think about those words every time I watch María Félix in a movie because they ring true – at least in part – in each of her characters. There’s an innate selfishness in each woman she plays, which is as much a part of the legend as is the ferocious temper and beauty. Mercedes demonstrates all of that in Vértigo. Despite the ugly scenario she’s still a take no prisoners kind of woman. True to María Félix herself Mercedes allows only for momentary doubting of the irrefutable spine she exhibits in the end when she takes Arturo to task in the most definitive manner possible. In essence she devours him when he becomes another man who underestimates the brains and heart in the woman. In the process Mercedes redeems herself in our eyes as it all ends for Arturo, his Arturo’s sorry declarations of love drown as his face hits the carpet. Did he actually think she’d stay with him after what he’d done? The fool! Clearly he doesn’t know that on or off-screen you don’t mess with María Félix, the woman who famously said she didn’t think she was the queen bee, she was the queen bee.
This is my official entry to the Hollywood’s Hispanic Heritage Blogathon, which will be hosted by me on this blog this coming weekend. Be sure to check back on Sunday, October 15th as I honor all of the entries and bloggers who have contributed to this event.
As you can see this year’s banner features María Félix in tribute to Mexico’s diva of divas.