Body of Work – Jorge Rivero, king of the real Mexican cinema

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Jorge Rivero

JORGE RIVERO WAS THE MAN. IN THE LATE 1970s and early 1980s, he was what every young Latino wanted to be. In film after film he’d flex his peaked biceps and perfectly chiseled abs as he played everything from a gunslinger to a playboy to a priest. He resembled a young Robert Redford, except that his hair was black and he was tanned to a gleaming brown hue. Highbrow Mexican critics shunned him as a body with no acting skills. But to most people of Mexican origin, like me, Rivero was an idol.

The son of rural Mexican parents, I spoke Spanish at home and learned English at school. Facing the problems of growing up in two worlds, I found movies almost therapeutic. Every weekend after Sunday Mass. Friends and I would take the bus from our Lincoln Heights homes to “El Centro.”

There, along six blocks of Broadway, were the most beautiful and lavish movie palaces in the world — the Million Dollar, the Orpheum, the Los Angeles, built from the turn of last century through the 1930s. Their seats were worn, the murals had chipped, and small children in the audience often cried during the best parts of the movies, but the theaters held on to their original magnificence.

It was on one of those awe-inspiring screens that I saw Rivero face off with fellow hunk Jaime Moreno for the love of dark-haired vixen Rebeca Silva. Directed by the legendary Emilio “Indio” Fernández and photographed by the internationally famous Gabriel Figueroa, Erótica was a work of art. But most of the movies shown downtown — including the ones Rivero starred in — were at best churros, low-budget snacks.

To the masses in Mexico and their immigrant cousins in the United States, it mattered little that tony critics in Mexico City despised their homegrown commercial cinema, to such an extent that they rarely bothered to review such films, let alone condescend to trash them. As cheesy as they could get, these corny romantic dramas, “taco Westerns” and ficheras (featuring Mexico City’s wisecracking taxi dancers) managed to speak to the people.

And the king of this cinema was Jorge Rivero, who embodied Latino male beauty as no one had before. Six feet tall and broad-shouldered, he was never shy about showing off his tan — an anomaly for Mexico, which has been at war with its native Indian identity since the Spanish conquest. His swagger, arms-akimbo stance and sardonic smile were copied by millions of Latino men looking for an edge in the dating game. Eager to resemble Rivero, many took up diets or dumbbells. (I know I did.)

In almost 40 years Rivero would star in more than 150 movies, most of them produced in Mexico, and others in Europe, South America and the United States. Rivero — still a striking figure, his once-black mane now white but full as ever — lives almost like a recluse in the Hollywood Hills, in an earthy and aristocratic estate decorated with a rancher’s taste for bull horns, saddles and serapes. Though still producing movies and occasionally appearing in selected projects, he is far removed from the days when he was on top of the Latino world.

“You have to learn that there comes a time when you do not have to star in your own productions or always be the leading man,” Rivero would tell me in a series of interviews over three years. “Others also have to have a chance.”

THE MAN WHO WOULD BECOME FAMOUS AS A sex symbol grew up in a strict middle-class Mexico City family. Though far from a straight-A student, he was enrolled in a military academy at 13 and went on to the Jesuit-run Colegio Universitario Mexicano. A natural athlete, he took up swimming in his teens, and competed in the water polo and “butterfly” swimming competitions in the 1959 Pan-American games. By the ä time he graduated from the Universidad Autonoma de Mexico, he was married to Irene Hammer, a German student he met while on a school trip.

He earned a degree in chemical engineering, but “I forgot everything as soon as I left school,” he says.

Bored and curious, in 1964 Rivero asked a schoolmate who was working in the movies about getting into the business. He led Rivero to a casting agent, who got him a minor role in a luchador (wrestling) movie called El Asesino Invisible (The Invisible Assassin), in which only the shadow of his muscular physique was visible.

For Rivero, things couldn’t have worked out better. He landed a role in Los Leones del Ring (Lions of the Ring) when luchador films were the most popular genre in Latin America. Masked wrestling superstars like the legendary El Santo and Blue Demon were fighting the forces of evil and winning big at the box office. Finally showing his face, he starred in the black-and-white Los Jinetes de la Llanura (Riders of the Plains) when Westerns were doing well, then got his big break in 1965 as a bare-knuckled boxer in El Mexicano (The Mexican).

The young Rivero couldn’t help being disappointed when he met some of the male stars from Mexico’s golden era. They were so out of shape that extras had to be used when scenes called for them to ride horseback. “They had these bellies. I mean huge bellies,” he says. “I was among the first Mexican lead actors to do most of my stunts.”

A Western shot in color, El Mexicano would turn Rivero into the country’s top hunk. On a promo tour in the southern state of Chiapas, he was taken aback by the crowds, and his sudden stardom.

“You are just not ready. It catches you by surprise. I never imagined . . . ,” he says. “And the women! Wow! I said, ‘Is this for me?’ When I got back to Mexico City they chased me.”

Though never disrespectful of women or using his status as a way of coercing them, Rivero also never shunned an affair — of which there were many. “I always tried to bed the main actress,” he says. “Sometimes I got her, sometimes I didn’t, but I always tried.”

MEXICAN LAW STIPULATES THAT WHEN filming in Mexico, foreign companies must employ a certain quota of local labor. Included among the actors hired for the western Soldier Blue, shot in 1970, was Jorge Rivero. It was his first Hollywood credit.

With a script that still seems audacious today, the film told the story of the massacre of a tribe of Cheyenne by a U.S. cavalry division, evoking the carnage in Vietnam. The part of the tribe’s chief, Spotted Wolf, went to the athletic, aquiline-nosed Rivero. He spoke only a few lines, but he got to play the husband of Candice Bergen, who starred as a white woman who sympathizes with the tribe.

He also got an audition with Howard Hawks, who was casting for Rio Lobo. As French-Mexican Confederate Lieutenant Pierre Cardona, he would co-star with none other than John Wayne. But first Rivero had to do something.

“I went with an English teacher at the university and learned my parts phonetically,” he says, laughing. “I went up before Hawks and said my part . . . The problem was that I didn’t even know what I was saying!”

Rivero held his own next to Wayne, and looked good on horseback. And, in a scene with Jennifer O’Neill, Rivero — as usual — got the girl. After giving Rivero a kiss that sends him into a swoon, she asks Wayne, “Are all Mexicans like him? One kiss and he blows up!”

When it came time to promote the film in Europe, Wayne was battling cancer, so the MGM executives called Rivero. Used to driving to locations and changing costumes in the back seats of cars, he could barely believe the luxury hotels he was booked into and the level of attention he received at press conferences.

“I had never been driven in a limo in my life!” Rivero says. “And those rooms! They were so big you could skate in them!”

Again, his timing was perfect. Europe, especially Italy, was in the middle of its sword-and-sandal, spaghetti Western and horror bonanza. The powerful Roman studio Cineccitá offered Rivero the role of Sartana, one of many gunslinger characters, like Clint Eastwood’s “Man With No Name.” He starred in three Sartana films, and a producer told him, “I guarantee you that if you stay in Italy, you will never run out of work.”

Derided for decades, Eurotrash cinema is now undergoing some revisionism, with filmmakers like Sergio Corbucci, Ruggero Deodato and Lucio Fulci getting a more serious look from critics. Rivero appeared in some of the best of the worst. In Eroticofollia (Evil Eye), an Italian-Spanish-Mexican production, he played the part of Peter Crane, an American playboy in Rome who is telepathically forced to commit murders by a satanic cult. A bad flick with a cool attitude, it’s filled with decadent dialogue, orgies, incredibly beautiful men and women, and gratuitous nude scenes.

In post-Franco Spain, going through its “transition” period after the dictator’s death, the industry dove headfirst into sexploitation films. Spanish producers made sure to cast a naked Rivero in softcore porn like La Playa Vacia (The Empty Beach), in which he engages in a ménage à trois with Pilar Velasquez and Amparo Rivelles.

To this day Rivero is unapologetic about being typecast as a sex object first and an actor second. He was always conscious that it was his body that was the real reason he got a lot of job offers: “Directors were always telling me to take my shirt off,” he says.

AS RIVERO WAS ENJOYING HIS INTERnational success, Mexico’s movie industry was undergoing profound changes. When he became president in 1970, left-leaning Luis Echeverría budgeted 1 billion pesos — then an exorbitant sum — to finance a new, more socially conscious cinema. The Banco Cinematográfico was created to distribute funds to revitalize the industry.

This enabled a generation of young and brash filmmakers like Arturo Ripstein, Felipe Cazals and Carlos Humberto Hermosillo to begin producing films unlike anything Mexico had ever seen. With their abrasive criticism of government corruption and morality taken to the extreme, movies like El Castillo de la Pureza (The Castle of Purity), Canoa and Los Cachorros (The Cubs) proved to be seminal works.

They also started a rivalry with the studios that is still a sore spot three decades later. The state-funded filmmakers claim that the studios produced terrible, embarrassing movies that eventually tired even the most loyal moviegoers. Rivero, a studio veteran, counters that it was the state filmmakers who overspent money and resources on movies that made almost nothing at the box office. He adds that the new directors reeked of intellectual arrogance.

“They thought that they were better than the rest. They were very communistic, wearing T-shirts with USSR flags on them and claiming to have studied in Moscow,” Rivero says with a sneer. “You can’t fool people. They knew they were being looked down upon. Most of the moviegoers had hard lives in the first place — they wanted to be entertained, not subjected to demagoguery.”

Indeed, the new cinema was no match at the box office for commercial or independently produced films. The public preferred the fantasy comic book­inspired movies of rural hero “El Payo” (starring Rivero) any day to most government-sponsored films. “Critics often said that Mexican commercial cinema was bad, trash. But it was an open competition,” Rivero says. “And the fact was that people would pack the theaters to see us. This would frustrate those intellectualoids who thought they were better than the rest.”

The 1970s also brought a shocking yet irresistibly permissive new cinema to a nation where virginity prior to marriage — in women, anyway — was inviolable. After decades of family-oriented films, Mexican filmgoers were awed by actresses like Isela Vega, Meche Carreño and Ana Luisa Peluffo, whose sinuous bodies and trademark sex scenes turned them into screen goddesses. Then in his 30s, Rivero was aging gracefully, and producers fought over pairing him with divas like Sasha Montenegro, the Yugoslavian actress who would later marry former President José López Portillo.

Though he scorns the state filmmakers, Rivero did some of his best acting with experimental directors like José Estrada and Francisco Del Villar, who have been lauded for making the most daring movies of the time.

Written by acclaimed novelist Vicente Leñero, Del Villar’s El Llanto del la Tortuga (The Turtle’s Cry) was a sharp criticism of the excesses of Mexico’s upper class. Murders, orgies, abuse of power and money squandering while others sweat to make ends meet are just some of the film’s charms. The role of Carlos, an attractive womanizer who lives off Diana (played by Isela Vega), was tailor-made for Rivero. Ultracynical, arrogant and depraved, Carlos is perhaps his best role.

It was in the midst of the studio-state war that the studios came up with Bellas de Noche (Night Beauties), a comedy that takes place almost entirely within a bar. Inspired by the rumbera musicals of the 1940s, Bellas revolves around the life of taxi dancers, or ficheras. The film starred Rivero, Sasha Montenegro and a host of comics including Eduardo de la Peña. Filled with jokes, scantily clad women and the beautiful 1950s tropical boleros of the Sonora Santanera orchestra, Bellas — though trashed by the critics — was one of the biggest box-office hits in the history of Mexican cinema.

Unfortunately, Bellas’ monstrous success spawned the fichera genre, which degenerated into some of the worst movies in Mexican history. Full of awful double-entendre jokes, profanity and gratuitous nudity, many of these films featured the Rivero-Montenegro “dream couple.”

Film historians point to the ficheras as playing a key role in the death of the country’s commercial cinema. Rivero acknowledges that he was partially responsible for this. “Mexican cinema went from being a family-oriented cinema, where at least three or four members of a family would go every Sunday to the movies,” he says, “to being movies for men.”

STATE-FUNDED MEXICAN CINEMA suffered a severe blow in 1976 when President José López Portillo put his sister Margarita in charge of the Banco Cinematográfico. She closed the bank down, ä declaring that it was time for the state-nurtured filmmakers to make it on their own.

Like the rest of the country, the film industry had to scramble just to survive. “Many people lost fortunes,” Rivero recalls. “Those that were rich became middle class. The middle class became poor, and the poor lost everything. Only the politicians remained rich.”

Yet the industry was still a source of jobs for thousands, and Rivero was still the box-office king. Despite being in his 40s, with graying hair, he muscled out younger rivals and fended off legitimate threats to his throne from actors like Valentín Trujillo and Fernando Allende. His personal life, however, was a different matter. In 1978 he divorced Irene Hammer, his longtime wife, with whom he had two grown sons. (Always protective of his family life, Rivero avoids talking about it.)

Rivero acknowledges that he has worked in bad movies, but says that he never permitted himself to fall so low as to act in a Mexican video. Rather, he relocated to Hollywood.

His decision to leave Mexico has paid off, he says. In Hollywood, he met and married Betty Moran, a television writer. He has never been able to reach the superstar status that he held in Mexico, but he has managed to make a living off secondary roles — as well as landing the lead in La Chacala, a recent supernatural telenovela — while being in a position to produce his own movies.

Undoubtedly his biggest project was Fist Fighter (1989), in which Rivero played a laconic, bare-knuckled Arizona boxer who sets out to avenge the death of his brother in Bolivia. It was filmed in Mexico in English, with a cast from the United States and Spain. With a budget of $1 million, it was one of the most expensive independent Mexican films of the decade. “For Mexico, the film’s budget and production was like Gone With the Wind’s,” Rivero says.

He trained for four months under boxing guru Jimmy Nickerson — who had prepared Sylvester Stallone for some of his Rocky movies, as well as Robert De Niro for Raging Bull — and, at 50, displayed perhaps his sharpest physique ever. Under Frank Zuñiga’s crisply directed camera movements, he looked amazing slugging it out against younger and hulkier B-movie star Matthias Hues.

Fist Fighter raked in $15 million in the United States alone. American movie critics derided the script but praised the film’s good look and star’s screen presence. “Rivero projects a rarely seen burly wholesomeness, like a matinee idol from a gentle, less cynical era,” wrote a Los Angeles Times reviewer.

More recently, Rivero went back to Mexico to play the part of the fiendish Severin Cortes in the U.S.-produced The Pearl, based on the John Steinbeck novella. The film could be released this year. And Mexico’s current crop of new filmmakers is a good sign of things to come, he says. He hopes to work with them soon.

Despite his being away for long periods of time, Rivero says reporters are still aware of his moves every time he returns to Mexico. Some of the younger moviegoers may not know who he is, but he is still recognized by the older ones.

He says, “I can feel that I am still in the heart of my fans.” Playing the Human Part Lupe Ontiveros on how not to be a diva by Judith Lewis LUPE ONTIVEROS ARRANGES HERSELF in the spare plastic conference-room chair at her publicist’s office, vexing about what makes a good interview.

“I was trying to think as I was driving here what I could tell you,” she says. “And I decided that you should just ask me what you want to know and let things come out naturally.” She folds her neatly manicured hands on the table and looks me square in the eye. “So,” she says determinedly, adjusting a string of pearls around her cool ochre blouse. “What do you want to know. Ask me anything. I’m yours — forever.”

Or at least for the next hour. But if “forever” means completely, she is not exaggerating. There are few people so stalwartly present in a conversation as Ontiveros. Each mundane question opens new floodgates of candor; every answer is delivered with a passion that makes her brown eyes grow wide and wider with wonder. There is no trivia in her world-view, and no trivial people.

Which is why, perhaps, Ontiveros became a star of independent film by playing mostly maids: She did not condescend. “I have made chicken salad out of chicken shit,” she says, with a long laugh from the gut. “That,” she adds, “is my favorite saying.” She imagines she has played a maid 300 times, if you count both theater and film. “At first my only lines were ‘Sí, señor, no, señor,’ you know, that kind of shit.”

Later, her domestic turns became more substantial: In Gregory Nava’s beautiful and tragic El Norte, her La Nacha mentored a young woman in the fine art of playing cheery and dumb so as not to threaten the gringa boss. At the moment, she can be seen in Todd Solondz’s Storytelling, where, with the help of the vengeance written into Solondz’s script, she quietly becomes the axis of suffering on which the story turns.

And in the new television series Leap of Faith, by the creators of Sex and the City, she’ll play a lesbian maid. “I’m this gay Latina who walks into the lives of these three women — they’re cool, they’re hot, all that — and starts bossing them around. They don’t know what to do about her, so they end up hiring her.

And she’s a terrible maid! She doesn’t clean! But she loves roast beef!” Ontiveros’ eyes twinkle. “The role,” she says, “was originally written for a Russian.” Two years ago, after 25 years of acting, Ontiveros scored a breakthrough when independent filmmaker Miguel Arteta came backstage to meet her after a theatrical showcase. “He was so shy, so beautiful,” Ontiveros recalls. “And he said, ‘I have a screenplay here, for a movie called Chuck and Buck, and I’d like you to consider the role of Beverly.’ I said ‘What? What’s her name again?’ He said ‘Beverly.’

I said, ‘Beverly? You want me to play a woman named Beverly? Well, I’ll do it!’ I didn’t even read the script.” “The role wasn’t written for a Latina,” says Arteta. “It was written for a white, neurotic girl in her 30s. But Lupe turned it into a much sweeter, tougher character. It played much better with her being a little older, and not behaving in a way audiences expect Latinas to behave. One of the delights of the film is that she goes against the prejudices of the audience.”

Chuck and Buck “was the only time I didn’t have to fake an accent,” says the El Paso­born Ontiveros. Her performance as the straight-talking theater house manager netted her a Best Supporting Actress award from the National Board of Review and an Independent Spirit nomination. The film, which centers on Chuck and Buck coming to terms with their sexual identities, also secured her segment of the gay male audience. “That’s wonderful,” Ontiveros says, “but I hear them calling me a diva, and I wish they wouldn’t.

I hate that word, diva. But if there’s anything I’ve tried to do in my life, it’s what the human part of me, my Christian part, my Catholic part, my spiritual part tells me to do — to give. And I will give until the day I die, and do until I can no longer do.” This is not, she contends, what makes a diva. A SOCIAL WORKER WITH AN UNDERGRADUATE degree in psychology from Texas Women’s University, Ontiveros was living in Los Angeles and between jobs when, in 1972, she answered a newspaper ad for movie extras. “I asked my husband, ‘Should I go in for this?’ And he said, ‘Sure, go for it!’

Oh, he’s sorry he said that now, so sorry he said that.” Elias Ontiveros had brought his family to California for better prospects in the automotive business; his wife caught the acting bug and, while pregnant with the second of what would later be three children, enrolled in an adult acting class at Hollywood High, which led to involvement in the Latino theater movement that was emerging in Los Angeles at the time. “It’s an interesting thing that used to happen to me then,” she says. “I’d say to people, ‘Just tell me I’m bad if I’m bad, and then I can go home.’ I was so uncertain, so insecure, always asking, ‘Am I doing this right?’ And everyone was supportive.

They’d tell me I was funny, or I was this, or that — enough for me to stay.” By 1975, she was pursuing theater in earnest, almost always with an activist edge. She helped start the Latino Theater Company, acted in plays with the Latino theater collective Nosotros, and eventually found her way to a role at the Mark Taper Forum, as the mother in Luis Valdez’s Zoot Suit, with which she went on to a successful run on Broadway.

She had not yet left her job as a social worker in Compton at the South-Central Los Angeles Regional Center for the Developmentally Disabled. “We created a Latino ensemble,” she says, “because we wanted to put our own messages on the stage, messages we knew were not going to be heard without us.” Writers such as Evelina Fernandez, writer of the independent film Luminarias, and Valdez himself came out of that effort.

“I’ve never left those issues, those concerns, never left . . . how can I say what it is I haven’t left? I’m not going to say my barrio, because I’ve never lived in a barrio. I hate that word to begin with, it has such a negative connotation to it. But I’ve never left my town behind, never abandoned my community.” She still lives in the same house in which she raised her three children, in Pico Rivera — “the Beverly Hills of Chicanos,” she explains, and says that no measure of lucre or fame could lure her to Bel-Air. “That’s not living.

That’s just existing behind high walls.” Among Latinos, Ontiveros is probably best known for playing Selena’s killer in the movie about the murdered singer, but she will have their attention again when the bilingual HBO feature Real Women Have Curves premieres in April.

In the film, based on the play by Josefina Lopez, she co-stars as the immigrant mother of an academically gifted and rebellious daughter — a role so unrelentingly bitter that only a comedian of her caliber could play it lovingly, and with humor. For the performance, she and her young co-star, America Ferrera, shared a Best Dramatic Actress award at “Gringolandia,” better known in the Anglo world as the Sundance Film Festival.

MIGUEL ARTETA REMEMBERS SHARING a table with Ontiveros and his agent, a woman from William Morris, at an awards dinner. “When I introduced them, Lupe just turned to my agent and said, ‘Why the hell aren’t you getting more work for Latina actors?’ She just tore into her. And she completely got away with it. My agent said, ‘Well, you’re right. I’ll try to be more aware of that.'” For a middle-aged Latina who stands a mere 4-feet-11 and started acting in her mid-30s, Ontiveros has done remarkably well, but it has entailed some compromise with an industry she considers hobbled when it comes to portraying Latinos. “Hollywood,” she told another journalist recently, “is chasing its tail.” When I ask her to elaborate, she shifts into the second person, as if studio heads have materialized in the room with us. “You just go around in circles!

You’re always saying, ‘We’re trying, we’re trying, we really are.’ But you’re not really trying. You’re chasing the image of the immigrant that you have in your mind. And you’re never going to catch up with it, because you don’t have sense enough to stop and say, ‘No. There’s something here between the mouth here and the tail, in between here'” — she brings the tips of her fingers to her solar plexus — “‘that can function.'” She has turned down roles she considers hateful and simplistic, but she has also played many — such as the happy housekeeper in the Spielberg-produced Goonies — she calls derogatory (“derogatory, because for a long time I was not seen beyond them”).

And while she might disparage the writing, she does not resent the work. “I’ve had a hell of a good time playing those maids,” she says. “Each one to me is very special. Her own heart and soul lingers with my heart and soul. No matter how much I resent the stupidity that is written into them, the audacity that the industry has when they portray us in such a nonsensical, idiotic, such — oh my God! — such a degrading manner, still, my humor survives in these maids.

I’m very proud of them. “And,” she adds, “blessed be God for those subservient roles, because if I would’ve been a spoiled child, a beautiful T&A kind of woman, skinny and young and what have you, I don’t think I would have gotten the soul of this industry.

I wouldn’t have understood the basic foundation of what this business is about, which is humanity, and character. And if I would’ve put on my high airs and not taken them,” she says, “I wouldn’t be where I am today. Most of all, I wouldn’t be in a postion to retire someday.”

By Joseph Treviño LA Weekly Writer

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