Lupe Ontiveros: Real Actresses Know That There Are No Small Roles

30 Jul

Lupe Ontiveros (1942-2012). Though the Texas native earned two degrees at Texas Women’s University, both were in fields other than acting: psychology and social work. Acting came later after she and her husband relocated to California.

Well, in case you missed it on the news, and it certainly was not given anything like major coverage, Lupe Ontiveros, one of the most reliable character actresses in the biz, passed away on July 26 at the age of 69.  Per the Internet Movie Database, Ontiveros racked up an impressive 106 film and TV credits over the years, beginning with a role  in the original Charlie’s Angels in 1976 and continuing all the way to something entitled Land of the Free which is currently in post-production and should be released next year.

I’m sure I saw Ontiveros in scads of programs before I ever really noticed her–until her appearance in a popular 1997 biopic, but I’m getting ahead of myself; she was, by her own admission, often cast as maids and such.  Even one of the headlines announcing her death made mention of how she frequently portrayed domestics though she approached every single one of them as any actor would approach any character–the goal being to humanize the character and bring as much depth and personality as possible. The famous quotation, “There are no small roles only small actors,” is credited to no less than the great acting guru Konstantin Stanislavisky. Ontiveros, born in El Paso and a graduate of Texas Women’s University, certainly took that to be true as she once noted, “I’ve given every maid I’ve portrayed soul and heart.” She was also glad, per the New York Times,  “to represent those hands that labor in this country.”

Selena director Gregory Nava (l) and Ontiveros (r). The actress appeared in Nava’s acclaimed drama about Guatamalan refugees, El Norte (released commercially in 1984), featuring an Oscar nominated screenplay co-written by Nava and his wife, Anna Thomas. Nava and Thomas also co-wrote the screenplay for Selena. Additionally, Nava and Ontiveros worked together on 1995’s Mi Familia.

Anyway, I got my first truly vivid impression of Ontiveros in Selena, the 1997 account of the life and tragic death of slain Tejano singing sensation Selena Quintanilla-Pérez, which established Jennifer Lopez as a major star. Ontiveros took on the role of Yolanda Saldívar, the woman who ran the singer’s official fan club and eventually killed her upon being exposed as an embezzler. Saldívar, currently serving time for the murder, has long claimed the shooting was an accident. Clearly, the role of Saldívar was a thankless one; after all, who wants to play the murderer of a beloved cultural icon–especially when that icon is young, beautiful, and extremely talented? The sky was the limit for Selena until Saldívar put an end to her.  Thankless role or not, Ontiveros played the part matter-of-factly. She didn’t back away from the character nor did she play her as a monster. She inhabited the part and made it her own.  If you’ve never seen Selena, you should consider adding it to your movie bucket list not only as a reminder of the actual Selena but also as proof that before Lopez’s celebrity overwhelmed her every move, she actually showed promise as an actress. (Indeed, Lopez earned a Golden Globe for her performance.) Plus, it’s a good way to see Ontiveros in action as she started coming into her own in more high profile roles.

Chuck and Buck writer-actor Mike White (l) and Ontiveros (r). The quirky, to say the least, indie film was made for about $250,000 and earned just over a million dollars at the box office during its original run. The film is directed by Miguel Arteta, whose other credits include Star Maps (1997), The Good Girl (2002), Cedar Rapids (2011) and TV’s Nurse Jackie, among others. Arteta, White, and Ontiveros were all nominated for Independent Spirit Awards for Chuck and Buck.

In 2000, Ontiveros played a key supporting role in Chuck and Buck, a fascinating, if creepy, micro-budgeted indie flick about a, well, “childlike” man (portrayed by screenwriter Mike White) who relentlessly pursues–okay, stalks–the object of his boyhood affection (played by Chris Weitz). What was simply a phase, an exercise in same-sex curiosity for Weitz’s Chuck, has turned out to be the defining relationship in Buck’s life. Ontiveros plays the role of a woman that Buck meets clearly by chance, but knowing her background is in theatre, Buck persuades her to produce his play, a labor of love which romanticizes his infatuation with Chuck. Ontiveros’s character is a professional though one with little or no experience as an actual producer, and Buck is clearly not in a good place, so there’s a little wry comedy going on there, and these two play off each other splendidly. It’s been years since the one time I saw the movie, so some of the details are a little hazy. What’s not hazy is all the acclaim Ontiveros garnered for her work in the movie, snagging “Best Supporting Actress” accolades from the likes of the National Board of Review as well as a nomination for an Independent Spirit Award. Indeed, it was the awards season announcement of Ontiveros as an NBR winner that prompted me to watch the movie in the first place, having been less than enthused by some of what I’d read when the film was first released earlier that year. Though Entertainment Weekly‘s Owen Gleiberman named this his #1 flick of the year, it’s definitely an acquired taste. It’s not horrible by any stretch, but its approach surely tests the limits of what many people find entertaining or even suspenseful. The cast includes Maya Rudolph, Paul Sand, and Paul Weitz, Chris Weitz’s near lookalike brother, effectively cast in the role of the actor hired to play Chuck’s counterpart in Buck’s play [1].

America Ferrera (l) and Ontiveros (r) in Real Women Have Curves, a movie that more than lives up to its title, but you’ll not get any spoilers from me. Ferrera and Ontiveros were later reunited in Our Family Wedding (2010).

After Chuck and Buck, Ontiveros segued to Real Women Have Curves, the 2002 sleeper that introduced audiences to America Ferrera, who would go on to star in such popular enterprises as The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (2005) and TV’s Ugly Betty, which premiered in 2006.  The award winning Real Women… shows what happens when a bright, first generation American (or Mexican-American) teenager clashes with her strong-willed “Old World” mother over the former’s plans for the future. Of course, the audience is primed to root for Ferrara’s heroine to strike it big on her own terms, which includes leaving behind the family’s dressmaking business (okay, it’s a sweatshop) and going to a fancy university, but Ontiveros brings passion to the role of a woman who really believes she has her daughter’s best interests at heart even if she can’t always express that in the most positive light.  It’s a nice showcase for both performers, who tied for acting honors at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival. Plus, as its title suggests, it puts the focus on women who don’t fit the standard Hollywood idealized vision of beauty, and it shows a Latino family realistically (loving, clashing, and working hard to make ends meet) without pandering to the usual stereotypes (i.e. illiterate gang bangers and cholas); moreover, it does as much as any film can to explore such familiar topics as generational clashes, which, in this case, are also cultural in nature.  This is a nifty little film that does a lot given its modest scale.  It is directed by Patricia Cardoso and co-written by Josefina Lopez and George LaVoo, based on Ms. Lopez’s play. The cast also includes George Lopez (no relation).

Ontiveros was a three time nominee for the ALMA award, that is, the American Latino Media Arts awards presented by the National Council for La Raza, honoring artistic Latino achievements in movies, music, and television. Ontiveros’s noms were for As Good As It Gets (1997), Reaper (2007), and Veronica’s Closet (1997); she won for the latter. The ALMA’s replaced the NCLR’s Brabo awards. Ontiveros was also nominated for that honor per her performance in the telefilm, And the Earth Did Not Swallow Him.

Ontiveros earned an Emmy nomination for her guest-starring role as Juanita “Mama” Solis,  meddlesome mother-in-law to Gabrielle Solis (Eva Longoria) in Desperate Housewives, back in the show’s smashing first year.  Though an expert foil for scheming Gabrielle, Ontiveros’s “Mama” was dealt a cruel blow not by her daughter-in-law but by random bad luck: first, a hit-and-run by the disturbed Andrew Van de Camp (Shawn Pyfrom) landed her in a hospital, comatose; then, after she woke from the coma, well, it wasn’t pretty–but it was funny, darkly funny as was the show’s strong suit back in the day. Though her stint on Desperate Housewives was relatively brief, and seemingly finite, Mama Solis would appear from time to time in flashbacks. She was even among the slate of departed characters who appeared one last time in the series finale back in May of this year.

Ontiveros’s many other credits include(d): As Good As It Gets (1997), Los Americans (2011),  Common Law (2012),  A Girl Like Me: The Gwen Araujo Story (2005),  The Goonies (1985), Hill Street Blues (1981-84), King of the Hill (2002), Reba (2005), Rob (2012), Veronica’s Closet (1997), and Weeds (2008). Her stage credits include the acclaimed, if short-lived, Broadway production of the musical Zoot Suit (1979), which  was made into a Golden Globe nominated film in 1981 [2].

Though she never received an Oscar nomination for her many acclaimed performances, Ontiveros earned recognition in other forums, but that’s almost beside the point. She worked hard, worked often, and made a name for herself no matter how big or small the role.  That’s quite a feat in such a competitive and unlikely field as acting.

Gracias, Lupe…

Lupe Ontiveros at the IMDb:

Ontiveros’s obituary in the New York Times:

Saldívar loses appeal:

EW’s Owen Gleiberman on naming Chuck and Buck the “Best’ film of 2000:

Zoot Suit at the Internet Broadway Database:

[1] – Trivia note: the Weitz brothers, with extensive filmographies as writers, producers, directors, and actors, including co-writing and co-directing 2002’s About a Boy (starring Hugh Grant), are the sons of Susan Kohner, an actress perhaps most famous as the restless light-skinned African American who “passes” for white in the famous 1959 remake of the classic tearjerker Imitation of Life; Kohner earned a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her performance. Chris Weitz directed 2011’s A Better Life, which netted a Best Actor nod for Demián Bichir.

[2] – Small world dept: Though Zoot Suit‘s Broadway run was short, the show nonetheless garnered a Best Featured Actor nod for Edward James Olmos, who later reprised his role in the film version. Of course, Olmos took his stunning talent and brooding good looks to TV, where he earned an Emmy award for his role as Lt. Castillo in the stylish 1980s crime drama, Miami Vice. Olmos subsequently garnered an Oscar nod for playing real life math teacher Jaime Esclante (recently deceased) in 1988’s Stand and Deliver.  Olmos portrays Abraham Quintanilla, Selena Quintanilla’s father and business manager in Selena.


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