Saturday, July 07, 2007

¡Ay, Ninón!

I only just found out about this blog-a-thon, so I'm late on the scene; nonetheless, I was taken for a moment by the idea of "the performance that changed my life." Indeed, there are so many that I consider near and dear to my heart: Gene Kelly in Singin' in the Rain, Claude Rains in Casablanca, James Dean in Rebel without a Cause, Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves and (perhaps surprisingly) Arsinée Khanjian in Speaking Parts. I saw all of these for the first time (or at least seriously for the first time) either right after college or during graduate school and therefore during my formative period as a professional film geek; hence, all these are at least influential.

But which performance changed my life? That would probably be...

Ninón Sevilla as Elena Tejero in Aventurera

Ninón is not the best-known actress from the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema from the 1940s; indeed, she may not even be the best, considering that she would be competing with luminaries like María Félix and Dolores del Rio. But she's definitely got something. (She's the one in the center of the picture above. As if you could look anywhere else -- although yes, Miguel Inclán is one of the most amazing character actors ever.) In the cabaretera films (a genre which mixes the musical, the melodrama and film noir in a singularly Mexican way), Sevilla
was by far and above the best. In this film, she captivates the screen: defiant, sexual, sure of her destiny and her doom. She's fierce and she's fiesty and she wears pineapples on her head in one rump-shaking dance number.But why is this the performance that changed my life? Well, there are three extra-diegetic factors that contribute to this. For one, this is one of my favorite movies that I saw the first time I went to the Telluride Film Festival in 1994, back when I was an intern. Shown as a rediscovered classic (which had only recently been subtitled -- finally -- in English), the movie made an indelible impression that I couldn't shake for some time afterwards, as I had never seen anything like it before. Secondly, it helps that only a couple days after seeing the film, I actually had a long chat with the woman in a van ride back to Montrose, whereupon she became the first movie star I ever actually had a conversation with. (I almost fell out of the van when I realized who I was sitting next to -- and she was thrilled to finally speak Spanish with someone other than her translator.) Aged 73 then, she still had the fire and verve in her and was an immensely classy lady.

Finally, and this is the most important reason, I believe this is one of the very first Latin American films I had ever seen. That seems strange now, since I am now a film scholar who
specializes in Latin American cinema, but I was not really introduced to the region's cinema until my first semester of grad school, which happened immediately after this festival. By this point I knew I wanted to do something with Latin America and I knew I wanted to do something with film, but somehow I never realized the two could go together. Thus, the performance that carries this film was a starting point into what would eventually become my future. And for that, muchisimas gracias, doña Ninón.

Oh, and just in case you think I'm the only one who thinks she's amazing, I w
ill point out that in some research I did years ago, she is mentioned in Cahiers du Cinéma in the Christmas issue of 1953. The title of that piece demonstrates the company she kept: "Greta, Marlene, Ninon." Priceless.
This entry is part of the Performance That Changed My Life Blogathon -- please feel free to visit the other sites on the list at that site, particularly since they probably had more time to prepare and I'm late, heh. Thanks to Emma for putting all of this together!


Jose said...

Great choice.
Personally I have never seen that film, or many of the Mexican Golden Era for that matter. But I grew up with novelas and Ninón was always an actress that stole scenes. Even in the smallest roles, she drew all eyes towards her.


I've seen cabaretera films starring Maria Antonieta Pons and other actresses, but Ninon Sevilla absolutely defined the genre. Her bratty attitude, her rolling eyes, her brash dancing style, her death scenes! She's a ball of fire that commands the screen. Adventurera is undoubtedly her best film, but also worth seeing: Coqueta, Perdida, Amor y Pecado and Pecadora, where she upstages Emilia Guiu in a supporting role.

Anonymous said...

The absolute foremost Rumbera of all time. Ninon Sevilla is #1.

JF said...

I enjoyed your comments on Ninon Sevilla in "Cabaretera". Her persona is so wildly amazing, an "incroccio" of sin and virtue. BTW, we are neighbours (Takomaparkenses!!).
Saludos. JF

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