One Degree of Separación: Latin@s Still Invisible in Hollywood

Phillip Seymour Hoffman and John Ortiz
Phillip Seymour Hoffman and John Ortiz

When I got wind last month of the unexpected passing of Phillip Seymour Hoffman, I was of course, saddened, and then contemplated it as another New York tragedy about a Downtown artist with great talent whose death garnered headlines because he had managed to break thorough into Hollywood celebrity. In other words, a story close to one of my worlds–the intersection of Downtown and the Boricua/Latin@ arts scene–but at the same time somewhat distant. But when the next day the identity of the person who found Hoffman’s body was revealed, it became a case of just one degree of separation.

The person who found Hoffman was David Bar Katz, someone I spent quite a few Saturdays with in the early 90s when we were invited to play pick-up basketball on a Houston Street court with John Leguizamo, who in those days was just starting to get Hollywood roles and was better known for his comic monologues in alternative spaces like P.S. 122 in the East Village. Also playing with us were figures like the late Joe Vasquez, director of Hanging With The Homeboys, the actor Esai Morales, and producer/DJ Jellybean Benítez, who became famous through his romantic and professional collaborations with Madonna on songs like “Holiday” and “Lucky Star.”

Madonna and Jellybean
Madonna and Jellybean

During this period, Katz and Leguizamo were starting to collaborate on an upcoming 1/2 hour sketch comedy television series called House of Buggin‘, conceived of as a kind of Latin@ version of In Living Color for the fledgling Fox network. Many episodes of the show are currently available on Youtube, and I strongly recommend checking them out–while a tad inconsistent, it remains probably the best Latin@-driven comedy show in American television history, and another indictment of Saturday Night Live’s pathetic failure to consistently feature Latin@ talent. Two of my favorite sketches are here and here. (Check out my boy Luis Guzmán and the lovely Yelba Osorio!)

None of us could ball on the level of say, Bobbito Garcia, but we had fun for a while, and eventually Johnny Leggs became a more or less big time movie star, divorced a friend of mine, we lost touch, and after a few years, I pretty much forgot about David Bar Katz. But now, here he was, polar vortex lurking, in a West Village apartment and having the horrible experience of discovering his dear friend Hoffman surrounded by several bags of heroin. After navigating the stories that followed about the busts of the jazz guy who apparently supplied Hoffman with his stuff, I realized that I’d forgotten that Phillip had been artistic co-direcor of Downtown’s LAByrinth Theater Company, and that he co-starred with LAByrinth co-director John Ortiz in productions of Jack Goes Boating in 2007 and Othello in 2009. This piece in the Times talks about Hoffman and Ortiz as close friends.

John Ortiz is an extremely talented actor who I’d also met many years ago by accident at the Public Theater when he was just starting his career. Like many Downtown Latin@s, he is an unheralded sort who has spent most of his career playing minor roles in action flicks and cop shows as well as excelling in theatrical productions seen by a marginal, if elite audience. Aside from his subtly brilliant performance in Silver Linings Playbook, or maybe you remember him as Willie Colón in El Cantante, he is largely unknown. The last time I interviewed him was  for a Hartford production of Calderón de Barca’s La Vida es Sueño, where he played the lead, Segismundo, as re-imagined by Boricua playwright José Rivera, who went on to write screenplay adaptations for The Motorcycle Diaries and On the Road.

If you look at the list of actors of the LABryrinth–which includes working film actors like David Zayas, Daphne Rubin-Vega, and Lauren Velez–you’ll find that it appears half of its membership is Latin@. But despite their association with, or in at least one case, close ties to Hoffman, none of them have anywhere close to his visibility. Of course it should be noted that when we talk about Hoffman we’re talking about a giant, probably a genius of his profession, and it’s possible that guidance and support from him may have advanced some of the company’s careers. But it’s unfortunate that there is little written about Latin@s in theater or as serious actors outside of the standard discourse about Hollywood stars like Zoe Saldaña, Eva Mendes, Jessica Alba, Wilmer Valderrama, etc.

Now that Oscar night is upon us, it should be remembered that only three Puerto Rican actors, José Ferrer, Rita Moreno, and Benicio del Toro, have won an Academy Award, and neither of them were born in the U.S. (Mercedes Ruehl, born in Queens, of half-Cuban descent, and Anthony Quinn, born in Mexico and raised in El Paso and LA, were also winners.) In recent years we have seen a resurgence of actors and directors from Spain and Mexico, the most notable being the director Alfoso Cuarón with his hit film Gravity, which stars two actors, George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, who could be mistaken for Latin@s depending on how the light hits their faces. Back in the day we used to joke about how despite its pioneering multicultural cast, the original Star Trek had zero Latin@ characters. In space, no one could hear us scream.

In the last five years, the actors with some affiliation to the Latin@ ethos nominated to the Oscars were the Spaniard Javier Bardem, Demián Bichir from Mexico, the French Argentinean Bérenice Bejo, the Puerto Rican-born Joaquin Phoenix, and the Kenya-born Mexican Lupita Nyong’o, Although I admire all these actors, it’s perturbing that we aren’t seeing the ascension of talent from New York or Los Angeles, Chicago or Texas. We are missing the potential of vibrant, bilingual, multi-colored characters with a Nuyorican, LA Chicano, Miami Cuban, Heights Dominican, Atlanta Colombian attitude. Is it because we’re not producing anyone with skills, or is it that there’s just no mechanism for talented Latin@ actors to play serious roles, grow, and advance to the level of their non-Latin@ peers?

Yet another study has been published that says that the presence of minorities and women in show business continues to be unrepresentative of our demographic reality. Darnell Hunt, the UCLA professor whose department published the study, said “The report paints a picture of an industry that is woefully out of touch with an emerging America, an America that’s becoming more diverse by the day”. He added: “Hollywood does pretty well financially right now, but it could do a lot better if it were better reflecting the diversity of America.”

It’s surprising, then, that one of the biggest industries in a country that prides itself on being the leader of the free enterprise system and capital accumulation par excellence does not take the opportunity to “do a lot better” by being more inclusive. It’s even forgotten that recognizing the turbulent encounter between El Norte y El Sur can make for dynamic, if controversial cinema. Over 50 years ago, two films that at least tried to confront the issue of racism and discrimination against Latin@s, Giant and West Side Story, garnered 21 nominations and 11 awards.

We look forward to the continuing efforts of producers, directors, and actors from Latin America and Spain, which almost always inform us and continue to shape us, and the César Chávez biopic is about to come out, and there’s always the chance that the ironic brattiness of Aubrey Plaza will amount to something impactful. But the image of the US Latin@ in Hollywood continues to be largely out of focus. We remain so close to giants like Phillip Seymour Hoffman, yet so far from a significant presence on the big screen.

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