I’ve been very pleased about Demian Bichir’s Best Actor Academy Award nomination because he’s amazing in A Better Life, both one of the best issue movies and one of the best all-around movies of 2011. But I hadn’t realized that he was only the fourth Latino actor to ever be nominated for Best Actor — and the first since 1988 when Edward James Olmos was nominated for Stand and Deliver.
Only one Latino’s ever won the top prize, José Ferrer, who won in 1950 for playing Cyrano de Bergerac. Ferrer was also nominated for Best Supporting Actor in 1948 for playing the Dauphin, Charles VII in Joan of Arc, and for Best Actor again in 1952 for playing Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec in the original Moulin Rouge (a role that would be played by a Latino actor again when John Leguizamo took it on in Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation). Anthony Quinn was nominated in 1957 for playing an Italian rancher in Wild Is the Wind. But even as the Latino population of the United State’s exploded, the Academy’s top acting awards have failed to recognize not just Latino actors, but Latino actors playing Latino character. Bichir is the second Latino actor to get a Best Actor nod for playing a character who is supposed to be Latino, and for telling a story about a specifically Latino issue. That’s kind of astonishing — and it says a lot about Hollywood’s relationship to one of the fastest-growing sectors of the American population.