E is for Estrella Vacia

CINE DORADO

Another installment of our alphabet of unruly passions down Mexico way, brought to you by regular guest Shadowplayer David Melville.

The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama 

E is for La estrella vacía (The Empty Star) 

You get a lot by giving nothing. I have to give everything to get anything at all.

– Rita Macedo to María Félix

It’s no secret that Mexican cinema stole many of its best ideas from Hollywood or European models. A lavish 1958 production in colour and Mexiscope, La estrella vacía (The Empty Star) is superficially a rip-off of The Bad and the Beautiful (Vincente Minnelli, 1952) and The Barefoot Contessa (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1954), two gloriously lurid exposés of the dark side of Tinseltown. Its writer/director, Emilio Gómez Muriel, plunges us into the same piranha pool of glamorous egomaniac monsters – all ready to devour each other at a moment’s notice, if that’s what it takes to get ahead. He also borrows the complex multi-flashback structure, where a big star is remembered by everyone they used and abused on the way to the top.

Stars, of course, don’t come any bigger than María Félix – who here triumphs over her limited acting skills by essentially playing herself. Cast as a ferociously ambitious actress named Olga Lang, she seduces and discards a series of hapless men, only to wind up as a wretchedly unhappy prisoner in her own luxurious cage. Her dark beauty was never more bewitching than it is here. Her huge basilisk eyes glow, with an almost orgasmic thrill, when an obscenely rich sugar-daddy gifts her with a hideous pink Cadillac (approximately three city blocks long) or a camp fashion stylist wraps her up in a ludicrously opulent chinchilla coat.

As we can guess from María’s flamboyant performance, the term ‘too much’ is not part of this lady’s vocabulary. Just in case we miss the real-life connection, the soundtrack includes snatches of ‘María Bonita’ – a hit song composed by Agustín Lara (one of Maria’s many off-screen husbands) in honour of the star herself. This intense degree of self-revelation is what makes La estrella vacía so wildly compelling. It’s been rumoured that Rita Hayworth refused to play The Barefoot Contessa because it was modelled too closely on her own life, and that Gina Lollobrigida turned down The Lady without Camellias (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1953) for similar reasons.* María Félix clearly had no such qualms.

Not that the story is entirely true to life. The first flashback introduces María as a young wannabe from the sticks, newly arrived in Mexico City and hustling after her first job. The girl we see on screen looks a well-preserved 45 (María was born in 1914) and already boasts a fabulous wardrobe by Balenciaga and Jean Patou. Falling in love with a writer (Ignacio López Tarso) she gets pregnant but aborts his baby (two things Hollywood would not have allowed) and soon dumps him for a slick wheeler-dealer played by Tito Junco. Her new man catapults her to fame by a simple but effective trick. When a famous matador is fatally gored in the bullring, Maria pretends she was his fiancée and poses tearfully at his deathbed for a swarm of paparazzi.

There are, of course, whispered intimations of the casting couch. (As Maria’s alcoholic flatmate warns her: “Contracts don’t just get signed in offices!”) Still, the script asks us to believe that María never sleeps with Junco. She just graciously allows him to set her up in a lavish penthouse and star her in a string of prize-winning but money-losing motion pictures. (To be fair, many a Hollywood star’s memoir tells us much the same thing.) There are no such alibis when she hooks up with Mexico’s wealthiest tycoon. (“He owns the building you live in, the studio you work in, perhaps even the water you drink!”) He fires Junco, to whom María pledges her undying love and loyalty. She then promptly picks up the telephone and calls the tycoon.

María soon embezzles enough money to be comfortably set-up when said tycoon drops dead of a heart attack. She blows most of it, alas, on a new husband – a composer who takes a job with her company, and then uses it to screw all the available starlets. When María dares to complain, he beats her up and breaks her nose. It’s her gay stylist who helps her back from the brink, never mind that his loyalty strikes her as some sort of character defect. (“You know you don’t have anyone. That’s why you value friendship, because you have nothing else!”) He gets his due only after she dies in a plane crash. Moping around her mock-Beverly Hills mansion, one of the other men admits: “You are the only one who loved her without interest!”

Our own interest in La estrella vacía will hinge on an appetite for showbiz sleaze and gossip, and also a fascination with María Félix. That lady’s 30-year-reign as Queen of Mexican Cinema embodied a sort of Platonic Ideal of Motion Picture Stardom, one that was wholly divorced from minor technicalities like acting or talent. Unlike the heroines of The Barefoot Contessa or The Lady without Camellias, the tragic diva in La estrella vacía is not the hapless victim of a cruel and male-dominated industry. Whether we call her María Félix or Olga Lang, she is – gloriously and without apology – at once her own creator and her own myth. This woman has no need of a mere man to destroy her. Proudly, she is nobody’s victim but her own. 

David Melville

*Reri, star of Murnau’s TABU, sued the producers of BAREFOOT CONTESSA claiming the film’s plotline was plagiarized from her own life story. 

6 Responses to “E is for Estrella Vacia”

  1. Can either of the Davids shed any light on film censorship in Mexico during its ‘Golden Age of melodrama’? As you say, they seem to have got away with a lot of things the Code would not have allowed. Was there no Mexican equivalent of the Catholic League of Decency?

  2. david wingrove Says:

    I imagine that a censorship code existed in Mexico but (like so many other rules) it was probably not enforced systematically. Although Mexico is a Catholic country, it was for years the easiest place in the Western world to get a divorce.

    Any producer with censorship problems could probably make a large ‘donation’ to a worthy cause…and said problems would magically disappear.

  3. Wow does this ever sound FABULOUS!

  4. Just from the bits I saw while grabbing frames, it’s adorably lurid.

    Bunuel’s films certainly show behaviour that would have probably been unacceptable in North American movies of the time, and by the time of Simon of the Desert there’s nudity too. So I guess there was greater latitude in some areas, at least.

  5. Christopher Says:

    the better mexican films and programs have always had a knack for skirting around taboos with mere images of sensuality and suggestion .Particular curves in a womans figure,well worn dresses and gowns,school uniforms.legs,buttocks.Images that appear in innocent settings.Things that appear sexual without blatantly calling attention to it.

  6. david wingrove Says:

    Yes, and this movie is full of them!

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