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Alfonso Arau

Alfonso Arau

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Also Known As: Died:
Born: January 11, 1932 Cause of Death:
Birth Place: Mexico Profession: Cast ... actor director dancer producer mime screenwriter
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BIOGRAPHY

Better recognized as an actor by American moviegoers for essaying funny, vaguely menacing, sometimes self-aware Latino stereotypes, Alfonso Arau crafted an even more auspicious body of work as one of Mexico's most laurel-laden film directors. Starting as a film actor in the 1950s and breaking into television in revolutionary Cuba in the early 1960s, Arau re-immersed himself in the cinema of his native land in the 1970s, collaborating with Mexican film greats Alberto Isaac and Alejandro Jodorowsky and taking up the auteur mantle himself with the comedy "El águila descalza" (1971). He drew greater acclaim for the 1974 subversive comedy "Inspector Calzonzin." The 1980s saw him don some memorable comedic supporting roles in U.S. films, notably an amiable jefe of a drug gang in "Romancing the Stone" (1984) and a hyperbolic desperado in "Three Amigos!" (1986). He established himself in the upper echelon of directors with the multiple-award-winning "Like Water for Chocolate" (1992), based on the novel by his wife Laura Esquivel. The success garnered him work in the U.S. helming the period romance "A Walk in the Clouds" (1995), the oddball ensemble comedy "Picking Up the Pieces" (2000) and the ambitious TV miniseries remake of the "The Magnificent Ambersons" (A&E, 2002). Back in his native country, Arau would helm the surreal, would-be epic "Zapata" (2004) to a storm of controversy. Building a legacy of iconoclastic and mystically-tinged movies, Arau would be credited as a prime catalyst in the re-establishment of a distinctive identity for Mexican film.

He was born Alfonso Arau Incháustegui on Jan. 11, 1932 in Mexico City, Mexico. His father's work as a dentist afforded him a relatively privileged upbringing in the impoverished country, though the senior Arau would insist initially that Alfonso attend the city's public schools in order to develop empathy for the people of his country. He developed a fascination with the performing arts, becoming proficient at ballet and tap dancing, singing and acting, with a peculiar penchant for comedy. He went on to the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, where he first planned to study medicine. There, however, he met his first wife, a young ballerina, whose muse lured him back to dance, though the marriage would not last. He also studied acting under the tutelage of Seki Sano, himself a student of Method acting pioneer Constantin Stanislavski, the school's director of drama studies. Arau made a go as a professional dancer, but as of 1954, he began finding his skills as a comic actor in demand in Mexico's homegrown film industry.

He landed his first featured role in the 1954 Mexican comedy "El casto Susano," going on to a sequence of comic roles in films such as the Mexican roxploitation flick "La locura del rock and roll " (1957) and the lighthearted Western "Los pistolocos" (1960). Arau migrated to Cuba in 1958, and with the ascent of Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro's regime, he found himself a staple on Cuban television, hosting the variety show "El Show de Arau," which would run until 1964. Having established Communist bloc bona fides, he journeyed to East Germany, where he starred in "...und Deine Liebe auch" (1962), a somber, location-shot drama surrounding the building of the Berlin Wall and co-starring Armin Mueller-Stahl, later to become a Western character actor extraordinaire. In late 1964, Arau returned home take a role in Alberto Isaac's experimental film about the fallout of the theft of billiard balls from a small-town pool hall, "En este pueblo no hay ladrones ("There Are No Thieves in This Village") (1965), based on a story by Gabriel García Márquez and featuring both the author and Mexican directorial legend Luis Buñuel in supporting roles.

Arau returned to Europe in 1965, studying mime and media of dramatic expression with venerable French masters, and put up his own one-man pantomime show for a time. Returning to North America, he expanded his arts education further, attending UCLA's vaunted film school. He began a professional relationship with another soon-to-be-revered auteur, Alejandro Jodorowsky, taking an antagonistic role to Jodorowsky's mysterious protagonist in the latter's surreal Western "El Topo," which, though unreleased until 1970, would become a cult classic in the U.S. Arau also enjoyed the mentorship of American New Wave director Sam Peckinpah, who cast Arau as henchman to a villainous Mexican jefe in his visceral revisionist Western "The Wild Bunch" (1969). In the meantime, Arau tried his hand in a new medium, collaborating with Hector Ortega on a comic book, El Águila Descalza, about a factory worker-turned-mask vigilante who defends the working class against the machinations of a corrupt elite. After a few more Mexican comedies, Arau decided to take a broader hand in his work, scripting and directing a film adaptation of the comic. He crafted a loopy, over-the-top comedy, that featured El Águila fighting both his factory boss and American gangster masters, with Arau playing both the hero and the gringo heavy.

"El águila descalza" won the Ariel de Oro of Mexico's Oscar equivalent, the Ariel Awards, the next year. Some one-off roles periodically drew him back to the U.S., typically Mexican bandito stereotypes in Western series, as well as the Disney live-action adventure "Run, Cougar, Run" (1972). He reteamed with Isaac on "El rincón de las vírgenes" (1972), playing the assistant to a 1920s itinerant snake oil healer whose latest small-town rubes takes his claims too seriously and propose him for sainthood; and on another comic political critique, "Tivoli," a tale of a burlesque troupe, led by Arau, fighting to save its theater from the hypocritical government moralists. As auteur again, he worked from the comics of popular Mexican cartoonist Ruis to make another socially-conscious comedy, "Inspector Calzonzin" (1973), in which he played a Mexican indio on the lam who stumbles into a town run by a corrupt party functionary, who mistakes him for a government inspector. The send-up of Mexico's corrupt long-ruling party, PRI, resulted in the state censors severely editing the film. Meanwhile, Arau, while teaching a screenwriting class, began a relationship with a teacher and aspiring writer, Laura Esquivel. The couple married in 1975.

North of the border, he did another Western Mexicano turn in a Hollywood film, Kirk Douglas's revisionist western "Posse" (1975), and turned in a supporting but more memorable turn as a zealous tow-truck driver in Bob Zemeckis' gritty Kurt Russell comedy, "Used Cars" (1980). He wrote, directed and starred in another comic outing "Mojado Power" (1981), and, in 1985, he brought his wife on-staff. The couple co-scripted a soccer-themed tale, "El chido guan: el tacos de oro" ("The Cool One: Gold Tacos") (1986). Though criticized as ham-fisted, replete with "Rocky"/Hollywood-esque underdog narrative, the film drew six Ariel nominations, including a tandem nomination for the couple for Best Screenplay and a Best Actor nomination for Arau's son by his first marriage, Fernando Arau. Meanwhile, the senior Arau began a run of memorable performances in American films. In 1984, he put a new twist on the bandito in the hit romantic adventure, "Romancing the Stone," in which he played a belligerent leader of a Columbian drug gang who suddenly gives cheerful aid and comfort to Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas upon discovering Turner's character to be the romance novelist whose books he reads to his henchmen.

In 1986, his bandito went into overdrive for "Three Amigos!" with his portrayal of El Guapo, the gruff old-Hollywood Mexican stereotype of a border bandit, terrorizing a small village until clumsily confronted by three faded Hollywood silent movie stars (Steve Martin, Martin Short, Chevy Chase); the character was such a crass stereotype, it stirred the ire of Mexican-American groups. In 1987, he slipped back into his old political groove, supporting Alex Cox's surrealist allegory of Reagan foreign policy, "Walker," where he played a Nicaraguan aristocrat who is party to the coup d'etat by American soldier-of-fortune William Walker (Ed Harris). In 1989, Esquivel scored a major success with her novel Like Water for Chocolate, a magical but realism-infused tale of a Mexican girl, Tita, denied her true love by her repressive mother, who insists he marry her older sister, leading Tita to both sublimate and express her passions via her family's sumptuous culinary traditions. Arau produced and directed the film adaptation of the book, which, premiering in 1992, drew wide critical laud and impressive box office receipts - not only in Latin America but in the U.S., where its $22 million in revenues off a $2 million budget made it the top-grossing indie foreign language film up to that time.

The New York Times review called it "a Mexican film whose characters experience life so intensely that they sometimes literally smolder. The kitchen becomes a source of such witchcraft that a fervently prepared meal can fill diners with lust or grief or nausea, depending upon the cook's prevailing mood." The film won a sweep of the Ariels, taking 11 awards, but controversially failed to garner an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film. On top of that disappointment, the creative process strained Arau's relationship with Esquivel. They divorced in 1993, setting in motion an acrimonious legal process in which Esquivel sued Arau in New York, claiming he had fraudulently convinced her to sign away her rights to the property and thus sought $19 million of the film's total profits. Nevertheless, the success of "Chocolate" garnered the attention of Hollywood studios, and 20th Century Fox soon contracted Arau to work his magic on an ambitious English-language romance. He would wield a roughly $20 million budget for "A Walk in the Clouds." The film starred Keanu Reeves as a G.I. returning from service in World War II, striking up a relationship with a pregnant single woman and helping to smooth things with her scion of a wealthy family of California vintners by posing as her husband.

Though opening to mixed reviews, the film proved a darkhorse chick-flick hit, bringing in $50 million in the U.S. market. In 2000, he went back in front of the camera with a short turn as an oddball mystic in the Heather Graham/Luke Wilson/Casey Affleck romantic comedy "Committed." Behind the camera, he directed himself again - this time alongside Woody Allen, Sharon Stone, Fran Drescher, Elliott Gould, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Lou Diamond Phillips - mixing oddball comedy with magical realism in "Picking Up the Pieces," a quirky ensemble comedy about hijinks surrounding a possible miracle in a small Southwestern town. Arau next took on Booth Tarkington's great American tragedy The Magnificent Ambersons, which Orson Welles had attempted to make for RKO but was infamously recut and denuded, replete with a Hollywood ending, by the studio. Made for the A&E channel, the film boasted an impressive cast that included Madeleine Stowe, Bruce Greenwood, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Gretchen Mol and Jennifer Tilly, and was heavily marketed as an attempt to fulfill Welles' vision, working from his original script. Much discussed among cinephiles, it less than wowed critics and curiously wrapped with the RKO version's chipper ending.

Arau made another telefilm, "A Painted House" for the "Hallmark Hall of Fame," based on John Grisham's coming-of-age tale, and meanwhile immersed himself in a very personal, highly fictional and mystical tale of the great Mexican revolutionary "Zapata." Alternately subtitled "El sueño del héroe" ("The Dream of a Hero"), the film received a welter of hype in Mexico but was mired by cost-overruns and creative differences. Additionally, Arau's stylized treatment of the beloved historical figure, rendering him as a Native American shaman confronting power in symbolic visions, proved controversial with critics and a detriment to box office traffic. It premiered in the U.S. in late 2004 at the Santa Fe Film Festival, which concurrently bestowed its Luminaria Lifetime Achievement Award on the director. In 2010, Arau returned to Europe and a quirky small-town setting, directing the Italian film "L'imbroglio nel lenzuolo" ("The Trick in the Sheet") (2010), a play on the first years of silent films, when they were projected onto white sheets. He then took a rare acting gig, supporting a cast that included Steve Guttenberg and Beverly D'Angelo in the heartfelt indie family comedy "I Heart Shakey" (2012).

By Matthew Grimm

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