Javier Bardem's latest Oscar nomination is cause for celebration among Hispanics and for anyone who loves good acting. He is the latest in a line of distinguished Hispanic Academy Award nominees that began in 1947 with U.S.-born Thomas Gomez. While celebrating Bardem's well-deserved success, as well as that of recent Hispanic nominees such as Penélope Cruz (who, like husband Bardem, has won an Oscar) and Salma Hayek, we should note that these three are foreign nationals.
Gomez's career shows some of the barriers that Hispanic actors in general have faced in the Academy, but in particular how challenging it has been for U.S.-born Hispanics. Though Gomez was a prominent character actor in his day, today his barrier-breaking nomination is not even noted among numerous other firsts listed on the Academy's website.
Gomez would not have identified with either of our current terms, "Hispanic" or "Latino," but rather with "Latin" or "Spanish." He probably wasn't even aware of his status as a first. The only racial or ethnic minority to receive a nomination before him was the African-American actress Hattie McDaniel, the best supporting actress winner in 1939 for "Gone With the Wind."
Gomez's lack of ethnic consciousness has much to do with his time. He was born in 1905, in the wake of the jingoistic Spanish-American War, and grew up during the nationalistic period of World War I. His paternal grandparents had emigrated from Spain in the 1840s, settling into the Spanish Creole society of New Orleans. When the family moved to Manhattan at the end of the century, they deemed assimilation necessary for their success. "Thomas Gomez" was the mildly Anglicized stage name for Sabino Tomas Gomez, a name he kept legally until his death in 1971.
Gomez was nominated as a supporting actor for his portrayal of a carousel operator in "Ride the Pink Horse," a film noir set in New Mexico. "Pancho" is the wise fool, the peasant with a heart of gold. He speaks broken English through a missing front tooth, runs around barefoot, unshaven, wearing a tattered sombrero. As the publicity department at Universal so sensitively put it: "Thomas Gomez is a big, greasy, tequila-swilling slob, who has one brief glow of nobility." Like McDaniel's Mammy, the role is one that did not threaten the dominant Anglo culture.
Pancho was Gomez's first Hollywood role as a Hispanic. He had already played a great variety of roles -- a police inspector, a king and a count, among others. He was developing a reputation as a criminal in such pictures as "White Savage" and "Johnny O'Clock." As Humphrey Bogart said to him after they shot "Key Largo," "That was the essential heavy, pal." Moreover, before Hollywood, he had spent two successful decades on Broadway, playing a Hispanic only once, before heading West in 1943.
Shakespeare to Big Daddy
From the late '40s through the early '60s, Gomez occasionally returned to Broadway as a "movie star" (as publicity phrased it) in classic roles: a memorable Claudius in "Hamlet," and the second (and Tennessee Williams' preferred) Big Daddy in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." Back in Hollywood he would be typecast continually in nearly 60 movies and in many TV appearances, if not as a Mexican, as what were then called "ethnic types": American Indian, "half-breed," Italian, Chinese and, in Gomez's own words, "a raft of Latin American dictators."
Still, his performance in "Ride the Pink Horse" won praise from Mexican and Latin American dignitaries for its humanity and depth. Pancho, an American character, represented everything Gomez's parents had tried to avoid in pulling the family upward toward the American middle class. Gomez was not nominated for his subsequent fine work as the bookie Leo Morse in "Force of Evil," the goon Curly Hoff in "Key Largo" or other nonethnic roles.
He lost the Oscar to Edmund Gwenn, portraying Kris Kringle in "Miracle on 34th Street." The following year, Gomez's friend, Puerto Rican-born José Ferrer, was nominated for supporting actor, and in 1952 Ferrer became the first Hispanic to win an Academy Award, for best actor. Mexican-born Anthony Quinn received four acting nominations and two Oscars in the 1950s. The gates were opened for Hispanic actors, at least those who were foreign-born.
It is remarkable that the only U.S.-born Hispanic ever to win an Oscar for acting is, as the Academy's website describes her, "Queens, N.Y.-born American actress Mercedes Ruehl (of Cuban and Irish extraction)." That was in 1991 (a supporting actress win for "The Fisher King"). With the exception of Ruehl, the American Hispanic actor, whether playing Hispanic or non-Hispanic roles, does not get the Oscar.
Poet Gregory Hewett has written a biography of Thomas Gomez, "The Heavy." He is associate professor of English at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.