Maria Montez is a pioneering Latina you need to know about right now.
The Dominican trailblazer, known as the Queen of Technicolor, was one of the main attractions in 1940s blockbusters Arabian Nights, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, Cobra Women and many more. Today, fellow dominicana actress Celines Toribio is ready to tell her story in Maria Montez: The Movie, a biopic the former Univision host produced, wrote and is the protagonist, which is in select New York City theatres today.
Here, Toribio talks Montez’s impact on her own life, Dominicans taking over pop culture and another dream project of hers.
Can you tell us about Maria Montez, the subject of your film?
Maria Montez is one of the first Latinas who conquered Hollywood in 1940. She was born and raised in Barahona, the south part of Dominican Republic. She was a very visionary woman, very ahead of her time, most definitely. Every day after lunch at noon she used to run around her block to lose weight and have long legs because Hollywood is at the time for long legs. They used to call her "La Loca" in her town because back then ladies in the '20s and '30s were stay-at-home moms. Eventually, she married an Irish banker, William McFeeters, who was 20 years older than her. Then they divorced and moved to Puerto Rico, where she lived for seven years. She never gave up on her dreams of becoming an actress, so she told him, "I’m going to go to New York and pursue my acting career." Back then it was more Broadway than Hollywood. One day, she found out George Schaefer, a high executive of RKO Studios, would be at a restaurant. So she came into the restaurant where Schaefer was with an entourage of photographers, paid by her to make a grand entrance. Schaefer asked, "Who is this lady?" And that’s how she caught his attention. He asked her, would you ever consider being in a movie and she said, "What wrong could a movie do to me? Of course." She pretended she didn’t know who he was.
Since Dominican actresses in Hollywood weren’t the norm back then, did Maria have to pretend to be other types of Latinas?
She didn’t have to fake that she wasn't Dominican. On the contrary, they used to call her Cuban or Mexican or Brazilian, and she used to lift her skirt and say, "You see these legs? These legs are from the sun of Barahona." That’s one of the reasons why she was named the Queen of Technicolor, because back then technicians didn’t know how to maneuver black and white into color. Actresses like Maureen O'Hara, from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, came out very white or green on screen. She, because she had una piel mas tostada, came out beautiful, and technicians were like, "OMG. She is the queen of it. Color suits her."
How has Maria’s story inspired you in your own career?
When I moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career in 2007, I used to receive all the code sheets for auditions, for casting, and they always used to say, "Looking for the next Salma Hayek, but without accent, size 0." I’m not that. I don’t fit that role. I’m a size 6, and I have a heavy accent. I got very depressed. It was tough times because it was the first time moving away from my family in New York and living alone and pursuing and changing a career. I left the radio and television platform in New York to go pursue an acting career, and that’s when I said to myself, "How do I do it? How did she do it?" You know Maria, coming from my country, we’re not an audience of cinema. We’re a small country of 9 million people, and the film industry is blossoming just now. That’s when I got in depth into her life, and she inspirited me and kept me alive – she kept me going.