Sarita Montiel – the first Spanish woman in Hollywood

In the dark times of Franco’s dictatorship, Sarita Montiel was the only connection Spanish film had with Hollywood glamour, which belonged to some other brighter and happier planet

Her life was like the front page of a tabloid. She was the first Spanish actress that conquered Hollywood in the 1950’s when she acted opposite stars like Burt Lancaster and Gary Cooper. She charmed even Hemingway who, according to an urban legend, taught her to smoke cigars. In his last photograph, James Dean is smiling in her company. She mingled with Elizabeth Taylor, Billie Holiday and Marlon Brando. The lengthy list of her lovers includes the former Spanish socialist minister Indalecio Prieta, and the Nobel prize winner for biology Sever Ochoa (Montiel described him as 'the great love of my life, even though he spent most of his days in research, while I was away shooting films'). Although such a list of partners would suggest that we are talking about an exceptional artist who has indebted Spain and the rest of the world with her fascinating and complex roles, Montiel became a national myth due to a series of sensual populist melodramas, which emphasized her screaming sensuality as she performed cuplé for horny matadors and that are today regarded as pure camp. It is no wonder that she became Pedro Almodovar’s icon. He named her the 'Spanish Mae West', and referred to her in many of his films, from The Skin I Live In in which he named his heroine Vera Cruz after the title of the western in which Montiel starred with Burt Lancaster, to Bad Education in which she enters the story as an artificial figure that Enrique visualizes while reading 'Las visitas', as well as a diva from a movie poster, as a film character (clip from the movie That Woman in which he portrays the nun Soledad) and as the ultimate gay icon referenced by the transvestite Zahare (Gael Garcia Bernal) while performing her mythical number 'Quizas, quizas, quizas' (later popularized by Nat King Cole) wearing a Gaultier costume. The end of Franco’s tyranny also meant the end of Sarita Montiel’s film career: Nevertheless, she continued to appear on TV shows and in gossip magazines in later years revealing her private life and struggling in every which way to stop her fame from fading. As if that was not enough, in 2003, she wrote an autobiography Sara and Sex. Then she became a rapper and married a Cuban film producer who was 36 years her junior. A year before her death she said: “I’m not your typical woman. I am 84 years old and don’t have much time left. But, in the last 54 years there has been no one quite like me”. It sounds pretentious. Nevertheless, Almodovar definitely took her word, transforming her into a gay fetish. (Dragan Rubeša)