“The talent is there,” Reyes says. “It’s access to better roles, major roles, and roles that engender Oscar nominations. Salma Hayek had to produce her own film, ‘Frida,’ which got her an Oscar nomination.”
Latino actors were happy to see former CIA officer Tony Mendez’s account of rescuing hostages in Iran get made into an upcoming movie, Morales said, but were quietly envious when director Ben Affleck took the lead role as Mendez in “Argo” for himself. It was reminiscent of the film version of Isabel Allende’s novel “The House of the Spirits,” with Jeremy Irons, Meryl Streep and Glenn Close cast as leads and Latinos in supporting roles. Or when Italian Americans Patti LuPone and Madonna, respectively, got the nod to play Eva Peron in “Evita” on Broadway and in the movie.
Aside from playing overtly Latino characters, Latino actors are just as eager for opportunities to play big parts that have nothing to do with being Latino.
“How can you be cast as the most bankable name when the most bankable names aren’t Latino?” Morales said. “How can you become a bankable leading actor when you won’t get asked?”
How honorees are chosen
The made-on-the-Potomac awards show has come a long way since Washington Post television critic Tom Shales called the honors “a new and not particularly essential device for paying tribute to America’s cultural luminaries” in his review of the first awards gala in December 1978.
“The first several years we couldn’t give the tickets away,” Kaiser says.
The annual December affair was conceived by George Stevens Jr. and co-producer Nick Vanoff. Stevens, who previously founded the American Film Institute, has been co-producing the honors ever since, now with his son, Michael. The productions have won four consecutive Emmys for best variety special.
The criterion for the honors is “excellence” achieved by artists in dance, music, theater, opera, film or television who “have made significant contributions to American culture,” according to the ballot for nominations. The honorees at the celebration Dec. 2 (for broadcast Dec. 26 on CBS) will be: Buddy Guy, Dustin Hoffman, David Letterman, Natalia Makarova, John Paul Jones, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant.
In the early years of the honors, Stevens and members of the Kennedy Center board had a great say in picking the winners, Kaiser says. During the first 22 years, zero Latinos were honored, “which was incorrect,” says Kaiser, who became president in 2001. Stevens declined to be interviewed.