Marília Pêra: Brazilian film, TV and stage star
Remembering Brazilian stage, television, and film star Marília Pêra, whose acting and singing career spanned more than five decades.
Pêra died on Dec. 5 in Rio de Janeiro. Born Marília Soares Pêra on Jan. 22, 1943, in Rio, she was 72 years old.
Internationally, Marília Pêra is best known as the loud, vulgar prostitute Sueli, who becomes acquainted with São Paulo street kid Fernando Ramos da Silva in Hector Babenco’s well-received social drama Pixote / Pixote: A Lei do Mais Fraco (1981), a fierce indictment of Brazilian society’s utter disregard for its disadvantaged members.
In one pivotal – and widely talked about scene – she lets the titular character (da Silva, at the time 12 years old) suckle her breast.
In another, she pulls down her panties and sits in a dirty toilet while taunting Pixote, telling the boy that he looks like the fetus she has just aborted – which lies in a blood-soaked bucket next to the john.
National Society of Film Critics’ Best Actress winner
When Pixote was screened at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, New York Times critic Vincent Canby wrote, “The performances are almost too good to be true, but Mr. Da Silva and Miss Pera are splendid.”
Although Marília Pêra’s screen time is relatively brief (and notwithstanding a few theatrical flourishes), she made enough of an impact in the U.S. to be named the year’s Best Actress by both the National Society of Film Critics and the Boston Society of Film Critics.
Following these two wins, she was touted as a possible Academy Award contender. However, absurdly pushed in the Best Actress category, she was bypassed in favor of better known Hollywood stars with the backing of bigger studios/distributors.
The Boston Society of Film Critics’ Best Film, and the New York Film Critics Circle and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association’s Best Foreign Language Film, Pixote was nominated for the Best Foreign Film Golden Globe, but lost to that year’s eventual Best Picture Oscar winner, Hugh Hudson’s Chariots of Fire.
Brazil’s most widely acclaimed film production up to that time, Pixote was ironically ineligible for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award, as that country’s film commission had failed to submit Babenco’s movie within the allotted period. Although eligible in other competitive Oscar categories, Pixote ended up nominationless.
Carmen Miranda & Coco Chanel
From the mid-1960s on, Marília Pêra was kept busy on Brazilian television (e.g., the soap O Cafona, as a character named Shirley Sexy, 1971; the series Pé na Cova, 2013) and in the theater. On stage, she played Carmen Miranda on several occasions, in addition to the likes of Maria Callas, Coco Chanel, and iconic Brazilian singer Dalva de Oliveira.
As discussed in her interviews, Pêra’s stage work brought her not only prestige but also potentially life-threatening hazards. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, she fell afoul of Brazil’s far-right military and police, getting arrested and/or beaten several times.
Marília Pêra movies: ‘Bar Esperança,’ ‘Central Station’
On the big screen, Pixote remained Pêra’s one international hit. Over the course of nearly five decades, she was seen in a mere couple of dozen feature films.
Highlights include the following:
- Hugo Carvana’s Ipanema-set Bar Esperança (Hispanicized as Bar Esperanza at U.S. festivals, 1983), in which she delivers a brilliantly comic performance as a temperamental soap opera star. (Pêra herself had a reputation of being “difficult”; more on that further below.) Bar Esperança earned her the Best Actress Award at the Gramado Film Festival, Brazil’s top national cinema showcase.
- Wilson Barros’ uneven but entertaining Angels of the Night / Anjos da Noite (1987), with Marília Pêra stealing the show as another eccentric actress, this time enjoying São Paulo’s night life with a group of disparate (mostly LGBT) characters. Angels of the Night earned Pêra her second Gramado Film Festival Best Actress Award (tied with fellow TV star Betty Faria for Anjos do Arrabalde.)
- Walter Salles’ Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominee Central Station / Central do Brasil (1998), in which she is wasted in a non-role as Best Actress Oscar nominee Fernanda Montenegro’s pal.
According to a friend of the actress, Pêra, who had been reluctant to take on the small part, would later complain in private about the size and scope of her Central Station role.
Publicly, however, she would affirm that she felt “honored” to have been featured in Salles’ film, while adding, “In Brazil, we do things differently, but I think the backers should have given us fair wages for this type of [star cameo] role.”
Seemingly contradicting herself, she would later tell the Brazilian magazine Quem that the only film to earn her some real money was Central Station, explaining, “I didn’t even have a contract for Pixote. I never got anything out of that.”
‘Mixed Blood’: Brazilian drug gang leader in Manhattan
Marília Pêra’s sole American film was Paul Morrissey’s independently made Mixed Blood (1985), featuring a gang of underage Brazilian drug dealers at war with Puerto Rican drug dealers vying for Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Pêra was cast as (the not at all Brazilian-sounding) Rita La Punta, the Fagin-ish leader of the Brazilian gang.
The New York Times’ Vincent Canby effused:
Noteworthy as the first American film to star Marilia Pera, the extraordinary Brazilian actress remembered in this country for her performance in Hector Babenco’s Pixote. Though Miss Pera is not a big woman, she makes Mixed Blood look bigger than it is by being in it. She’s not conventionally beautiful, but she fills the screen with the kind of dynamism we used to associate with Anna Magnani. She’s tough and funny and not for a minute does she play down to the bizarre circumstances in which she finds herself.
Marília Pêra’s last movie role was in Allan Fiterman’s Now Boarding / Embarque Imediato, released in Brazil in 2009. According to the IMDb, she had two movies in post-production at the time of her death: José João Silva’s Dona Paraíso and Pedro Antônio’s To Ryca.
It’s really too bad she never got to work with Pedro Almodóvar.
As for her reputation for being “difficult,” Marília Pêra told Quem magazine in 2012:
I’m very difficult. I don’t do many interviews, I can’t stand being intruded upon all the time. I need my peace and quiet. I’m anal; I don’t touch the author’s text. When I feel I’m going to go beyond my limitations, I leave. And then people say I’m a diva.
Below: Marília Pêra in another one of her big – and daring – ‘Pixote’ moments, with Fernando Ramos da Silva.
‘Pixote’ tragedy on screen and in life
 A somewhat literal translation of the original Portuguese-language title would be “Little Kid: The Law of the Weakest”)
 A former street kid, Fernando Ramos da Silva returned to the streets a few years after Pixote was released. He was killed by police – following an alleged shootout – at age 19 on Aug. 25, 1987.
1981 Best Actress Oscar
 The 1981 Best Actress Academy Award nominees were:
- Katharine Hepburn, the eventual winner, for Mark Rydell’s On Golden Pond.
- Susan Sarandon for Louis Malle’s Atlantic City.
- Diane Keaton for Warren Beatty’s Reds.
- Marsha Mason for Glenn Jordan’s Only When I Laugh.
- Meryl Streep for Karel Reisz’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman.
The New York Film Critics Circle’s Best Supporting Actress of 1981 was Mona Washbourne for the Robert Enders-directed 1978 release Stevie (which arrived in New York City a few years late). Marília Pêra and Maureen Stapleton (for Warren Beatty’s Reds) were the two distant runners-up.
Best Foreign Film Golden Globe
 At that time, the Golden Globes’ Best Foreign Film category included non-Hollywood, English-language productions as well.
Besides Pixote and Chariots of Fire, that year’s other nominees were both English-language entries: Peter Weir’s Gallipoli and Louis Malle’s Atlantic City.
Miramax to the rescue
 Had either Miramax or The Weinstein Company been around backing it up in the early 1980s, things would likely have turned out quite differently for Pixote at the Oscars.
Distributed by Miramax, in 2004 Fernando Meirelles’ City of God / Cidade de Deus (2002) – also about Brazil’s violent and violently unequal society, and bypassed the previous year for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar – was shortlisted for four Academy Awards, including Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay.
This Marília Pêra article is a revised and expanded version of a brief obit posted in December 2015.
Marília Pêra movies’ info via the IMDb.
Fernando Ramos da Silva and Marília Pêra Pixote image: H.B. Filmes.