Sara Montiel: Legendary Spanish movie and recording superstar
Sara Montiel, a.k.a. Sarita Montiel a.k.a. Saritisima, one of the Spanish-speaking world’s biggest film and recording stars, died yesterday, April 8. Montiel, who was found dead by paramedics called to her house in Madrid’s district of Salamanca, was 85. Earlier today, a funeral procession through the streets of Madrid was witnessed (and applauded) by thousands of fans.
Sara Montiel was born – if online sources are to be believed – María Antonia Alejandra Vicenta Elpidia Isadora Abad Fernández to a small farmer and a beauty products saleswoman on March 10, 1928. She left behind her poverty-stricken childhood, during which she spent her days dreaming of film star Imperio Argentina, after moving to post-Civil War Madrid in her mid-teens.
Following diction and singing lessons, her film career took off after she landed roles in two 1944 releases: a supporting turn – billed as Maria Alejandra – in Ladislao Vajda’s Te quiero para mí (“I Want You for Me”) and, as Sara Montiel, the young female lead in Raffaello Matarazzo’s comedy about in-laws vs. marriage bliss, Empezó en boda (“It Started at the Wedding”).
Early Spanish career and her Mexican films
By the early ’50s, Sara Montiel had become a well-known name in Spanish-language cinema. In Spain, her roles included those of Don Quixote’s daughter Antonia in Rafael Gil’s Don Quijote de la Mancha (1947), with Rafael Rivelles in the title role and future Luis Buñuel collaborator Fernando Rey as Sansón Carrasco; and the scheming Muslim princess Aldara in Juan de Orduña’s nationalistic historical melodrama Locura de amor / The Mad Queen (1948), supporting Aurora Bautista as the Spanish queen “Juana la Loca” and Fernando Rey as her husband Felipe.
Following a move across the Atlantic, Sara Montiel would star in about a dozen features for the booming Mexican film industry, most notably Miguel M. Delgado’s (possibly Caged-inspired) women-behind-bars melodrama Cárcel de mujeres (“Women’s Prison,” 1951), opposite two other Mexican cinema icons, Miroslava and Katy Jurado – Miroslava and Montiel are enemy inmates in the film, with the former as a widow accused of having murdered her husband, whose lover was the vengeful Montiel; Miguel Morayta’s Ella, Lucifer y yo (“She, Lucifer and Me,” 1953), in which Abel Salazar makes a pact with the devil (Carlos López Moctezuma) so luscious singer Montiel will fall in love with him; and Miguel Zacarías’ Necesito dinero (“I Need Money”), co-starring superstar Pedro Infante as another man doing whatever it takes to gain Montiel’s affection.
Sarita Montiel in Hollywood
For Hollywood studios, Sara Montiel, billed as Sarita Montiel, was featured in what amounted to a supporting role in Robert Aldrich’s successful Mexican-set Western Vera Cruz (1954), starring Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster (and with Denise Darcel as the female lead); Anthony Mann’s poorly received romantic melodrama Serenade (1956), in which singer Mario Lanza is torn between American society dame Joan Fontaine and Mexican wife Montiel; and Samuel Fuller’s post-Civil War Western Run of the Arrow (1957), as a Sioux Indian named Yellow Moccasin (and reportedly voiced by Angie Dickinson) who ends up as U.S. soldier Rod Steiger’s wife.
According to online sources, at that time Columbia’s Harry Cohn offered Montiel a seven-year contract, which the actress turned down because she didn’t want to be typecast as Mexican spitfires and Yellow Moccasins in Hollywood movies. Be that as it may, Montiel did accept another kind of Hollywood offer: She and her Serenade director Anthony Mann were married in 1957.
Also in the ’50s, Sara Montiel acquired Mexican citizenship. “Mexico is my home away from home,” she would remark in a 2007 interview in Miami. “When I arrived in Mexico in 1950 all doors were soon thrown open to me, I have great memories from those years.”
On its home page, the Mexican Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences features an official announcement mourning Sara Montiel’s passing.
“Hollywood was not very kind to me, may be out of envy … I was an intruder in that world,” Sara Montiel would later say.
Following her brief Hollywood stint, Montiel could have resumed her career in Mexico, but at that time she received a good offer from her native country.
Sara Montiel became an international superstar following the unexpected success of Juan de Orduña’s El último cuplé / The Last Torch Song (1957), co-written by Jesús María de Arozamena (who would write many of Montiel’s biggest movie hits) and Antonio Mas Guindal.
Sharing elements in common with Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s The Barefoot Contessa (1954), the low-budget The Last Torch Song stars Montiel as cabaret singer María Luján, who finds professional success as a singing star but whose private life is burdened by tragedy.
“Almost no one had any confidence in that project,” Montiel would recall about The Last Torch Song, which, much like the Mexican melodramas of the period, was a throwback to Hollywood fare of the ’20s and ’30s, with Montiel bringing back to life characters played decades earlier by Kay Francis, Corinne Griffith, Ann Harding, Ruth Chatterton, Irene Dunne, Gloria Swanson, and Barbara Stanwyck.
“When El último cuplé premiered,” Montiel would later recall, “I got to know what success really meant. It was what I wanted, to move the audiences, the masses.” The Last Torch Song reportedly became one of Spain’s biggest blockbusters in history.
Next in line for the sultry, husky-voice actress was another tear-jerking blockbuster: Luis César Amadori’s La Violetera (“The Violet Peddler,” 1958), for which Montiel reportedly (if somewhat dubiously) earned US$1 million. In this romantic musical melodrama, Montiel plays Soledad Moreno, a flower seller in turn-of-the-century Madrid who falls in love with an aristocrat (Raf Vallone). Inevitably, class issues arise. The heartbroken Soledad flees Spain for France, where she becomes (once again) a singing sensation. Tears, tantrums, the sinking of the Titanic, psychological trauma, and eternal love ensue. (Image: The sensual Sara Montiel strikes a Gina Lollobrigida-like pose.)
“La violetera was even bigger than El último cuplé,” Montiel affirmed. “That’s when I became fully aware that I was born to become a movie star.” And a recording star as well, as “La Violetera” was a major seller worldwide, eventually becoming her trademark song.
Among Sara Montiel’s other personal successes of the late ’50s and ’60s were Tulio Demicheli’s Carmen la de Ronda / A Girl Against Napoleon (1959), based on Prosper Mérimée’s novel and co-starring Jorge Mistral and Maurice Ronet; Mi último tango (“My Last Tango,” 1960), about a maid who inadvertently becomes a tango-singing sensation in Argentina, also co-starring Ronet and directed by La Violetera‘s Luis César Amadori; and Amadori’s Pecado de amor (“Sin of Love,” 1961), as a former singing star (Magda Beltrán) who becomes a nun (Sister Belén) to atone for her past sins.
Handing ‘El Cid’ to Sophia Loren
Sara Montiel claimed to have turned down the female lead role in husband Anthony Mann’s Spanish-set historical epic El Cid (1961), starring Charlton Heston, recommending the Italian Sophia Loren in her place. El Cid turned out to be a major international hit.
Instead of El Cid, Montiel, whose marriage to Mann would end in divorce in 1963, was seen in Alfonso Balcázar’s La bella Lola (1962), a version of Camille co-starring Antonio Cifariello and Franck Villard (in place of Montiel’s original choice, Roger Moore); Rafael Gil’s World War I-set espionage melodrama La reina del Chantecler (“The Queen of the Chantecler,” 1962), in which Montiel falls for no-good journalist and spy Alberto de Mendoza (among whose spying buddies is Greta Chi’s Mata Hari); and Henri Decoin’s Casablanca, Nest of Spies / Noches de Casablanca (1963), featuring another set of spies, Maurice Ronet, and Fabio Fabrizi. (This film’s French-language title inspired the title, though not necessarily the plot, of the Michel Hazanavicius / Jean Dujardin spoof OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies.)
In Rafael Gil’s Samba (1965), Sara Montiel plays no less than two (Spanish-speaking) Brazilians: an actress who gets bumped off by her lover and her dead-ringer slum dweller, who, during the course of the film, finds love, intrigue, (rumba-sounding) samba singing, Carnival dancing, and the smuggling of precious stones.
‘Esa Mujer’: Pedro Almodóvar inspiration
Mario Camus directed Esa mujer (“This Woman,” 1969), a sort of The Nun’s Story meets Madame X meets Sarah and Son (a 1930 mother love melodrama that earned Ruth Chatterton a Best Actress Academy Award nomination). In Esa mujer, Montiel plays Soledad Romero Fuentes, a missionary nun who gets raped, becomes pregnant, abandons her convent, becomes a singing sensation, falls in love with a man who turns out to be her (long-thought-dead) daughter’s lover, and is ultimately accused of murder. And that’s only part of the plot.
Fast-forward to 1983 and inveterate Sara Montiel fan Pedro Almodóvar’s unusual look at life in a convent, Dark Habits / Entre tinieblas, and to 1999 and Almodóvar’s Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award winner All About My Mother, which features Penélope Cruz as a pregnant nun whose “father of the child” is a transvestite named Lola who also happens to be dying of AIDS.
Five years after All About My Mother, Almodóvar paid direct homage to his idol in the brilliant Bad Education (2004). For starters, Gael García Bernal sings “Quizás, quizás, quizás” by mimicking Montiel in Casablanca, Nest of Spies. Additionally, Bad Education features its two schoolboy-lovers masturbating one another while watching Montiel in Esa mujer on the big screen.
Sara Montiel’s last prestigious star vehicle was Juan Antonio Bardem’s Varietés (1971), in which she plays an aging actress who still dreams of becoming a star. The middle-aged hopeful eventually gets her chance, but success turns out to be ephemeral.
By that time, after one formulaic musical melodrama after another, Sara Montiel’s movie-star appeal had been drastically reduced. Refusing to take part in Spain’s then-burgeoning cine del destape – post-Franco softcore comedies – Montiel left films following the release of Pedro Lazaga’s comedy Cinco almohadas para una noche (“Five Cushions for One Night,” 1974) – though she would also be seen the following year in Eduardo Manzanos Brochero’s That’s Entertainment-like compilation feature Canciones de nuestra vida (“Songs of Our Lives”).
Thirty-six years later, Montiel would return to the big screen one last time, playing (a parody of) herself in Oscar Parra de Carrizosa’s Abrázame (“Hug Me,” 2011).
Montiel would later lament that she (unlike Pola Negri, Bette Davis, Elisabeth Bergner, Jeanne Moreau, Marlene Dietrich, Viveca Lindfors, and Tallulah Bankhead) never got to play Catherine the Great. And even though she retired from films right when the fascistic government of Francisco Franco was in its death throes, Montiel also bemoaned the fact that she didn’t have the chance to work with top-quality screenwriters unhindered by Franco’s reactionary right-wing censors.
As her film career came to a halt, Montiel began focusing on her stage and concert shows. According to online sources, among her live successes, at times smoking a cigar between numbers, were Saritisima – though Montiel claimed she liked neither the nickname “Saritisima” nor “Sarita” – and Increible Sara (obviously in reference to “The Incredible Sarah [Bernhardt]”). Her trademark songs included the perennial “La violetera,” in addition to “Bésame mucho,” “Fumando Espero” (“Smoking, I Wait [for the man I love…]”), and the Spanish-language version of “Amado mío” (performed by Rita Hayworth, with Anita Ellis’ voice, in Charles Vidor’s Gilda). [Please scroll down to listen to Sara Montiel’s husky rendition of “Amado mío.”]
On television, Sara Montiel was the star of the miniseries Sara y Punto (1990) and the variety show Ven al Paralelo (1992). She continued recording songs and appearing on several TV shows until the 2000s, most recently in Entrevista a la carta in 2012.
Curiously, Montiel never received an Honorary Goya from the Spanish Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. She did, however, win two Best Actress awards from Spain’s Cinema Writers Circle: for The Last Torch Song and La Violetera.
Husbands and lovers
Following her divorce from Anthony Mann, Sara Montiel would marry three more times, including a de facto two-month union with businessman José Vicente Ramírez Olalla in 1964. The marriage would be officially annulled in 1978.
Montiel’s last husband was Cuban video technician Antonio Hernández, 36 years her junior, with whom she tied the knot in late 2002. As further proof of the dangers of heterosexual unions, that marriage reportedly lasted 10 days, though divorce would be finalized only in early 2005. “My one big mistake was marrying Antonio Hernández,” Montiel later admitted. “It was a catastrophe. I really regret it.”
Montiel had a longer union with businessman and journalist Pepe Tous: from 1979 to his death in 1992. Along the way, the couple adopted two children.
Supposed Sara Montiel lovers – she drops names in her autobiographies – ranged from frequent co-star Maurice Ronet and James Dean (whom she met while he was starring in George Stevens’ Giant) to Ernest Hemingway and Nobel Prize in Medicine winner Severo Ochoa, in addition to Esa mujer director Mario Camus, poet León Felipe, and playwright and screenwriter Miguel Mihura (Welcome Mr. Marshall!). Well-publicized romances included those with co-star Giancarlo del Duca (La mujer perdida, The Woman from Beirut) and La bella Lola cinematographer Mario Montuori.
Montiel’s first autobiographical tome, A Whole Life, was published in 2000. A sequel, Living Is a Pleasure, came out three years later. (Note: According to a handful of sources, Montiel’s first autobiography was called Memories: To Live Is a Pleasure, followed by Sara and Sex in 2003.)
Regarding today’s movie celebrities, Montiel told El Mundo in 2009: “The stars are gone. In the past, they were surrounded by mystery, they weren’t as exposed as they are today. Fifty years have passed, and I’m still waiting for the appearance of someone else like me.”
Sara Montiel death follows those of Jesús Franco and Bigas Luna
The death of Sara Montiel – 11 years to the day of the death of another Spanish-speaking film legend, the Mexican María Félix – follows those of two other renowned Spanish cinema figures: filmmakers Jesús Franco and Bigas Luna, both of whom passed away in the last week.
Montiel’s death was also accompanied by the passings of two other international female celebrities: Beach Party movies’ actress Annette Funicello and right-wing British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, played by Meryl Streep in Phyllida Lloyd’s The Iron Lady – a performance that earned Streep her third Academy Award.
Unless otherwise specified, Sara Montiel’s quotes via the Buenos Aires Herald.
Listen to Sara Montiel singing “Amado mío” below.