Late in the evening on October 10, 1991, Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa stood in the beam of a spotlight on the stage of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, looking very small and fragile compared to the giant images that had just been projected on the screen behind him. He blinked in the glare, shifting uneasily as the ovation of a full house washed over him from the darkness. He couldn't say a word.
His friends and admirers had spoken for him. Cinema greats from both sides of the border had voiced praise for his work and introduced clips from a fifty-year career that spanned the history of Mexican sound cinema. Among the distinguished stars, collaborators and friends who honored Figueroa was fellow director of photography Stanley Cortez, ASC.
"I am delighted to be here and pay my respects to Gaby," Cortez said. "Tonight's tribute to a very fine gentleman and talented cinematographer is well-deserved. It is also in my view a tribute to my other good friend, Emilio Fernândez. Their enormous contributions established Mexico as a vital new force and influence in the cinema world. I first met Gabriel through my colleague, Gregg Toland, who often discussed with me the extraordinary potential of amigo Gabriel - and how right Gregg was! On behalf of the American Society of Cinematographers, and myself, congratulations, Gaby. We salute you and we love you."
Figueroa's long overdue tribute, one segment of the continuing UCLA Film and Television Archive's Mexican Cinema Project, is part of a larger awakening to the history of cultural and artistic cross-pollination between Mexico and the U.S. (particularly Southern California). In addition to the UCLA project, which was produced in association with IMCINE and Chicanos '9O, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art recently featured a spectacular exhibit of nearly 400 works of art spanning Mexican history, entitled "Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries." Galleries and other museums throughout LA joined in the renaissance.
Film has been described as the art form most characteristic of our century, and Figueroa's renowned artistic kinship with Mexican painters binds him even more strongly to that tradition. Bearing in mind his equally strong ties to American masters of cinema, an examination of Figueroa's film work draws into sharp focus the larger picture of U.S.-Mexican art history.
Two months after the UCLA tribute, sitting in the study of his spacious home in Coyoacan, a quiet town with cobblestoned streets and centuries-old churches just south of Mexico City, Figueroa was anything but speechless. "To old age, small pox," he said, commenting on the irony of the timing of his recognition. The slight 84-year-old took the interview by the horns, clenching his fists periodically to stress a point, never once letting his gaze wander. Speaking in Spanish over the course of two days, he told story after story, letting his coffee get cold while conjuring vivid images that leaped across time: lurking in the shadows of an MGM soundstage where he deciphered the Hollywood secrets of his mentor Gregg Toland; swimming with Tyrone Powers and Douglas Fairbanks under a hot Acapulco sun; being summoned to the very darkest corner of the Polo Lounge by an aging Lana Turner to discuss how he was going to light her.
Born in 1907, Figueroa grew up in Mexico City, where he studied painting at the Academy of San Carlos and violin at the National Conservatory. He and his brother were orphans and they lived with their aunts until the family fortune ran dry. "I had to leave the Academy and go into the darkroom to make a living," he recalled. He took passport photos and pictures of girls in bathing suits, and documented paintings by local artists.
He entered motion pictures as a stills man soon after the advent of sound, at which time Hollywood lost its monopoly on world cinema and the Mexican film industry experienced a rebirth.
In 1933, Howard Hawks arrived in Mexico with James Wong Howe, ASC, to shoot exteriors for the MGM production of Viva Villa! …