Elizabeth Peña, who died this week at 53, was a movie star with the career of a character actress. She enlivened many movies. She even rescued a few, by incarnating a semblance of a human being on a screen that was otherwise filled with types.
Peña grew up in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and studied acting at New York's High School of the Performing Arts. She came from a Cuban-American family. Her father was a playwright and actor. Her mother was an arts administrator who founded the Latin American Theatre Ensemble. Her first big role was in Cuban-American filmmaker León Ichaso's 1978 film "El Super." Her signature roles were the schoolteacher in "Lone Star" who has a deep and mysterious connection to Chris Cooper's sheriff; the maid who breaks up a rich white family in "Down and Out in Beverly Hills"; the therapist of the soon-to-be transsexual title character in "Transamerica"; the super-conservative eldest daughter in "Tortilla Soup," who gave up Catholicism and became an evangelical Christian; Mika, the wife of undercover drug agent in "Drug Wars: The Camarena Story"; and Lucy Acosta, the assistant to the title character on the short-lived, fondly remembered drama "Shannon's Deal."
As the above suggests, Peña spent much of her screen time in Hollywood trying not to succumb to stereotyping. It wasn't easy. If you look through her filmography, you see that easily a third of the roles, perhaps more, fall under the heading of "sexy Latina spitfire" or "maid" or some combination. This is no huge shock. Hollywood has always made a point of glorifying whiteness, or at least presenting it as the norm against which all other races, ethnicities and cultures are measured. In her essay "Made to be the Maid," part of the anthology "Contested Images: Women of Color in Popular Culture," Rosa Soto writes about how, in Hollywood movies, "Anglo-ness is presented as a standard," and the "exuberant sexuality" of characters like the ones Peña often played were in movies mainly to "expose the problems of the Anglo, middle- or upper-middle class family, thereby revealing that the seeming domestic bliss of the family is not so blissful after all."
But if the Oscar for Hattie McDaniel in "Gone with the Wind" demonstrates anything, it's that it's possible to rise above, as it were: to make art from something that's not terribly artful, and that may in fact be harmful. That's what Peña often did, whether playing the title character on TV's "I Married Dora," as a housekeeper from El Salvador who weds her employer to avoid deportation; a darkly sensual woman in the supernatural thriller "Jacob's Ladder' who seems to represent sin or temptation or maybe Hell itself; or the volcanically hot maid in "Down and Out in Beverly Hills" who tutors Bette Midler's character in food and language and shtups her husband, played by Richard Dreyfuss.
And as formidable as Peña was in less-than-savory roles, she was extraordinary in parts that gave her honest-to-goodness characters to play. Her work in "Lone Star" is gorgeous and heartbreaking (writer-director John Sayles was right to entrust her with that killer last line). She was subtly piercing as the mother of a gay son on Showtime's "“Resurrection Blvd." And she was an exuberant comedian, as "Beverly Hills" and "Tortilla Soup" and TV's "Modern Family" (as the mother of Sofia Vergera's character) and so many other plum roles proved. And after a certain point, she started to draw artistic and political lines, refusing to take roles in projects that seemed to have been conceived in bad faith. She was cast in Elizabeth in 1993's "House of the Spirits," but turned down the part when she saw the rest of the main cast come together sans a single hispanic name.
“I had read the the novel and I loved it,” she told Out in Hollywood. “Now it comes time, they are casting it. They offered me a wonderful role, a whore. I was ecstatic! That’s a great role. I was fine. But then I find out the only female hispanic in the movie is Catherine the whore! I’m sorry, but aren’t all the characters hispanic?...I like to make money as much as the next person but I also didn’t want to be an artistic whore.”
Peña was funny. She was sexy in a real way. She radiated intelligence—so much so that the only time you had trouble believing her was when she played dumb. She had piercing eyes, and a sly way of looking at characters who weren't making sense, or who weren't as smart as her character, or who thought they could put a lie across without getting called on it.
She had a great voice (which got a spotlight in "The Incredibles," where she played the sultry Mirage). It was a 1940s movie star voice, Lauren Bacall-like, a little bit froggy; you heard that quality mainly when she laughed. A gently mocking laugh from Pena could light up a scene. A contemptuous laugh from Elizabeth Peña could save a scene. Sometimes when she laughed suddenly she'd snort a little bit, and it was endearing. That brilliant laugh saved a lot of scenes. You were never not glad to see her.