By The Numbers: On Demián Bichir’s Oscar Nomination For A Better Life

By Arturo R. García

With apologies to fans of Michael Fassbender, Ryan Gosling, et al., by far the most pleasant surprise of this week’s Academy Awards nominee announcements was seeing Demián Bichir get nominated for Best Actor–alongside “conventional” choices like George Clooney and Brad Pitt–for his role as an undocumented single father in A Better Life. 

As Colorlines noted, Bichir’s nomination was one of several nods for Latinos in this year’s Oscar race: cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, also from Mexico, was nominated for Best Cinematography for Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life; Bérénice Bejo, a native of Argentina, earned a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her turn in the The Artist; Brazilian Sérgio Mendes was nominated for Best Song for “Real in Rio,” his collaboration with Siedah Garrett, of “Man In The Mirror” fame, from the animated film Rio.

But a look at some relevant figures further illustrates how painfully rare Bichir’s accomplishment is.

2: The number of Mexican-born nominees for Best Actor, with Bichir joining Anthony Quinn, who was nominated on two separate occasions, for Wild Is The Wind (1957) and Zorba The Greek (1964).

2: The number of white actors nominated for this category for playing Latino characters (Marlon Brando, 1952, Viva Zapata! and Spencer Tracy, 1958, The Old Man and the Sea).

47: The number of years between Quinn’s nomination for Zorba and Bichir’s nomination.

61: The number of years since a Latino actor born outside of Mexico and the United States was nominated for Best Actor; José Ferrer (born in Puerto Rico in 1912, before it became a U.S. territory) earned the honor in 1950 for Cyrano De Bergerac.

1: The number of:

  • Latino actors (going into this year’s ceremony) to win Best Actor, with Ferrer taking the Oscar home.
  • Latino actors born in the U.S. to be nominated for the category (Edward James Olmos, 1988, Stand and Deliver.)
  • Latinas in Oscars history to win the Best Actress award (Rita Moreno, 1961, West Side Story.)
  • Mexican-born actresses ever nominated in that category (Salma Hayek, 2002, Frida.)

0: The number of Latina actresses born in the U.S. to be nominated for Best Actress.

$1,759,252: Total domestic gross for A Better Life, per Box Office Mojo.

$75,524,658: Total domestic gross (as of Jan. 24) for Moneyball, starring Bichir’s fellow nominee Brad Pitt.

11,000,000: The total number of undocumented workers in the United States, as quoted by Bichir in a statement to US Weekly, as he dedicated his nomination to them.

6,650,000: Estimated number of undocumented Mexican immigrants in the U.S. as of 2009, according to the Department of Homeland Security (PDF).

25-to-1:  Current odds of Bechir winning the Oscar, according to Vegas Insider.

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  • Rocketgrrl

    Really interesting post. Thanks for the info!

  • Surr567

    Why start with “apologies”? What’s there to apologize for? A Better Life, the small film Bichir is nominated for, was produced, written, and directed by White men. A group of White people decided to make a film about a Mexican illegal immigrant, probably to capitalize in the growing Hispanic population and the issue of illegal immigration and make money off Hispanic people. When Bichir speaks in the film, he is speaking words written by white men, acting in situations created by a white male gaze. This is not something to celebrate, specially considering the recent US prominence of directors with Latin roots–such as Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuaron, and Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu, all Mexican–who are creating and writing and directing their own projects. The writer here is focusing on the Mexican-born people specifically, but Mexico itself has a thriving film and television industry. Why not focus on that? Many decades ago, the Mexican star Maria Felix said that she did not act in Hollywood films because she did not play somebody’s maid. You can see that many Mexican actors who have “crossed over” to US film always play stereotyped roles. Why see it as an accomplishment that you are acting out scenes created by White people? And what are the roles that White people are creating for Latinos? What are the prominent Latino roles today–somebody’s hot wife, like Sofia Vergara in Modern Family? Bichir himself plays some sort of drug dealer apparently (I do not watch Weeds, the show he’s on), and what are the other roles for Latinos? Oversexualized women, criminal men, what a surprise. This is not a triumph for anybody but the White film execs/writers/directors who are making money off the perpetuation of these images of Latinos in the media and the White film viewers whose liberal guilt will be washed away by watching/supporting a fictional performance of a illegal Latino immigrant on film as their country continues to exploit and vilify Latino immigrants in real life. We have to be a bit more critical about these types of media representations that are controlled by Whites and marketed to Whites. This whole deal about counting how many Latinos/Hispanics/whatever have won which role when, what is that for exactly? What does it mean? Anthony Quinn took on a non-Spanish surname and almost always played non-Latino roles. Jose Ferrer also played White roles, usually. The backgrounds of the many Latinos you list here and the variety of roles they’ve played are so diverse that it problematizes the use of the term “Latino”–what does that mean? Is their background really that similar? 
    (Puerto Rico was already under US rule in 1912, I just wanted to point this out as well)

    • Mochajava

      to be fair, the director of the movie is 1/4 Mexican though I don’t think he was raised in a culturally Latino household….but I do wonder if this movie would even have been made if the person wanting to make it had been a Mexican or Mexican-American filmmaker