The legend of Mexican screen goddess María Félix, who died recently of a heart attack at the age of 88, goes beyond film. Incredibly beautiful even in advanced age, Félix not only was Mexico's greatest movie star but also used her influence to create a fiercely feminist persona that redefined how a woman should act.
Félix, who made all of her films during Mexico's Época de Oro (Golden Age of Cinema, from the late 1930s up to the early '60s) was an icon for women and men (for wildly different reasons) worldwide, except—surprise, surprise!—in the United States. She never bothered to learn English and go Hollywood like contemporaries Dolores del Rio and Katy Jurado because she knew that American producers would invariably typecast her as a hot señorita.
She didn't have a problem being a hot señorita; indeed, it became her trademark character. But Félix did it her own way, emphasizing not mindless female passion but a proud independence that owed nothing to men.
One of Félix's best performances was in La Diosa Arrodillada (The Kneeling Goddess, 1947), in which she played a woman who so entrances her lover that the man gives his wife a nude statue of Félix's character. Not satisfied with merely antagonizing the woman, Félix insists that her lover divorce and then forces him to marry her after the wife dies under mysterious circumstances. This performance and many others brings to mind that of her closest Hollywood contemporary, Marlene Dietrich: both were self-confident women with such stunning looks that they literally drove men insane—both in film and in real life.
Félix was more than just an actress or harlot in the Mexican imagination, though. Men as varied as Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes and Diego Rivera (who drafted Frida Kahlo to write Félix a letter urging her to marry Rivera) cited her as inspiration for their masterpieces. But perhaps her greatest influence was on Agustín Lara, the legendary songsmith and main force behind Mexican cinema's cabareta genre.
The genre had as its principal setting a nightclub where songs, most penned by Lara, were sung about the perfidy and beauty of womanhood. These films cinematically articulated Mexican men's love-hate relationship with women, and we can indirectly thank Félix, who starred in such Lara-penned films as La Devadora (The Devourer), for this spectacular but ultimately damaging genre.
But María Félix made no excuses for her career; she always made sure men understood that women were not to be dismissed or mistreated. "I cannot complain about men," the eternally quotable Félix once said. "I have had tons of them and they have treated me fabulously well. But sometimes I had to hurt them to keep them from subjugating me."