As a researcher and author when a book project is finished you always know that there is potential that you’ve missed something. For many projects, this is a source of anxiety. What if there is content, knowledge, an archive, or resource I’ve missed? With María Félix: A Mexican Film Star and Her Legacy there has been no anxiety. Not because this fear will not be realised, but because it will. There is always something new to learn about María Félix. This is despite her being dead since 2002. The legacy of this diva of Mexican cinema is ever-evolving, impossible to curtail, and full of surprises. The only way to write about Félix, one of the biggest stars of the Hispanic world, is to guide the reader by sign-posting her significance and invite you to follow what compels you most about her life and legacy.
The past summer of 2023 illustrates my point perfectly. After submitting the final manuscript María Félix continued to prove her relevance and evolution as star, inspiration, and style icon. In July and August 2023 alone, she was a themed week on RuPaul’s Drag Race, México and joined the pantheon of the Barbie Tribute Collection.
The Barbie version of Félix reinforces my reading of her. Launched on the 15th of August 2023, National Mexican Film Day, the María Félix Barbie wears a fitted full-length black and gold gown, long black gloves, and large jewellery. She has shoulder-length curls and, importantly, has a distinctive arched brow. The brow is iconic, naturally I write about it in the book, and is what makes the doll identifiable. The face less so. They have captured her features as faithfully as plastic can, but it cannot convey her dynamism. Put simply, she was rarely still. A survey of photographs, including a famous one of her by Lord Snowden, always show her with a suggestion of movement. She has a hand tilting her hat and a cigarillo in her mouth in his 1980 portrait. Elsewhere, artists capture her moving through space, head back ready for the next move, or if paused, there is a sense of her being engaged in active contemplation. Her vivid features conveying thought. In many portraits she is gesturing, in motion, always fully engaged and embodied. A doll, however faithfully rendered, cannot channel such energy.
She was a major figure on screen from her first film in 1943 up to her last in 1970. Always dynamic, rarely static. She had a kinetic energy that could be found in all of her roles and is what draws her audience. To get a sense of this, take a look at YouTube chatter beneath clips of any of her films.
This follows through to her persona, that off-screen presence and character she created for public consumption that has led to strong and long-term parasocial engagement with her up to the present day. Evidence for his can be found in the first series of RuPaul’s Drag Race México in July 2023. Known for drawing on iconic figures well-known to the public, episode three’s runway category was “La Noche de las Mil María Félix” [the night of a thousand María Félix’s]. The drag artists recreated Félix’s looks citing a variety of her work and public appearances including screen roles, her often photographed life in Paris, and a look built to highlight the jewels she commissioned from Cartier. True to the creativity of drag these are not exact replicas, they are interpretations that speak to what Félix means to the public, making the looks recognisable, but also adapted to what she means to the drag artist themselves. This is something that can be tracked across all of those who found inspiration in her style, her persona, and her star self when she was alive and continues right up to the present day.
In my research I found individuals with strong and loose ties to Mexico and the Hispanic world who have created content based on Félix, saw in her someone who had a powerful presence and could be taken and interpreted for their own purposes. As I write in the book, she did not always see herself in these interpretations and she was very willing to dismiss those she did not rate. At the same time, she was also keen to encourage and support those she did. This openness to others’ creative expression, has led to a rich archive that she co-created and that she encouraged, as well as a wealth of interpretations and re-interpretations of a star with considerable potency and meaning.
María Félix: A Mexican Film Star and Her Legacy is not exhaustive because it cannot be. Instead, it should be taken as an invitation to get to understand Félix. Let the book be your guide, find out more about who she was, meet some of those she worked with and inspired, and learn about how she and others built her legacy.
NIAMH THORNTON is a Professor of Latin American Studies at the University of Liverpool, UK.
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