moira finnie wrote:
Above: Alma Rubens (1897-1931). Ricardo Cortez was later quoted as saying that when first seen on a city street: "I saw her pale face and dark luminous eyes. I’ll admit I was overcome. I walked back and forth watching her—trying not to be too apparent in my admiration."
Ricardo Cortez's struggle to help his first wife Alma Rubens and the questionable but widespread impression of him that her posthumously published memoir left with the public may have made things more difficult for him--just when he was making a transition to sound and coming out from the Valentino shadow that his studio-chosen identity.
Did this period of his life make him more leery of personal disclosure for the rest of his life?
Do you think that that Rubens' negative, unverified assertions about Cortez contributed to the end of his days as a leading man?
Frankly, I enjoy the actor as a stylish pre-code heel much more than the traditional leading man characters. He is often superbly smarmy--seducing Veree Teasdale's daughter in The Firebird (1934), selling Kay Francis into white slavery in Mandalay (1934), & just being vile to Dolores del Rio in Wonder Bar (1934).
However, it occurs to me that he was probably capable of so much more light-hearted work than opportunity brought him. His quietly thoughtful dramatic portrayals in Hat, Coat & Glove and Symphony of Six Million deserve to be seen more, but they are as underrated as his comedic characterizations. Perhaps his very naughty Sam Spade in the original version of The Maltese Falcon (1931) and his turn as a Broadway denizen in Is My Face Red (1932) were more in tune with the era's wisecracking spirit, but his performances in both really were entertaining and energetic portraits of unapologetic scamps. They seemed to bring out the naturalism in his acting too. Are there other movies where you find Cortez interpreting his part in a more comic vein?
Here's a nifty glimpse of a fast-talking Cortez in Is My Face Red? (1932):
The story of Alma and Ric dominates three chapters of the biography section of my book, “The Magnificent Heel” for good reason. For better and for worse, Alma Rubens had a profound effect on Cortez’s life. Outside of his parents, I do not believe there was another person in his life who had a greater impact.
Ric loved Alma. He trusted her, and confided in her. I believe she also loved him, but they were ill equipped for marriage. Both were selfish and self-centered actors who found compromise impossible. In addition, when Alma married Ric, she was harboring a dark secret: a growing addiction to morphine which would eventually take total control over her life. Ric was young, inexperienced, and totally ill equipped to deal with his wife’s headline making problems and her domineering mother. He tried his best, but as time progressed, and his wife’s condition became more and more severe, (Alma was eventually sent to an Insane Asylum.), he came to the realization he could not live with her.
After she was released, they formally separated, and a hurt, vengeful Alma set out to destroy her estranged husband who was in the midst of mounting a film career comeback after a successful vaudeville tour in which he proved he had a fine speaking voice. The publication of Alma’s memoirs in 1931 (in which she painted a totally negative portrait of Ricardo), did hurt him professionally and reinforced the opinions of his detractors, but did not derail his career as she apparently hoped. Luckily for him, his superb performance as the brutal pimp in the sensationally popular, HER MAN (RKO, 1931) had already cemented his comeback, and Alma’s memoirs, although damaging, did not destroy his reemergence as a star during the new sound era.
What Alma’s memoirs and her betrayal of him did do was reinforce Ric's trust issues. This is my opinion, but I do not believe he ever totally trusted another individual or let down his guard with another person as he did with Alma. This lack of trust, and unwillingness to be more forthcoming with the press, negatively impacted him professionally. There were other factors at play, but Cortez's personality and trust issues ultimately did effect his movie career and limited his days as a leading man.
Regarding his film performances, I think the majority of classic movie fans would agree with you. Cortez was a sensational movie troublemaker or villain. His rogues were unique: well dressed, charming, sexy, but ruthless. His heroic impersonations were not nearly as colorful, although he was entirely persuasive as a good guy, and interestingly, played almost as many heroes as heels during his long career. Glad you brought up IS MY FACE RED? (RKO, 1932) That is my favorite Cortez role. I think he is sensational, totally natural as the amoral, wisecracking gossip columnist, William Poster. He received superlative reviews for that performance, and might have proven to be an excellent comic actor if given more chances like it. Alas, for whatever reason, he was not. There were many serious films (dramas, melodramas, adventures, etc.) in which Cortez had a few humorous lines, but outside of WORLD PREMIERE (Paramount, 1941) in which Cortez played an egotistical actor, he never played a part like Poster again. What a waste!!