Born in Oaxaca, Mexico on April 21, 1915, Antonio Rodolfo Quinn was the son of a Mexican mother and Irish father who rode with Pancho Villa during the Revolution, then found work in Hollywood as a photographer. Antonio simplified his name, and after he cornered and studied art with Frank Lloyd Wright, before offering a contract with Universal Pictures; His first speaking role was on Parole! (1936). Quinn’s peculiar heritage encouraged his selection in any number of racial roles and during his first ten years in films, he played several Mexicans, Spaniards, Italians, and two prominent Amerindian leaders. This trend set the tone for the rest of his career and, in middle age, helped make him famous.
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Viva Zapata (1952)
Going back to his roots, Quinn plays Eufemio Zapata, Emiliano’s brother, in a somewhat fictional biopic devised by a collaboration between John Steinbeck and Elia Kazan. The film is designed as a showcase for Marlon Brando playing Emiliano, a rebel who betrays his brother’s cause and becomes a dictator in his own right. Ironically, Quinn took over from Brando on Broadway’s A Streetcar Named Desire and was convinced he had done better – Quinn had never lacked self-belief. This led to a competition between the actors that Kazan exploited, even as it led to a legendary contest to see who could pee the farthest. Quinn gives a strong, masculine performance, eloping with most of his scenes, and has finally laughed at his co-star by winning an Oscar. He was the first Mexican-American actor to be so honored.
La Strada (1954)
Director: Federico Fellini
Despite winning an Oscar, Quinn’s work in Hollywood was pretty much business as usual, and he was only able to shake off some very stereotypical roles by going to Italy. He was chosen by Federico Fellini to appear in La strada after appearing with Giulietta Massina in Donne proibite (1954) and was hesitant at first, but was convinced after seeing Fellini’s I vitelloni (1953).
He plays Zampano, a itinerant actor who meets Gelsomina of Masina and becomes controlling her, refusing to either marry her or give her up to anyone else. Quinn takes a role that, for most parts of the film, threatens to be a single note and invests it with a kind of brutal nobility in which cruelty mingles with basic isolation. Thus, the end of the film, when he is asked to break down in tears, comes across as less of a character shift. Quinn said it was the hardest job he’s ever done but he always remembered it as one of his favorite experiences.
Lust for Life (1956)
Director: Vincente Minnelli
Having played several races during his first twenty years in Hollywood, Quinn was well prepared to try a new one, and his portrayal of French Post-Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin in Vincente Minnelli’s biographical film Van Gogh won his second Academy Award. The film is best known as a study into the sheer psychological power of film color, but it is an honorable and accurate biography, with a strong performance by Kirk Douglas in the central role. Quinn appears in the film for only 20 minutes, but makes such a strong impression that he appears to be on par with Douglas. Gauguin has the best lines and dominates the screen in a sinister, charismatic way, which quickly became a trademark of Quinn. He’s also very funny, a trait in his performance that Quinn hasn’t always received enough credit for.
The Pirate (1958)
Director: Anthony Quinn
In 1938, Cecil B. DeMille directed The Buccaneer, an unusually historical adventure group, during the War of 1812 between America and Britain. Twenty years later, too sick to stand still, he produced a remake and chose Quinn, his son-in-law, to direct it. This was his only job as a director and it’s totally fun for that purpose, although the movie is generally considered a job for hire which reflects DeMille’s style and taste far more than anyone else. Sure, it’s a highly qualified work of the film industry, shot entirely on studio sets, with exciting battle sequences and good performances by Charles Boyer and Charlton Heston. It should be noted however that from a history perspective, the movie is largely nonsense. He did nothing to encourage Quinn to direct again and perhaps it would have been better if he had succeeded in his original plan to produce and direct an American adaptation of Seven Samurai (1954).
The Wild Innocents (1960)
Sure, Nicholas Ray’s study of Inuit life has flaws, but she also has the kind of crazy grit that leads to an often uneven film that is both insanely beautiful and insanely beautiful. The text is often corny and self-conscious, leaving the images to do a lot of work and that’s where Anthony Quinn comes in on his own. Playing Inuk, an Inuit man trying to find acceptance and only find alienation, Quinn’s face becomes a barometer of emotional states and expresses much more than his lines or the occasional uses of ordinary voiceover. Quinn’s sheer presence is right at the heart of the film; Ray sets it against the isolation of the Arctic landscape, emphasizing not only the peculiarity of Inuit culture but our common humanity compared to the ruthlessness of broad, unsympathetic nature. It is a highly intelligent and non-judgmental act, whose failure at the box office has led to undeserved neglect. It is one of Ray’s most exciting films.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Anyone watching Lawrence of Arabia for the first time at home might wonder what all the fuss is about. But on a big screen, preferably 70mm, is David Lean’s triumph and one of cinema’s great wonders, a film that uses the massive frame as part of its narrative strategy. He made Peter O’Toole a legend, Omar Sharif a star, and provided an ultimate solution to the great Claude Rains. It says a lot to Anthony Quinn’s stature as an actor that he is completely at home in this company, never waning before stunning landscapes, and capturing the balance of nobility and ruthlessness that characterized the leader of the Arab Hutite tribe Odeh Abu Tai. Quinn makes the most of every line in Robert Bolt’s dialogue – particularly his monologue explaining how he is “a river of my people” – and he clearly enjoyed the part, researching the history and insisting on applying his own make-up.
Zorba the Greek (1964)
Director: Michael Cacoiannis
If Quinn wasn’t a star before Zorba, he sure was after. The story, inspired by the book by Nikos Kazantzakis, is primarily about the clash of cultures between a timid English writer, played by Alan Bates, and a cunning Greek peasant who insists on marking his visit to a small village in Crete. Filmed in black and white by Walter LaSalle, the film makes the island a beautiful and exotic place, exotic enough to trigger a thousand vacation trips. There are good performances from award-winning Bates, Irene Papas, and Lila Kedrova, but the movie belongs firmly to Quinn, who takes his chance with both hands and wrestles her to the floor. Zorba is a simple and sometimes difficult man, but his generous craving to experiment and enjoy life is very tempting. With the help of music from Mikis Theodorakis, it was the role that forever marked Quinn—he even revived her in a Broadway musical in 1983.
Hunter’s Shoe (1968)
Director: Michael Anderson
Quinn writes another nationality in this novel of an exiled Russian bishop who becomes pope, after various international intrigues. He delivers a notable performance of restraint (especially compared to many Zorba-esque roles in the 1960s) and understated strength, and works beautifully with the great German actor Oscar Werner. This is a movie that doesn’t have much of a reputation and that’s a pity because while it’s a bit impractical at 162 minutes and certainly a bit majestic, it has a bunch of great performances – Olivier’s Soviet premiere is fun – and a wonderfully detailed narration of the papal election process. Her attempts to address political concerns at the time are hesitant, and a TV series subplot involving a TV journalist can be dispensed with, but Quinn’s strong presence holds them together.
Across 110th Street (1972)
Often hitting the wave of blaxploitation movies, Across 110th Street is in a class of its own. Aside from Bobby Womack’s famous soundtrack and stunning New York location setting, it deals much smarter than most films of the time with race conflict that relentlessly leads to brutal tragedy. Quinn was an executive producer on the film, hoping to do something to revive a career that was beginning to emerge, doing well as an elderly detective Mattelli, a late middle-aged man who is tired of the filth through which he must wade on a daily basis. It could be a character from one note, but Quinn manages to balance the bigotry and casual racism of the character with a palpable sense of hopelessness. The underrated Barry Shear directs all of this with a heavy emphasis on character and location, and gets solid work from Yaphet Kotto and the very intimidating Anthony Franciosa.
During the 1980s, Quinn’s career in films was interrupted and he returned to the stage. At the end of the decade he came back and made a good impact in films as diverse as Jungle Fever (1991) and Only the Lonely (1991). His later best performance was in the brilliant Tony Scott-directed thriller Revenge, where he plays a Mexican crime lord who is dumped by his friend, played by Kevin Costner. Seeking revenge, he mutilated his wife, forced her into prostitution, and nearly beat his friend to death. It’s all brutal stuff, not to mention faintly misogynistic, but it’s done with brilliant conviction by Scott (who would return to the style of this movie in Man on Fire in 2004) and acted with tremendous force by Quinn, who really gets on his nerves like a sadistic gangster. He treats his wife as a property.