Thursday, June 22, 2006

Betty La Fea Mas Bella Update VI

I'd been wondering if the updated version of the famous Colombian telenovela "Betty La Fea" now showing on Univision as "La Fea Mas Bella" would redo the storyline in which the hero dresses up in drag. It did. There was a reason for it, a lost bet with the company's star and gay commercial director that I won't go into details about. You should be watching. It was broad slapstick and broad swishing, which is more or less offensive depending on your sympathies. It also gives us a chance to talk about telenovelas and Political Correctness. (Don't click off, please.)

One of the fun and interesting things about watching telenovelas is the opportunity they give you for insight into the Hispanic cultures which make them, and it's safe to say that they do not have the same sensitivities as most American television shows. With the abundant cleavage and short skirts on proud display, in some ways it reminds me of the pre-Nixon '60s, a land where Dean Martin was king and Matt Helm and the Golddiggers ruled (yes, I know how sexist it all was, but, god, they had great legs, and my dreams still occasionally contain Joey Heatherton). Mexican tv just isn't to our now-enlightened state yet.

You see it in a number of ways that would lead to outraged and outrageous chat rooms across the US Internet if done here. One thing you see regularly is quite young heroines falling for and getting quite older heroes. Yes, yes, I remember the Michael Douglas/Gweneth Paltrow debates of a few years back, but we're talking teenagers and 40-year-olds here. One of my favorites from a few years back featured a very young Kate del Castillo meeting her dream come true when she rode her bicycle into his car. Telemundo's recent hit, "El Cuerpo del Deseo," had a 20-something end up dying with her long-time AARP receiving lover, if they had AARP there. "Piel de Otono" featured a college professor's dream, a long-legged teen with bright red tints with whom the instructor would canoodle, even sometimes in the classroom (after students had left); it's not that it's never happened to professors, just never with a student who looked like this. While some secondary females may occasionally doodle as well, any older woman/younger man stuff, if it does happen, like with the heroine in "La Madrastra," gives way inevitably to the traditional.

Another thing particularly noticeable about Mexican telenovelas, especially in comparison with South American versions (besides the more overt sex in the latter) such as "Betty," is the lack of blacks, sort of like "Friends" and "Seinfeld." The telenovelas in later years have been good about asserting female independence in the face of traditional machismo ("Piel de Otono") and about the rights of native Indians ("Maria Isabel"). However, the lack of a significant black population is clear from the Mexican soaps. In "Betty," one of the feas, the one played as a spiky-haired, fortune-telling white woman in "La Fea," was black, and it didn't seem done just for PC purposes like so many US shows. I bring this up not as a criticism, but because it's surprising. (It also hints to the Dems that their glee over anticipated demographic changes in the US, bringing blacks and Latinos into their camps, may not be without its difficulties, but that's for another kind of post.)

The recent "la reina de la noche" episode in "La Fea" is another non-PC example. "The Queen of the Night" was the hero, forced into cross-dressing service by an extravagant character who makes Jack on "Will and Grace" look like Chuck Norris. (Okay, I know no one looks like Chuck Norris, Chuck Norris looks like . . . well, hell, have you seen Chuck Norris lately? Sheesh.) Had the episode been on American tv, the howls would have been heard on one of Jupiter's moons. (Or is it Saturn's?) The way the story goes, the character becomes more sympathetic (but not much more), much like the blonde secretary, and maybe does something bizarrely positive for gays in Mexico. But still, it's somewhat shocking to see how swishy they make the guy.

It will be interesting to see what happens to the actor portraying the decloseted director, Sergio Mayer, fresh off playing a macho male prostitute type in "La Madrastra." The guy has a long resume of telenovela parts and singing credits, but the actor in "Betty," Julian Arango, hasn't done a hell of a lot since nailing that part as unforgettably as Mayer is now. (It's also true that Ana Maria Orozco, the original Betty, hasn't done much either. I hope it's choice and not the "trapped by one great part" syndrome, which would sort of prove just how great she was.) One way they've helped Mayer is by having his boyfriend, Ruly, played by one of the current telenovela heartthrobs, Jorge Salinas, who seems to be having the time of his life in the part. So does Mayer, actually. It's a great part and gets better. But imagine Will and Grace's Jack on meth. Not sure you'd get it on the air here today. How the American version on ABC this fall will play it will tell us how much we've devolved since "Will & Grace" managed to get Jack on the air years ago. But that's a post about "Betty the Ugly."

Which will be my next one. In the meantime, watch while the hero screws up the shipment from Panama (and, if you don't know what I'm talking about, WATCH!!).