Last modified on Tue 13 Oct 2020 18.12 BST
Beauties of the Night documentary film, 2016.
Goddesses of the stage and the screen, the Mexican vedettes or showgirls of the 1970s and 1980s were the embodiment of the era’s female beauty ideal and versatile talent. They sang, acted, danced and undressed for their clamoring fans night after night with abandon. Leading lives of dazzling opulence, sexual freedom and excessive indulgence, these women were rock stars of their day who reveled in their hard-earned success and became timeless.
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But to grow old means to accept that what once was is no longer. That’s not to say one’s best days are gone, but to remember past glories with nostalgic fondness while trying to sculpt new ones for who we are now. In director Maria Jose Cuevas’ 2016 documentary Beauties of the Night (Bellas de noche), five of those renowned performers, now in their 60s, reckon with their diminished careers, personal disappointments, and the possibility of a future. What begins as a “where are they now?” visit to a bygone chapter in the history of Mexican entertainment results in a revelatory meditation on aging and the fleeting nature of fame.
Cuevas introduces them at their peak. Archival clips of their television and film appearances show them in revealing attires topped with imposing headdresses. Later, the director shoots them in their current state dancing in their own kitchens and living rooms, for magical moments of glamour-laced domesticity – who they were and who they are converging inside the frame. In front of Cuevas’ camera the showgirls come alive, sometimes casual, others striking poses, but always with sheer frankness. There’s no room for half-measures anymore.
Nobody is prepared for the inevitable physical toll the years take on us, especially not those for whom their voluptuous bodies and radiant faces functioned as their most profitable attributes. Yet, like those hanging in the firmament, these stars are determined to burn as slowly as possible. Outward confidence notwithstanding, their fear of being unattractive is latent. We see them trying to preserve their appearances as youthfully as possible: skin care regimens, daily exercise and cosmetic procedures dominate routines.
Mostly away from the incandescent lights of showbusiness these days – the youth-obsessed industry has relegated them to obscurity – these tantalizing artists have taken on other interests to, hopefully, reassess their worth beyond their flesh and blood vessels.
Olga Breeskin, first a violinist before making her name in nightclubs, has turned to evangelical Christianity in the Latino community of Las Vegas, Nevada. Meanwhile, Paraguayan-born Wanda Seux, who died just last month, spent her final years fighting for animal rights amidst her battle with cancer. In one of the doc’s most electrifying scenes, Cuevas bears witness to Seux’s on-camera manifesto promising she has shed her last tears in this world. Her eyes burn with a raging sense of empowerment and utmost defiance.
A figure in Mexico’s erotic comedies known as “cine de ficheras,” Rossy Mendoza has written a book on metaphysics. Then there’s Princesa Yamal, once imprisoned for her alleged involvement in a robbery of Mexico’s National Museum of Anthropology (an event examined in the fiction film Museo, which Cuevas also produced), who found solace in her daughter. And Lyn May, known for bragging about her love-making abilities, lives content with her seventh husband. Finely observed, the interspersed interview segments that let us into their bedazzled universes, place the former divas not in a pristine studio but in spaces with intimate relevance for each.
By no means defeatist, yet not unreservedly triumphant, Beauties of the Night is as much a tribute to the ladies that used to illuminate the marquees, as it’s critical of the world that once desired them and now discards them. Cuevas’ compassionate gaze injects her subjects – through the mere fact that she cares about their stories in a non-exploitative manner – with renewed pride. It’s an acknowledgement that whatever part they had in the audience’s collective enjoyment mattered, but more importantly that they, blemishes and all, still matter today as people and not just a product with an expiration date.
Memories are not enough to beat the darkness that plagues the mind, that much is clear, but sometimes their presence is the only lighthouse. “Thank you for remembering me,” says Princesa Yamal near the end of the road. Her sincere gratitude to Cuevas, to anyone watching, explains there’s no worse punishment for those who survived off of the applause than being forgotten. Exuberantly, these beauties basked in the pleasures and vices of this mortal plane, and though some day they will depart it, at least through the film they’ll eternally shine for who they truly are, whole.
Beauties of the Night is available on Netflix in the US and UK
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