"The Magnificent Heel: The Life and Films of Ricardo Cortez" by Dan Van Neste is a worthy tribute to a fine actor who quite often is relegated to second-rate status due to the studio powers that promoted him as a successor to Rudolph Valentino - a role he basically despised for the rest of his life. Van Neste's biography sets the record straight on this prolific actor who, with determination and talent, survived after the silent era and worked steadily throughout the next three decades. In Chapter Twelve, Van Neste devotes several pages to defending Cortez's claim to fame and a place in cinematic history. "For all intents and purposes, Ricardo Cortez's unique screen persona, his contributions and legacy have been relegated to the dustbin of cinematic history. After carefully studying his career and his many cinematic contributions, I feel this oversight to be unjust and unacceptable," he notes. And, after reading this excellent and well-researched biography, the reader will agree that Cortez was more than a second string Valentino. In the mid-twenties he was promoted as a second Valentino with the studio fabricating his background to fit this image. Although he was Jewish and born in Manhattan, around 1923, Paramount issued a biography asserting that he was a "young Castilian" who immigrated to the United States with his wealthy parents. Cortez never wanted to hide his background, and in the late twenties, he very proudly claimed his heritage and home life to interviewers. One of the many fascinating sections of the book recounts his marriage to the troubled Alma Rubens during the time he was transitioning to sound and reinventing his screen persona. Van Neste enlightens us regarding the private details of his turbulent marriage to Alma Rubens, whom silent fans know unsuccessfully battled drug addiction. Cortez, according to Van Neste, did his best to help her, even arranging with her family to get her in a sanitarium, but her sobriety lasted only for a while, and the drugs began to flow again. Van Neste covers this period in Cortez's life in absorbing detail - and one other unsuccessful marriage in the 1930's before marrying a final time in 1950 - the third marriage lasting until his death 27 years later.
But Van Neste's tribute does not dwell on Cortez's private life - he also does a superb job of tracing the actor's film career from early extra appearances in some Fort Lee films to his first feature film appearance in 1919, on through the silent era and the Latin lover phase, and his diverse career in the sound era that provided him opportunities to play gangsters (at which he excelled), leading men, supporting roles that, often, only offered short screen time and even a period as a director, a role he sought determinedly and finally succeeded in getting. Actually, as Van Neste points out, Cortez's willingness to work for poverty row studios, as well as the large studios, be cooperative with them and accept second, third or even lower billing, kept him employed and popular with fans. Although he cherished good lead roles (few may realize Cortez was Sam Spade in the first filming of "The Maltese Falcon" in 1931), Van Neste points out that he was "one of the cinema's premier villains, bringing multi-dimensional depth to his portrayals of cads, rascals, malefactors, and killers that few could match."
The author also tells us how Cortez's temperament sometimes played a role in the problems he experienced in both his personal and professional life. "While he was a devoted son and a supportive brother who financially cared for his mother and sister throughout his life, and helped his brothers secure employment in the film industry, his periodic selfishness, self-centeredness, trust issues and volatility appear to have been limiting to him both personally and career-wise." Van Neste notes that Cortez's absorption with his work and "self-centeredness" were at the heart of his second unsuccessful marriage.
For silent movie fans, it should be noted that Cortez's early life and career in silent films is covered in the first 100 pages of the 300 devoted to the biography portion of this book. However, readers will not shy away from the entire narrative - it's all very engrossing. Silent fans may note one of Cortez's most memorable roles available for viewing today is as Greta Garbo's leading man in her first American film, "The Torrent" (1926). He resented the fact that that, although he was billed as the star, Garbo received most of the attention during filming and, of course, recognition in reviews. Unfortunately, he made his dissatisfaction known during filming, and he and Garbo never got along - although in later years he claimed he enjoyed working with her.
In spite of the fact that the silent era ends after the first 100 pages, silent movie fans will be no less intrigued with Cortez's life and career during the sound era, as well. The reader will also gain a renewed respect for the actor and his professionalism, tenacity and talent. With so many stars falling on hard times once the sound era arrived, it's refreshing, too, to read about a survivor who, through his talent and determination, had a successful movie career up until the day he decided to walk away. Even fans of Cortez may not realize he as also a very talented investor, even working for a short time for a stock market firm, and retired a wealthy man.
Van Neste's filmography is second to none, taking up nearly 200 pages and providing all the information one could want on Cortez's film career, even noting which of his films survive today.
It's a superb book, written to hold the reader's interest,
providing an appropriate balance between personal life and film
career, and filling a void in film history that is long overdue.
Cortez was a fine actor with a varied and successful career -
and after reading the book, the reader will not only gain a new
respect for Cortez, you'll no doubt want to go find a Cortez film
Return to "Recommended Reading" page