Brow Beat

How Mexico Conquered the Oscars

The Oscar-dominating trio of Alejandro González Iñárritu, Guillermo del Toro, and Alfonso Cuarón has learned to play Hollywood’s game—and win it.

Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuarón, and Alejandro González Iñárritu.
Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuarón, and Alejandro González Iñárritu. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for THR, Tristan Fewings/Getty Images, and Andreas Rentz/Getty Images.

Roma, Alfonso Cuarón’s intimate masterpiece, has been nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film. Yalitza Aparicio, the Oaxacan schoolteacher and acting novice who plays Cleo, a young Mixtec woman who finds heartbreak and solace while working for a middle-class family in Mexico City, has been nominated for Best Actress. She is the first indigenous woman to be nominated in the category. Her co-star Marina de Tavira also earned a nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Cuarón himself is in the running for the impressive trifecta of director, screenwriter, and cinematographer (he will be in a club all his own if he wins all three). If Roma takes Best Picture—it has at least a strong shot—it will be the first foreign language film to take the Academy’s top honor. No filmmaker—not even legendary directors like Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman, both multiple winners in the foreign language category—has managed such a feat.

Roma’s success at the Oscars would be a triumph for Cuarón, a versatile man of the cinema capable of conjuring the unexpected in the massive canvas of a Harry Potter movie, the eerie stillness of space in Gravity, or the black-and-white frame of Roma, where the director re-creates his childhood home and 1970s Mexico City in Proustian detail.

Roma’s achievements also belong to a generation of filmmakers unlike any other in the history of the art form. If Cuarón wins again, the Mexican trio of Alejandro González Iñárritu, Guillermo del Toro, and Cuarón will take home their fifth Oscar in the past six years in the Best Director category—del Toro for last year’s The Shape of Water, Iñárritu for The Revenant and Birdman and Cuarón for 2013’s Gravity. Of course, the list of foreign-born movie directors who have reached the pinnacle of their careers on Oscar night is long, but few countries can claim to have produced a cohesive group of collaborators with the level of success three Mexican auteurs have enjoyed for more than two decades.

What makes Iñárritu, del Toro, and Cuarón so unique? Renowned Mexican film critic Fernanda Solórzano believes the group’s success began with their individual decisions to leave Mexico. “They recognized early on that the industry in Mexico couldn’t give them either the conditions or the budget they needed to advance their careers,” Solórzano told me. “They could have become complacent, they could have simply rested on their laurels. Instead, they chose to take risks. All three have been courageous.”

At different moments in the early stages of their careers, Cuarón, Iñárritu, and del Toro worked in Mexican television, then a telenovela-producing juggernaut. While others made fortunes repeating tear-jerking formulas, the three directors looked to the big screen. Both Cuarón and del Toro directed their first movies when they were around 30 years old. Cuarón’s Sólo con Tu Pareja, a playful urban comedy co-written with his brother, Carlos, became a smash hit. Del Toro’s Cronos, a dizzying tale of alchemy and vampirism, followed a couple of years later. Iñárritu, who had already revolutionized Mexican radio in the ’80s, would join the club in 2000, with the celebrated Amores Perros. After those first movies, none of them looked back. Actor Diego Luna, whose career Cuarón helped launch in the critically acclaimed Y Tu Mamá También, agrees. “The three of them left Mexico immediately in search of greater challenges,” he explained in an email. “I believe that each of them, in his own peculiar way, understands risk as an essential part of success.”

All three directors are also constant innovators, both narratively and technically. For Solórzano, this resourcefulness comes not only from the trio’s creative passions but from the very concrete challenges they faced while trying to develop their craft in Mexico, where inventiveness becomes not a creative luxury but an obligation in an industry that depended, back then, mostly on public funding. “For better or worse, in Mexico there are always obstacles,” she told me. “They had to learn to think outside the box.”

This inventiveness carried over when the directors finally had more resources at their disposal. Under the hood of Gravity, for example, is an obsessive exercise in the geometry of filmmaking, engineered by Cuarón and Emmanuel Lubezki, his virtuoso cinematographer and another member of Mexico’s historic filmmaking generation. Iñárritu’s Birdman, for which he won the first of his two Oscars in directing, is an experiment in the art of the long take, with Lubezki’s eyes once again at the viewfinder. The Revenant, a gorgeous and violent epic with a grueling production history that almost drove Iñárritu and his actors to the brink of insanity, and The Shape of Water, a product of del Toro’s vivid and colorful imagination, are also exceptional and spellbinding pieces of filmmaking. Roma is but the latest example of Cuarón’s ambition to experiment with cinema’s sights and sounds, a drive so compulsive that it sparked a lively debate over whether viewers should avoid simply streaming the movie at home and instead head to the theaters, where its director’s full powers are better on display.

Another factor that explains the rise of the three great Mexican directors is the way they have chosen to approach Hollywood itself. Instead of trying to shape the business to their own particular tastes, all three chose to, as Diego Luna explained it to me, “play the industry’s game”: earning their stripes as commercially viable directors in Hollywood while pushing for riskier, more complex projects. Luna told me that none of the three directors has ever just “reacted to what the industry demands, which is generally some sort of repetition on a theme. Rather, they’ve always tried to find original ways into a story, always innovating and surprising the industry. The way they make decisions and how unafraid they are of failure … I find that truly admirable.”

And then there’s the sheer joy all three men derive from their craft. When I interviewed Cuarón in 2004 on the press tour for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban—widely praised as the series’s best installment—he explained a theory he had come up with along with del Toro. “Remember when your mom used to give you a big bowl of cereal in the morning and you had to finish before you could get to the prize, the small toy that was at the bottom of the box?” Cuarón asked me, with a certain mischief. He went on to explain how both he and del Toro thought of the more commercial movies they had directed as the “cereal” that would allow them to make passion projects like The Devil’s Backbone or Y Tu Mamá También, the fabled toys in the story. “Now, Guillermo and I have a secret that we don’t tell our mothers,” Cuarón whispered with a playful grin. “We love the cereal as well!”