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"They thought that they were better than the rest. They were very communistic, wearing T-shirts with USSR flags on them and claiming to have studied in Moscow," Rivero says with a sneer. "You can't fool people. They knew they were being looked down upon. Most of the moviegoers had hard lives in the first place -- they wanted to be entertained, not subjected to demagoguery."
Indeed, the new cinema was no match at the box office for commercial or independently produced films. The public preferred the fantasy comic bookinspired movies of rural hero "El Payo" (starring Rivero) any day to most government-sponsored films. "Critics often said that Mexican commercial cinema was bad, trash. But it was an open competition," Rivero says. "And the fact was that people would pack the theaters to see us. This would frustrate those intellectualoids who thought they were better than the rest."
The 1970s also brought a shocking yet irresistibly permissive new cinema to a nation where virginity prior to marriage -- in women, anyway -- was inviolable. After decades of family-oriented films, Mexican filmgoers were awed by actresses like Isela Vega, Meche Carreño and Ana Luisa Peluffo, whose sinuous bodies and trademark sex scenes turned them into screen goddesses. Then in his 30s, Rivero was aging gracefully, and producers fought over pairing him with divas like Sasha Montenegro, the Yugoslavian actress who would later marry former President José López Portillo.
Though he scorns the state filmmakers, Rivero did some of his best acting with experimental directors like José Estrada and Francisco Del Villar, who have been lauded for making the most daring movies of the time.
Written by acclaimed novelist Vicente Leñero, Del Villar's El Llanto del la Tortuga(The Turtle's Cry) was a sharp criticism of the excesses of Mexico's upper class. Murders, orgies, abuse of power and money squandering while others sweat to make ends meet are just some of the film's charms. The role of Carlos, an attractive womanizer who lives off Diana (played by Isela Vega), was tailor-made for Rivero. Ultracynical, arrogant and depraved, Carlos is perhaps his best role.
It was in the midst of the studio-state war that the studios came up with Bellas de Noche (Night Beauties), a comedy that takes place almost entirely within a bar. Inspired by the rumbera musicals of the 1940s, Bellas revolves around the life of taxi dancers, or ficheras. The film starred Rivero, Sasha Montenegro and a host of comics including Eduardo de la Peña. Filled with jokes, scantily clad women and the beautiful 1950s tropical boleros of the Sonora Santanera orchestra, Bellas -- though trashed by the critics -- was one of the biggest box-office hits in the history of Mexican cinema.
Unfortunately, Bellas' monstrous success spawned the fichera genre, which degenerated into some of the worst movies in Mexican history. Full of awful double-entendre jokes, profanity and gratuitous nudity, many of these films featured the Rivero-Montenegro "dream couple."
Film historians point to the ficheras as playing a key role in the death of the country's commercial cinema. Rivero acknowledges that he was partially responsible for this. "Mexican cinema went from being a family-oriented cinema, where at least three or four members of a family would go every Sunday to the movies," he says, "to being movies for men."
STATE-FUNDED MEXICAN CINEMA suffered a severe blow in 1976 when President José López Portillo put his sister Margarita in charge of the Banco Cinematográfico. She closed the bank down, ä declaring that it was time for the state-nurtured filmmakers to make it on their own.
Like the rest of the country, the film industry had to scramble just to survive. "Many people lost fortunes," Rivero recalls. "Those that were rich became middle class. The middle class became poor, and the poor lost everything. Only the politicians remained rich."
Yet the industry was still a source of jobs for thousands, and Rivero was still the box-office king. Despite being in his 40s, with graying hair, he muscled out younger rivals and fended off legitimate threats to his throne from actors like Valentín Trujillo and Fernando Allende. His personal life, however, was a different matter. In 1978 he divorced Irene Hammer, his longtime wife, with whom he had two grown sons. (Always protective of his family life, Rivero avoids talking about it.) Rivero today Photo by Ted Soqui
Rivero acknowledges that he has worked in bad movies, but says that he never permitted himself to fall so low as to act in a Mexican video. Rather, he relocated to Hollywood.
His decision to leave Mexico has paid off, he says. In Hollywood, he met and married Betty Moran, a television writer. He has never been able to reach the superstar status that he held in Mexico, but he has managed to make a living off secondary roles -- as well as landing the lead in La Chacala, a recent supernatural telenovela -- while being in a position to produce his own movies.
Undoubtedly his biggest project was Fist Fighter (1989), in which Rivero played a laconic, bare-knuckled Arizona boxer who sets out to avenge the death of his brother in Bolivia. It was filmed in Mexico in English, with a cast from the United States and Spain. With a budget of $1 million, it was one of the most expensive independent Mexican films of the decade. "For Mexico, the film's budget and production was like Gone With the Wind's," Rivero says.