Katy Jurado was born María Cristina Estela Jurado García into a wealthy family on January 16, 1924. Her early years were spent amid luxury until her family’s lands were confiscated by the federal government for redistribution to the landless peasantry. Despite the loss of property, the matriarch of the family, her grandmother, continued to live by her aristocratic ideals. When movie star Emilio Fernandez discovered Katy at the age of 16 and wanted to cast her in one of his films, Jurado’s grandmother objected to her wish to become a movie actress. To get around the ban, Katy slipped from the grasp of her family’s control by marrying actor Víctor Velázquez.
Jurado eventually made her debut in No matarás (1943) during the what has been called “The Golden Age of Mexican Cinema”. Blessed with stunning beauty and an assertive personality, Jurado specialized in playing determined women in a wide variety of films in Mexico and the United States. Her looks were evocative of the indigenous peoples of Mexico, and she used what she called her “distinguished and sensuous look” to carve a niche for herself in Mexican cinema. Indian features were unusual for a film star in Mexico–despite the success of Fernandez, the fabled “El Indio”–and her ethnic look meant she typically was cast as a dangerous seductress cum man-eater, a popular type in Mexican movies. The Mexican media reported that an American movie director at one of her first Hollywood auditions laughed at her derisively because she spoke English so poorly, and an outraged Jurado promptly stormed out of the audition room, cursing in Spanish. As it turned out, that kind of brazen behavior was exactly the type of personality that the director was looking for.
In addition to acting, Jurado worked as a movie columnist and radio reporter to support her family. She also worked as a bullfight critic, and it was at a bullfight that Jurado was spotted by John Wayne and director Budd Boetticher. Boetticher, who was also a professional bullfighter, cast Jurado in his autobiographical film Bullfighter and the Lady (1951), which he shot in Mexico. She was cast in her part despite having very limited English-language skills and had to speak her lines phonetically. Luis Buñuel cast her in his Mexican melodrama El bruto (1953), and then she made her big breakthrough in American films in the role of Gary Cooper’s former mistress, saloon owner Helen Ramirez, in High Noon (1952). The role necessitated her moving to Hollywood. She received two Golden Globe nominations from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association for that part, for Most Promising Newcomer and Best Supporting Actress, winning the latter. “She planted the Mexican flag in the U.S. film industry, and made her country proud”, said National Actors Association official Mauricio Hernandez. Her “High Noon” performance historically proved to be an important acting watershed for Latino women in American movies. Jurado’s portrayal undermined the Hollywood stereotype of the flaming, passionate Mexican “spitfire.” Previously, Mexican and Latino women in Hollywood films were characterized by an unbridled sexuality, as exemplified by such diverse actresses as Lupe Velez, Dolores del Rio (who came to loathe Hollywood and returned to Mexico in the 1940s), and Rita Hayworth, nee Margarita Cansino. Although Jurado’s character was forced to kow-tow to the stereotype in “High Noon”, delivering such lines as, “It takes more than big, broad shoulders to make a man,” the actress’ great dignity in her role as a moral arbiter among the competing factions of the marshal and his fiancée, the townspeople and the gunmen out to kill the marshal showed her Helen Ramirez to be in control and controlled by nothing, not even her former love for the marshal. Her restrained performance, delivered with a great deal of conviction, emphasized the shortcomings of the rest of the other characters. Her moral integrity is the reason she, like the marshal, must abandon the town.
With her superb performance, Jurado proved that Latino women could be more than just sexpots in the American cinema. Importantly, working against the tropes of a racist cinema, she used her talent to introduce into the American cinema the model of the un-stereotyped Mexican woman who is identifiably Mexican. One of the best examples of this can be seen at the end of the middle of her career, when Jurado played sheriff Slim Pickens’ wife and partner in Sam Peckinpah’s elegiac Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973). Determined and tough as nails, Jurado’s character was clearly her screen husband’s equal, and she had a very moving scene with Pickens as his character faced death. Jurado was blessed with extraordinary eyes, which were both beautiful and expressive, their beauty and strength never fading with age. Two years after “High Noon”, Jurado received an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actress for her role as Spencer Tracy’s Indian wife in Edward Dmytryk’s Broken Lance (1954), making her the first Mexican actress thus honored.
She refused to sign a contract with a major Hollywood studio in order to be able to return to Mexico between her American roles to star in Mexican films. She +remained in Los Angeles for 10 years, marrying Ernest Borgnine, her co-star in The Badlanders (1958), in 1959. During their tempestuous relationship, Jurado and Borgnine separated and reconciled before finally separating for good in 1961. The tabloids reported that Borgnine had abused her, and their separation proved rocky as well, as they fought over alimony. Their divorce became final in 1964. Borgnine summed up his ex-wife as “beautiful, but a tiger”, a bon mot that described her on-screen persona as well (she had two children with former husband Victor Velasquez, a daughter and a son, who tragically was killed in an automobile accident in 1981).
Jurado played the wife of Marlon Brando’s nemesis Dad Longworth (Karl Malden) in One-Eyed Jacks (1961), Brando’s sole directorial effort. In her role she also was the mother of a young woman who was Brando’s love interest, thus marking a career transition point as she assumed the role of a mature woman. As Jurado aged, she appeared in fewer films, but notable among them included Arrowhead (1953) with Charlton Heston, Trapeze (1956) in support of Burt Lancaster and Man from Del Rio (1956) with her fellow Mexican national Anthony Quinn who, unlike Jurado, had become an American citizen. She also appeared with Quinn in _Barabbas (1962)_and The Children of Sanchez (1978).
She appeared on the Western-themed American TV shows Death Valley Days (1952), The Rifleman (1958), The Westerner (1960) and The Virginian (1962). Her career in the US began to wind down, and she was reduced to appearing in “B” pictures like Smoky (1966) with Fess Parker and the Elvis Presley movie Stay Away, Joe (1968). She attempted to commit suicide in 1968, and then moved back home to Mexico permanently, though she continued to appear in American films as a character actress. Her last American film appearance was in Stephen Frears’ The Hi-Lo Country (1998), capping a half-century-long American movie career that continued due to her talent and remarkable presence, long after her extraordinary good looks had faded.
Aside from acting in films in the US and Europe, she continued to act in Mexican films. Her most memorable role in Mexican movies was in Nosotros los pobres (1948) (aka “We the Poor”) opposite superstar Pedro Infante. Though in the latter part of her career she appeared occasionally in American films shot in Mexico (including an appearance with her former mentor, Emilio Fernandez, in “Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid” and John Huston’s Under the Volcano (1984)), she appeared mostly in Mexican movies in the last decades of her career, becoming a prominent and highly respected character actress. She played the leader of a religious cult in the Bunuel-like satire El evangelio de las maravillas (1998). Jurado won three Ariel awards, the Mexican equivalent of the Oscar, a Best Supporting Actress award in 1954 for Bunuel’s El bruto (1953) a Best Actress Award in 1974 for Fe, esperanza y caridad (1974) and a Best Supporting Actress award in 1999 for “El evangelio de las Maravillas”. She also was awarded a Special Golden Ariel for Lifetime Achievment in 1997. In the north, she was honored with a Golden Boot Award by the Motion Picture & Television Fund in 1992 and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Jurado was an avid promoter of her home state of Morelos as a location for filmmakers.
Towards the end of her life, she suffered from heart and lung ailments. Katy Jurado died on July 5, 2002, at the age of 78 at her home in Cuernavaca, Mexico. She was survived by her daughter.
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