andrew toth/film magic/getty images
andrew toth/film magic/getty images
“As long as I keep walking on my own, with a good memory and reasonably perfect hearing, I intend to continue working,” 90-year-old Fernanda Montenegro told the newspaper Estado de São Paulo in 2019 as she was doing press for her latest film, Karim Aïnouz’s Invisible Life, an adaptation of a novel that was nominated for Best International Film at the Spirit Awards the following year. The grande dame of Brazilian cinema, Montenegro had three films released that year as well as her memoir "Prólogo, Ato, Epílogo: Memórias".
Montenegro first gained attention in Hollywood when she was nominated for both a Golden Globe and an Oscar as Best Actress for her role in Walter Salles’ Central Station in 1999, in which she played an unsympathetic woman who redeems herself by helping a street urchin find his father. She spent time on the publicity circuit in Hollywood explaining her then five decades-long career in Brazil to journalists. Reflecting on the attention, she told the Los Angeles Times: “It was like a trip to Jupiter.” On The Late Show with David Letterman, she described herself as “the old lady from Ipanema.” Meanwhile, Salles, who had written the part specifically for her, told the Times, “Fernanda becomes the co-author of every project she elects to make.” The film won the top prize at the Berlin International Film Festival and the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film as well.
She turned down every single offer to work in non-Brazilian films after her nomination and went back to Brazil, telling the New York Daily News, “I come from a forgotten corner of the world that produces much that is wonderful but speaks Portuguese. To work here? What kind of process leads to that? In Brazil, I have a life. Here, I have an accent.”
Montenegro was born Arlette Pinheiro Esteves da Silva on October 16, 1929 in Rio de Janeiro to a woodcarver father and homemaker mother, the daughter of Sardinian immigrants. She saw her first film at age 4, one by Charlie Chaplin. At age 16, she won a contest for a radio job reading books and plays on a program called Literary Passage. She would go to downtown Rio to see movies three times a week; she loved Hollywood films and has said that Gone with the Wind was a particular favorite. Arlette would then change her name to Fernanda, a name she thought was stronger and more dramatic. ‘Montenegro’ was picked after a family doctor.
Her first theatrical role was at age 21, in the play Alegres Canções nas Montanhas at the Copacabana Theater, where she also began a relationship with her co-star Fernando Torres. They were married until his death in 2008 and have two children, Claudio and Fernanda, both of whom have gone into the family business, he as a director, she as an actor.
Montenegro’s stage career soared in the following years, especially after the arrival in Brazil of television, on which her plays were broadcast to acclaim. She moved to São Paulo and continued to work in theater as well as in television, her first telenovela being Pouco Amor Não é Amor. Her first film was A Falecida in 1964.
However, the 1964 military coup d’état in Brazil which led to the overthrow of the Brazilian president by the army changed things for the artistic community. Censorship was rampant, blacklists ruined careers, funding dried up and many artists left the country. But Montenegro was undaunted. She opened a theater company with her husband and endured death threats and intimidation to keep it going, hiring bodyguards for her safety.
Montenegro continued making films, but her reputation was built mostly on her theater work. 1981’s Eles Não Usam Black-Tie brought her positive notices, but it was only in 1997 when Four Days in September (O Que é Isso, Companheiro?) became an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, that the First Lady of Brazilian Theatre was also regarded as a movie star.
“We have no cinema industry in Brazil,” she told the New York Post at the time. “In our country, we cannot make a living acting in the cinema. But when we do make a film, from the director to the gaffer, we do it as if it were the first and the last film of our lives. We give all that we have to this piece of fantasy and glory.”
Her English-language debut film was Mike Newell’s Love in the Time of Cholera, based on the novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in 2007, in which she played Javier Bardem’s mother. The film didn’t get very good reviews - fans were referred to the book and told to skip the movie.
As she had done with her Oscar nomination, Montenegro became the first Brazilian to win the International Emmy for her performance in the television show Doce de Mãe in 2013.
Salles described Montenegro’s ability to inhabit a character completely as a “constant quest to unveil the most profound secrets of the human soul.” Her longevity and the regard that she is held in, not only in her native country but around the world, is a testament to the constant truth-seeking of a born storyteller, influencing all the Brazilian actors who have come up behind her.
In 1999, she was awarded Brazil’s highest civilian honor, the National Order of Merit “in recognition of her outstanding work in the Brazilian performing arts.” In 2013, she was 15th on the Forbes list of Brazil’s most influential celebrities. At the Rio Olympics in 2016, Montenegro read the poem "A Flor e a Náusea" by Carlos Drummond de Andrade, which was also read in English by Judi Dench.