pascal le segreatin/getty images
pascal le segreatin/getty images
Three-time Golden Globe-nominee Sônia Braga, best known in the US for her sexually powerful performances in movies like Dona Flor And Her Two Husbands (1976), Kiss Of The Spiderwoman (1985) and Moon Over Parador (1988), told People magazine in 1988 that “I was kind of ugly.” She referred to herself as a skinny girl with big teeth and disorderly hair.
Born to an African/Portuguese father and a mestiço (half European, half Indian) mother in Maringá, Brazil in 1950, Braga started an acting career despite her insecurities.
She told the HFPA in 2016 that it was her brother, who was working as an actor, who got her her first role. “One day, his director asked him if he knew any girls because he needed a little princess, and my brother said, ‘I think my sister can play a princess.’ And I just had to go down these steps and it was like playing Cinderella. And that is how everything happened and I continued to work.”
Braga was first hailed for her performance in the São Paulo production of Hair at age 18. She went on to work in the Brazilian version of Sesame Street and acted in several telenovelas, especially Gabriela, based on a novel by Jorge Amado, with whom she would collaborate several more times in her career. The show was a huge hit and Braga cemented her position as one of Brazil’s top stars. 1977’s Dona Flor e Seus Dois Maridos soon followed, also based on an Amado novel, and Braga gained an international profile when it was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film. The sexy comedy was the most successful film in Brazil for 35 years.
The hit films that followed were Eu Te Amo in 1981 in which she played one half of a couple who started out as “friends with benefits” and then fell in love. It showed in Cannes and prompted the Newsweek critic to write: “The festival revealed the most life-enhancing movie star in the world to be Brazil’s Sônia Braga. She becomes something brand-new on the screen, the first true post-Sophia Loren star, a woman of blazing beauty and energy with a courageous sexual explicitness . . .” Her director Arnold Jabor summed up her performance this way to the LA Times. “She is one of the rare actresses in the history of cinema to combine great acting ability with an overpowering sexual presence.”
Addressing her sexy onscreen persona, she told the HFPA: “Because all of my life, and in all the characters that I played, I started seeing that sexuality is something that belongs to your body. It’s nothing like, you get home and you take it out of the closet and you wear it. Or when you leave home, you hang it up and leave it. It belongs to you.”
Braga appeared in the film remake of Gabriela in 1983 opposite Marcello Mastroianni, reprising her role from the TV show as a housekeeper who has an affair with her employer. Rumors of an affair with Mastroianni kept her in the headlines.
Her next role in the Oscar-nominated Kiss of the Spider Woman raised her profile even further. The film, based on a novel by Manuel Puig, starred Raul Julia and William Hurt. Braga played three roles in it, two of them fantasy characters, including the titular role. Released in 1985 at the height of the AIDS crisis, and with its gay love story, it was a surprising success, earning $17 million and becoming the first indie film to be Oscar-nominated. It was Braga’s first English language film. She told the Advocate at the time, “Why do a movie with a gay man and political prisoner in a cell? Because it’s important.”
She told Vogue in 2016 about living in the US. “I lived in Los Angeles for three years, but nobody sees anybody there unless there’s a party. I learned how to drive, but I never took the highway, only back roads -- I was like a retired old lady traveling. I was in a panic about it all the time. So I moved to New York, and I love this city just the way it is. You leave home and you walk around. You go to the museums and parks and you see your friends—even if there’s no party. I live in Alphabet City now. I used to live in Tribeca, but after 9/11 I decided to go back to Brazil. The city had changed and I thought it was time to go. I was there for one week and I thought, ‘I want to go back to New York.’”
In the 90s, only supporting roles came her way. She worked in Clint Eastwood’s The Rookie in 1990, and was nominated for the Golden Globe and Emmy for Best Supporting Actress in the HBO show The Burning Season in 1994. There were numerous guest appearances on other television shows, and then she decided to work in Brazil as well. She appeared in the telenovela Força de um Desejo (1999) and the movie Memórias Póstumas, directed by André Klotzel, and based on The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas by Machado de Assis.
Back in the US, in 2001 Braga made Angel Eyes with Jennifer Lopez, directed by Luis Mandoki; the following year she was seen playing a Mexican character in the PBS show American Family about a Los Angeles Latino family. She also had a three-episode arc on Sex and the City playing a lesbian. Other highlights in her US television career include a recurring role on Alias in 2001, and an arc on the sixth season of Royal Pains in 2014; she also played Rosario Dawson’s mother on the Marvel show Luke Cage on Netflix in 2015.
In 2016, she premiered a film once again at the Cannes Film Festival – Aquarius – where she got good notices playing a character who took on local developers who were forcing her to move, setting up a debate in Brazil about the human toll of overdevelopment. It was nominated for an Independent Spirit award as Best Foreign Film. In 2019, Bacurau won the Jury Prize at Cannes: it was a “weird western” in which Braga played an eccentric villager in a community that fought against corrupt outsiders as it grappled with supernatural occurrences. Both films were directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho.
Braga is one of the co-founders of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts which promotes Hispanic artists in media, and is the aunt of actress Alice Braga.