Few know the name Maria Montez today, but her story is just the kind of Hollywood miracle that people love to hear about. An immigrant from the Dominican Republic with minimal acting skills, she managed by sheer force of will to become one of Hollywood’s brightest stars during the second world war years. Montez built her legend through a series of escapist fantasias that moviegoers, exhausted by the bleakness and sacrifice of the war, were all too eager to melt into.
The leading lady’s story is carefully recounted in the new biography The Queen of Technicolor: Maria Montez in Hollywood, by photographer and author Tom Zimmerman. “It’s such a bizarre story, it started to intrigue me,” Zimmerman said to the Guardian. “Montez was just determined to become widely known.” Zimmerman’s book is the first full-length English-language biography of the Dominican actor.
Montez achieved prominence by signing with Universal Pictures, at that time one of the smaller of the major Hollywood studios. Eager to have a star to compete with the likes of Rita Hayworth and Ann Sheridan, Universal placed Montez front and center in a series of fantasies set far, far away. After ascending to the pinnacle of movie-making, Montez was unceremoniously tossed aside by Universal, and after a string of further European movies, where she built an almost worshipful following in France and Italy, she passed away of what was probably a heart attack at just 39 years of age.
“I want this book to introduce her to the world that has largely forgotten her,” said Zimmerman. “When I was working on the book, inevitably, no one I told about it knew who she was. It’s an uphill fight, since she’s just not terribly well remembered.”
How did Montez, a Hollywood outsider if ever there was one, make it to become an A-list leading lady? As The Queen of Technicolor explains, she dedicated herself to a tried and true method – courting controversy and never letting the Hollywood press forget her name. A bombshell with a penchant for showing off her body, it didn’t take Montez long to run afoul of moralists of the time for wearing overly tight sweaters in photo spreads. She rode the ensuing uproar like an uplifting wave, leveraging her sexual potency into ever more publicity and better and better roles in movies.
Another part of Montez’s success was that she loved to exaggerate her character, and was always in on the joke. In one instance while she ascended the ladder of fame, Montez self-promoted by attending a freshman dance at Harvard University. Of course the image of the glamorous star setting foot on the elitist campus caused a major stir, and Montez lapped it all up, having a great time serving young men the myth that she had any interest at all in dancing with them. “She always had a story ready for a newspaper columnist,” said Zimmerman, “and she never said ‘no.’ She’d do anything to get into their columns.”
By the time Montez reached the zenith of her fame, she played the leading role in Universal’s six Neverland movies, ahistorical fantasias that took place in locations designed to stoke the interests of audiences at the time. Given their heavy dose of escapism, and the overall irreality that they portrayed, these movies played marvelously into the Technicolor revolution that had been sweeping Hollywood since The Wizard of Oz mainstreamed the technology 1939. It was via these vivid epics that Montez became known as “the Queen of Technicolor”.
“World War II was a major boon for Maria,” said Zimmerman. “There was a huge desire to have an action adventure movie that was totally irrelevant and didn’t even make much sense. You could go into the theater and forget what was happening. Her films were the perfect escapist pictures.”
The Queen of Technicolor is assiduously researched and is a meaningful first biography of a woman who deserves to be remembered. The book is fascinating for how its story of Montez’s rise combines elements of the old Hollywood studio system that defined film’s so-called golden age, the cultural and moralistic milieu of the time, and the vast publicity apparatus that allowed Montez to turn the era’s sexism to her advantage. Proving the adage “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” Montez’s story rings true to how famous women get ahead today in our image-saturated wired culture.
She would undoubtedly fit right into our social media age, with its unending string of self-made glamor goddesses best known for being famous. Montez’s sui generis origins, her outspokenness, and her ability to manipulate cultural biases to her advantage are all familiar to today’s influencers. Whereas Montez was ever-dependent on photographers to take glamorous shots of her and newspaper columnists to write up her latest exploits, one can only imagine what she might have done with her own Instagram platform or a reality TV show. It would probably have been fantastic. As Zimmerman commented, “it’s intriguing to think what Maria would have done today, if she had her own social media.”
Given Montez’s love of outrageous costumes and extravagant vamping, it’s perhaps not a surprise that she ended up becoming a queer icon in the years after her death. She was central to Gore Vidal’s 1974 novel Myron, and she was idolized by artists including the queer underground film legend Jack Smith and Andy Warhol himself.
The Queen of Technicolor never misses a chance to inform us how beautiful, alluring, sexy, gorgeous, leggy or well-endowed Montez was, nor to describe certain body parts and the outfits that barely covered them. It may be that Montez sexualized herself in order to achieve the legendary Hollywood status that she yearned for, but it is another thing, 80 years later, to see the objectification continue in a biography ostensibly dedicated to her power and memory.
That said, it is important to have a book the puts Montez back on the map, and hopefully there will be more where this one came from. Although Montez may not have made great art, her movies were sensual delights that helped audiences imagine other worlds – something most of us can get behind in these enormously stressful times of disease, political upheaval and climate crisis. Her self-confidence and originality also inspired queer communities to embrace themselves, resonating for decades afterwards. Most of all, she seemed to just be having lots of fun – reminding us all to find a little room for joy and glamor in our lives.