Braga, Sonia: 1950—: Actress

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Sonia Braga: 1950: Actress

Few press reports on the actress Sonia Braga ever fail to mention her nickname, "the Brazilian Bombshell." Best known for her role in the acclaimed 1985 film Kiss of the Spider Woman, Braga has made dozens of films, both in her native Brazil and for Hollywood studios, and many of the performances have been marked by a smoldering sensuality. The Brazilian director Arnaldo Jabor enthused to Los Angeles Times writer Roderick Mann that Braga "is one of the rare actresses in the history of cinema to combine great acting ability with an overpowering sexual presence."

Went from Secretary to Television Starlet

Braga was born in Maringá, a town in southern Brazil, on June 8, 1950. Her father was of African and Portuguese heritage, and her mother was a mestizo, of half-European, half Indian ancestry. The family of seven struggled after their father died when Braga was eight. By the time she was 14, she was working in an office as a typist. One day, an employee of a fashion photographer visited the office, and suggested that she model; Braga scoffed at the idea, as she recalled in an interview with Alan Richman for People in 1988. "I was kind of ugly," she said, describing her teenage self as skinny, with unruly hair and large teeth. A colleague in the office related the tale of this missed opportunity to a film-maker, who then sought Braga out and cast her in a movie that never made it into theaters. Her career eventually was launched with her appearance, at the age of 18, in a São Paulo production of Hair, the popular hippie musical of the era; Braga appeared nude onstage, and the performanceeven in freewheeling Brazilcaused a stir, as it did in other productions elsewhere.

Braga's first credited on-screen role was in O Bandido da Luz Vermelha. She spent two years on Brazil's version of Sesame Street, V Sésamo, in the early 1970s, and also found steady work in the telenovelas, or soap operas, that are a staple of Latin American television. "Usually she was cast as a depressed teenage girl who would cry after the untimely death of a loved one," remarked Richman in People. "Such performances brought her fame." One role that brought her wider industry attention was the miniseries Gabriela, which "took Brazil by storm in the early 1970s, turning into a household name its sensuous young star, Sonia Braga," noted two writers for London's Guardian newspaper, Sue Branford and David Treece. The telefilm was based on a work by one of Brazil's best-known novelists, Jorge Amado. "The novel had sold 800,000 copies, an extraordinary achievement in a country with a high level of illiteracy, but the soap opera reached 25 [million] people." Set in Brazil in the 1920s, Gabriela revolved around a poor young mestizo woman from the countryside who becomes the housekeeper for a wealthy, but dissipate café owner of European heritage.

At a Glance . . .

Born Sonia Maria Campos Braga on June 8, 1950, in Maringá, Paraná, Brazil; daughter of Zeze Braga (a seamstress).

Career: Actress, 1969.

Address: Agent Michael Black, International Creative Management, 8899 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90048.

Braga's success in the title role of Gabriela soon led to an offer to star in another Amado story, Doña Flor e Seus Dois Maridos, one of 1977's top-grossing international releases. Directed by Bruno Barreto, Doña Flor is the story of a young widow who misses the passionate encounters she enjoyed with her late husband. Now remarried to a dull pharmacist, her nights are enlivened when the ghost of her first spouse begins to visit her. The success of the racy comedy helped launch Braga's name on an international level, and also garnered favorable attention for Brazilian cinema in general. Braga's next major film role, Eu Te Amo, released in 1981, again celebrated the sensuous. At this point in her career, she was often trumpeted as the next big sultry international movie star, in the footsteps of Sophia Loren. Press reports linking Braga romantically to her co-stars or directors only added to the allure; such rumors surrounded the production of the feature-film remake of Gabriela in 1983, which paired her with Italian heartthrob Marcello Mastroianni.

Switched Roles and Languages with "Spider Woman"

Her star rose higher with the release in 1985 of Kiss of the Spider Woman, her first English-language project and based on a novel from Manuel Puig. Again, the movie became one of the most critically acclaimed international releases of that year, and even won Braga's co-star, William Hurt, the Academy Award for best actor. Hurt played Molina, a gay man jailed in a Latin American country for child molestation; his cell-mate, Valentin (Raul Julia), is a political prisoner. Molina entertains Valentin with tales of Leni Lamaison, a bygone movie star of unparalleled beauty. Braga plays Leni in the fantasy sequences, but also portrays another character who exists in Molina's imagination, the Spider Woman, as well as a thirdValentin's former lover, Marta.

Kiss of the Spider Woman was a film described as "tense, charged with intellectual energy and witty with the dark humor of despair" as well as "mesmerizing" by People critic Ralph Novak. As Braga told Advocate writer Lawrence Ferber several years later, at the time, "Some people would say, 'Why do a movie with a gay man and political prisoner in a cell?'" she recalled. "And I say, 'Because it's important.' I have both [Molina and Valentin] in my life: gay people and political people, if not both in one body. Many of them, especially in Brazil, have disappeared. Some are dead."

Braga did admit that the success of Kiss of the Spider Woman surprised even her. She had been uneasy about her first film in English, as she told Mann in the Los Angeles Times interview. "Sometimes I would say a line and wonder, 'What does it mean?'," she recalled. "Now I feel much more secure." The critical plaudits led to offers to appear in two mainstream Hollywood projects, both released in 1988: The Milagro Bean-field War, directed by Robert Redford, and a Paul Mazursky comedy called Moon over Parador.

Returned to Television Acclaim

After Parador, Braga's career slowed for a few years. She took on supporting roles in the 1990 Clint Eastwood-Charlie Sheen cop-buddy film The Rookie, and in several made-for-television films and mini-series. Yet even as a supporting actress she was nominated for both Golden Globe and Emmy awards for her role in a 1994 HBO project, The Burning Season, about slain Brazilian social activist Chico Mendes. She was also nominated for a Bravo award from the National Council of La Raza for the 1995 CBS miniseries Streets of Laredo. That same year, renowned director Nicolas Roeg cast her as one of the leads in Two Deaths a bleak drama set during the final hours of the regime of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. She played the housekeeper to a wealthy doctor, who is also Ceausescu's personal physician; the doctor had a youthful infatuation with her character, Ana, but she is still uninterested and instead loves a paralyzed man, who also lives in the house. The physician takes care of the man in exchange for her romantic favors.

The following year, Braga served as co-producer for another film adaptation of an Amado work, Tietá do Agreste. She starred in it as well, working with acclaimed director Carlos Diegues for her first Brazilian film in several years. The story is set in a poor village in the state of Bahia, which Tietá had been forced to flee at the age of 17 after her conservative sister ruined her reputation. She returns 26 years later, now a wealthy widow, and the family members and villagers alike court her favor. She manages to save a plot of land for her father, and gets the village wired with electricity. "Braga's sensual beauty and fiery passion are perfect for the bold but emotionally scarred Tieta," declared Los Angeles Times writer Kevin Thomas.

Other film projects for Braga have included roles in the Jennifer Lopez film Angel Eyes, and a three-episode romance on the hit HBO series Sex and the City. For once, this latter part called for her to play an actual Brazilian womanas a Latina actress, Braga has often had to accept a wide range of nationalities to play. "I started playing Mexicans, Puerto Ricans," she told Los Angeles Times writer Dana Calvo. "I did everything, because I didn't have much problem playing what's out there." One such role was as a Mexican-American mother of five grown children in American Family, the first all-Latino drama, which aired on PBS. A 2002 project from acclaimed filmmaker Gregory Nava (El Norte ), the series paired her with Edward James Olmos as her husband. In the first episode, the Gonzalezes, longtime residents of a working-class East Los Angeles neighborhood, are uneasy about moving to a new condominium that one of their more successful off-spring has just bought for them. "Unabashedly emotional and determinedly ethnic, 'American Family' can be quite touching, as well as a little exhausting, especially the opening episode, which introduces the large and complex Gonzalez family, its predicaments and cultural legacy," remarked New York Times writer Julie Salamon. "The show feels unwieldy, and melodramatic at times, but also warm and lively." Salamon praised the show's cast and crew for recognizing subtle differences "between ethnic idiosyncrasy and stereotype. Even when some of the conflicts between generations seem almost platitudinous, they are handled with grace and intelligence."

Over the years, Braga has been romantically linked to Redford, Eastwood, rock star Mick Jagger, and even Brazilian soccer legend Pelé. She acknowledges that her public persona has indeed been shaped by the frank sexual overtones in some of her on-screen performances. "Sooner or later, everyone asks me about sex," she conceded in the interview with Mann of the Los Angeles Times. "I didn't invent it, but I think it healthy to talk about it. That does not mean I'm not shy. I am. If I'm in love with someone, I often find it very difficult to express myself, to find the right words. But when the camera is on me, everything changes."

Selected filmography

O Bandido da Luz Vermelha, 1970.

O Casal (The Couple), 1974.

Doña Flor e Seus Dois Maridos (Doña Flor and Her Two Husbands), 1977.

Eu Te Amo (I Love You), 1981.

Gabriella, 1983.

Kiss of the Spider Woman, 1985.

The Milagro Beanfield War, 1988.

Moon Over Parador, 1988.

The Rookie, 1990.

The Burning Season, (television movie) 1994.

Streets of Laredo, (television miniseries) 1995.

Two Deaths, 1996.

Tietá do Agreste (Tietá the Goat Girl), 1997.

Angel Eyes, 2001.

American Family, (television miniseries) 2002.



International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Volume 3: Actors and Actresses, St. James Press, 1996.


Advocate, July 3, 2001, p. 42.

Daily News (Los Angeles, CA), June 19, 1998, p. L16.

Entertainment Weekly, September 16, 1994, p. 98.

Guardian (London, England), August 9, 2001.

Houston Chronicle, January 23, 2002, p. 10.

Los Angeles Times, August 18, 1985; January 30, 1998, p. 6; June 23, 2001, p. F1.

New Republic, June 4, 1984, p. 24; April 18, 1988, p. 30; June 24, 1996, p. 33.

New York Times, January 23, 2002.

People, August 19, 1985, p. 10; April 18, 1988, p. 66; September 12, 1988, p. 17; December 17, 1990, p. 21.

Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO), June 24, 1998, p. 13D.

Time, August 5, 1985, p. 71.

Variety, February 5, 2001, p. 41.

Carol Brennan