Maids used to be ubiquitous in movies and television shows. Where did they all go?
I’ve had maids on my mind ever since the death last week of Lupe Ontiveros, 69, the talented Mexican-American actress who once told The New York Times that she figured she had played a maid at least 150 times in movies and on television.
While she most recently was familiar for portraying Eva Longoria’s mother on Desperate Housewives, she memorably played Jack Nicholson’s maid in 1997’s As Good As It Gets and deftly wielded a mop on TV’s short-lived Pasadena (2001) series. (She also had major roles as the deranged fan who assassinated Tejano singer Selena Quintanilla-Perez in the 1997 biopic Selena, and as an old-school mother in 2002’s Real Women Have Curves.)
Her career was largely built on portraying Hispanic maids. “When I go in there and speak perfect English, I don't get the part,” said Ontiveros, who was born in the U.S. to Mexican immigrant parents.
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Maids were a staple of movies in the 1930s and ‘40s. Their characters served as sounding boards, consciences and the voice of reason while helping soignée heroines into day dresses or evening gowns in elegant penthouse apartments. Alternatively, maids served as comic relief (to say nothing of perpetuating pejorative stereotypes).
Mammy, compellingly played by Hattie McDaniel, is probably the single most famous servant in movies. She is, of course, one of the slaves in Gone With the Wind, the 1939 classic based on Margaret Mitchell’s best-selling novel set during the Civil War and Reconstruction. In watching the movie now, one of the most startling revelations is the extent to which Mammy is actually the film’s moral center. Her character assessments on those around her are dead-on — when she scolds Scarlett, you can bet that the self-centered heroine deserves it. (McDaniel earned an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role, making her the first African-American to win an Oscar.)
(At the other end of the spectrum in the very same film is the slow-witted and even slower-gaited character of Prissy, the young maid who “don’t know nothin’ ‘bout birthin’ babies.” Butterfly McQueen, the actress with a high-pitched voice who played the racist role, long said that she was never happy with the part.)
Like Ontiveros, actresses such as Hattie McDaniel, Louise Beavers (“Imitation of Life”) and Thelma Ritter (“All About Eve”) made entire film careers out of playing wisecracking, know-it-all maids. Their parts may not have been as large as those of the leading ladies they served, but these gals invariably landed the best lines.
By the 1950s and ‘60s, maids were migrating to TV. Beginning in 1950, Ethel Waters starred in the title role of Beulah, a sitcom about a maid who had more smarts than the family for whom she worked. (Midway through the two-year run, Louise Beavers took over the role. The show, which began life on the radio in the 1940s, continued on radio even after it transferred to TV.)
Other TV maids and housekeepers of note include Shirley Booth on Hazel (1961-63), Inger Stevens on The Farmer’s Daughter (1963-66), Anne B. Davis on The Brady Bunch (1969-74), Esther Rolle on Maude (1972-74) and Marla Gibbs on The Jeffersons (1975-85). With the exception of Stevens, these characters were all middle-aged, and the emphasis was on their common sense and smart mouths rather than their personal lives.
In the ‘80s and ‘90s, as the settings for TV shows, especially sitcoms, moved increasingly into the workplace (or the coffee shop), maids and housekeepers popped up less frequently as stars or even regulars. The major inhabitants of most contemporary TV shows became twenty- and thirtysomething professionals; they’d be lucky to be able to afford a cleaning lady to come by their place once a week, much less to employ a full-time maid or housekeeper. A notable exception: Rosario (Shelley Morrison), the maid who was locked in a never-ending battle of wills with Karen, her uber-wealthy employer on Will & Grace (1998-2006).
Not that the occupation is entirely going away on the big or small screen. A maid has a major supporting role in The Campaign, a comedy about rival political candidates that opens on August 10. She’s Mrs. Yao (played by Karen Maruyama), an Asian-American woman who works for a wealthy, white, older businessman in the South.
In one of the movie’s best jokes, Mrs. Yao routinely speaks in the gruff no-nonsense tones of an older black woman. “Your daddy pays me $50 extra a week if I talk like this,” she tells her employer’s son. Trading as it does on stereotypes and yet updating and undercutting them, the bit is funny every single time she does it.
And let’s not forget one of last year’s biggest movie hits, The Help, which was all about maids. A period drama, it used the viewpoint of black maids in the South in the early 1960s to explore the effect of the growing civil rights movement.
Octavia Spencer won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her hilarious turn as Minny Jackson, a maid who truly understands that revenge is a dish best served cold — for her, that means a, um… "chocolate" pie.
You have to believe that Mammy and Hattie McDaniel are smiling.
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