The Enduring Allure of the Spider Woman

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At a time in her life when most actresses are pushed into the background by Hollywood executives, the 50-year-old siren from Sao Paulo, Brazil, has a cluster of film and television projects that have brought her--if only briefly--back in style.

Put another way: Sonia Braga is making it one long, hot summer.

In May, she appeared alongside Jennifer Lopez in "Angel Eyes." This month she's the romantic interest of one of the female stars of HBO's "Sex and the City." And next month, she'll be back in movie theaters for the re-release of "Kiss of the Spider Woman," the 1985 film that earned her a Golden Globe nomination.

For decades, Braga has been executing a strategy of longevity, and it seems to have borne fruit.

"I didn't do plastic surgery. I'm a woman. I'm Latin. I'm in my 50s. It becomes hard to see me just as an actor," Braga said in her Portuguese-accented English. "So, I started playing Mexicans, Puerto Ricans. I did everything, because I didn't have much problem playing what's out there." This humble approach, she said, insulated her from the pitfalls of an industry that takes away as quickly as it gives, especially from female performers.

But there's something else about Braga that might have helped. In nearly every role she's won, she's brought an earthiness--an anything-goes spirit that matches her real-life directness about sex.

Several years ago on a Brazilian talk show, she spoke freely about a few of her most famous paramours, including Mick Jagger, Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford and soccer great Pele.

"Some friends of mine in Brazil were former lovers, and they got very mad at me, and I realized that some people don't like being talked about," she said, adding: "This is my history, and it's the only one I have."

Her early years were not glamorous. Braga's father died when she was 8, leaving her mother--a seamstress--to raise seven children alone. Braga's older brother began working immediately. By the time she was 14, Braga began performing in children's television programs. Her next role took her around Brazil with a troupe performing "Hair." After that, she secured a two-year stint on Brazil's version of "Sesame Street."

At 19, the black-haired young woman with a Coke-bottle body won the part of a heroine of a telenovela, the serial soap operas that dominate television in Latin America. She soon became Brazil's biggest sex symbol, and even now she makes no bones about the fact that it gave her a certain freedom to take roles that were not necessarily vehicles for her beauty.

"When I was 28 . . . I played an older woman in prison for 11 years. It was so important playing an interesting character," she said.

By the time she was cast in "Kiss of the Spider Woman," a movie in which William Hurt and Raul Julia played victims of political persecution, it was the first time in more than a decade she was not cast as the star. For her, it was an opportunity to learn on the set. Her mother taught her about clothing by making the costumes Braga wore in the film. Since she didn't have to star in every scene, Braga watched the collaboration between Julia, who played an imprisoned Marxist, and Hurt, who played his cellmate, a persecuted homosexual. Hurt's performance won him an Academy Award.

When the movie came out, Braga's Golden Globe-nominated performance opened up the gates of Hollywood's studio lots. She remembers the time as bittersweet because she struggled with English even as she was inundated with offers. Until this month, when she and Hurt saw a small screening in New York, Braga had not seen "Kiss of the Spider Woman" in more than a decade. She was struck by the quality of her mother's handmade costumes and by the vivid performance of Julia, who passed away in 1994 after a stroke.

"Kiss of the Spider Woman" opens in New York on Friday and two weeks later will play simultaneously in Philadelphia and Boston. By July 27, it will open on the West Coast, with showings in San Francisco, San Jose, Berkeley, Seattle, Los Angeles, Pasadena and Irvine. If things go well, the film will play Chicago, Ft. Lauderdale and Miami by the end of the summer.

Three-Show Story Arc on 'Sex and the City'

"Kiss of the Spider Woman" has rarely been seen on television, which distributors are hoping will help movie ticket sales.

"It's been off the market for such a long time that we felt there was a whole new generation of moviegoers who hadn't been exposed to this film," said Jon Gerrans, co-president of Strand Releasing, which is releasing the film.

Braga may be better known among the younger generation for her appearances this month on the popular "Sex and the City." Her entree to the show came through a good friend, Chris Noth, who plays the show's elusive "Mr. Big." When she accompanied him to last year's season premiere, Noth introduced her to the show's executive producer, Michael Patrick King. Nearby stood actress Kim Cattrall, who plays Samantha, a sexually liberated woman who detests the work involved in relationships. When Cattrall saw Braga, she walked over.

"Michael and I looked at each other, and Kim was there, and it was like everyone read minds," Braga said, laughing.

King called Braga and asked her if she'd be interested in appearing on a three-show story arc. He envisioned a lesbian artist whose seduction and complexity keep Samantha interested, at least for a short time.

"Sonia looks exotic, and she looks like she belongs in bed, and we knew we wanted someone who could be completely enrapturing," King said. To viewers of "Sex and the City," this season's second episode began with the relationship-averse Samantha becoming intrigued by a gorgeous Brazilian artist named Maria.

"In order for Samantha's character to spend time with anyone, it had to be someone fascinating," King said. "She had to be a real individual, not just a character who's most interesting aspect was that she was a lesbian."

Braga saw it another way. She said some sexual connections are simply inevitable.

"They need to go to bed because sexuality needs to happen. . . . You've got to be open, and that's the way good things happen to you," she said. And then the most well-known Brazilian actress of the last few decades headed out to meet a friend for dinner.

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"Sex and the City" can be seen Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO. The network has rated it TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children younger than 17).

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