Jun 10, 2020
Book Review: An Mexican Immigrant Becomes a Movie Star in The Five Acts of Diego León
The Five Acts of Diego León
LARB Libros, 2019 (originally published 2013)
I’m a fan of fiction set in the classic age of Hollywood, and The Five Acts of Diego León, a 2013 novel which was recently re-released in paperback somewhat scratches that itch. This story of a Mexican immigrant who makes a name for himself in the era bridging silents to talkies satisfies as a tale of hardship and glamour in a brutal industry, but is less compelling when it comes to its central character.
Diego’s story begins with his impoverished early childhood in rural Mexico. He is the son of a revolutionary and a disgraced society woman. When his mother dies, his great aunt Elva raises him, and teaches him the value of his heritage while his father remains absent. When he is eventually orphaned, Elva sends him to his snobbish maternal grandparents in the city of Morelia.
In Morelia he finds respectability, security, and in a family friend a mentor who encourages his interest in performing arts, though the latter is against the wishes of his grandparents who envision a life for him in the family business. With his material needs met, Diego begins to dream bigger, beyond the life of administrative tasks and the arranged marriage his grandfather has planned for him. He escapes to Hollywood, where he once again experiences poverty, but eventually finds success as an actor. Attaining that dream is not what he expected though; he remains unsettled.
Of the five acts that make up Diego’s story, the first two are the most compelling. Here he is a kind-hearted boy with curiosity and ambition. He seems to develop a strong moral core thanks to the guidance of his Aunt Elva.
This does not prove to be the case in the second half of the book, where Diego becomes a different person: self-absorbed, empty, and almost entirely inconsiderate of the feelings of others. Ambition devours him. In some ways the bold portrayal of this deeply flawed character is fascinating, but in the end he comes off as not just a man who has lost his way, but essentially soulless.
There are ample reasons presented for Diego’s behavior: the struggle to survive, the pain of being a homosexual man in a society that does not allow it, and the reality that he must deny his racial heritage if he wishes to be a star. I could understand his disillusionment once he attained fame and fortune, especially when he realized how ephemeral those things can be, but ultimately he was so lacking in passion that I lost interest in his fate. I shifted my focus to the many people he hurt and wanted to know more about them.
I was most intrigued by Espinoza’s reimagining of early Hollywood. He beautifully evokes the energy of the town, studio life, and the people who struggled to thrive there. I also enjoyed his dramatization of that early talkie phenomenon: parallel productions filmed in different languages. Inspired by the dual productions of Dracula (1930), where the English language version was filmed during the day and a Spanish version at night, Espinoza shines a light on the challenges of this unusual and short-lived aspect of movie-making.
While I didn’t always fully engage with Diego, I enjoyed his story and the world Espinoza built around him.
Many thanks to LARB Lbros for providing a copy of the book for review.