Argentine-Brazilian director Héctor Babenco—who found acclaim in the 1980s with his breakthrough, Pixote, and became the first Latin American filmmaker to be be nominated for an Oscar with Kiss Of The Spider Woman—died Wednesday night in São Paulo. The Irish Times reports the cause of death as a heart attack. Babenco was 70.
Babenco was born in 1946 in Buenos Aires, Argentina to parents of Ukrainian and Polish descent. After a few years living in Europe in the ’60s, he settled permanently in São Paulo, eventually becoming a naturalized Brazilian citizen. His sophomore feature, Lucio Flavio, became a success in Brazil, but it was his follow-up, Pixote, that drew the director international attention.
The story of a group of 10-year-old child criminals, scandalous but also steeped in the traditions of neorealism, Pixote brought acclaim (and awards) for Babenco and the movie’s gifted young star, Fernando Ramos da Silva, a non-professional actor who would face repeated criminal charges throughout his teens and was killed by police before his 20th birthday.
Hollywood eventually came calling for Babenco. His next film, an adaptation of Manuel Puig’s novel Kiss Of The Spider Woman, starred William Hurt and Raúl Juliá as two men imprisoned together by Brazil’s military dictatorship, which formally dissolved only months before the film’s premiere. Kiss Of The Spider Woman was nominated for four Oscars—becoming the first independently produced and distributed film to get a nod for Best Picture—and won Best Actor for William Hurt.
Babenco followed Kiss Of The Spider Woman with Depression-era drama Ironweed. But though Babenco’s adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning William Kennedy novel got strong reviews and earned Oscar nominations for stars Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep, it turned out to be a costly flop. At Play In The Fields Of The Lord, based on the novel by Peter Matthiessen, fared even worse, effectively ending the director’s American career. (However, if one is going to burn out in Hollywood, they might as well do it with a three-hour philosophizing-adventurer movie filmed in the Amazon.)
Babenco wouldn’t make another film until 1998’s Foolish Heart, which found him returning to Argentina, the home country he’d left behind decades earlier. He made a minor comeback in the early 2000s with Carandiru, a prison drama inspired by a prison revolt that ended with police indiscriminately killing over 100 inmates. His final film—My Hindu Friend, a drama about a terminally ill film director played by Willem Dafoe—opened in Brazilian theaters earlier this year.