Léa Garcia, a pioneering actress who brought new visibility and respect to Black actors in Brazil after her breakout performance in the Academy Award-winning 1959 film “Black Orpheus,” died on Aug. 15 in Gramado, a mountain resort town in southern Brazil. She was 90.
Her death, of cardiac complications, was confirmed by her family on her Instagram account. At her death, in a hospital, she was in Gramado to receive a lifetime achievement award at that town’s film festival. Her son Marcelo Garcia, who was also her manager, accepted the honor in her place.
Over a prolific career that began in the 1950s, Ms. Garcia amassed more than 100 credits in theater, film and television, from her early years with an experimental Black theater group to her later prominence on television productions, like the popular 1976 telenovela “Escrava Isaura” (“Isaura: Slave Girl”), based on an 1865 novel by the abolitionist writer Bernardo Guimarães; it was seen in more than 80 countries.
Recounting her career in a 2022 interview with the Brazilian magazine Ela, Ms. Garcia said she felt blessed by her success. “I often say that the gods embraced me,” she said. “Things always arrived for me without me running after them.”
Still, laboring to change racial perceptions in the world of film and television involved tremendous perseverance and discipline. “Much more was demanded of us,” she told Ela. “We had to arrive with the text on the tip of our tongue, always smelling good and elegant. Others could be wrong. We could not. We could play subservient characters, but we needed to show that we ourselves were not.”
Léa Lucas Garcia de Aguiar was born on March 11, 1933, in Rio de Janeiro. Growing up, she was drawn to literature and aspired to be a writer. That changed one day in 1950.
“I was on my way to pick up my grandmother to take her to the movies,” she recalled, “when someone came up to me and asked, ‘Would you like to work in theater?’”
The voice belonged to Abdias do Nascimento, the writer, artist and Pan-Africanist activist who created Teatro Experimental do Negro (TEN), a Rio-based group that aimed to promote the appreciation of Afro-Brazilian culture. (The two would become a couple and had two children together.) Ms. Garcia made her stage debut in 1952 in Mr. Nascimento’s play “Rapsódia Negra” (“Black Rhapsody”).
As the decade drew to a close, she took her career to a new level of international recognition when she was cast in the French director Marcel Camus’s “Black Orpheus,” a retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice adapted to the frenzy of Rio’s carnival and featuring music by Antônio Carlos Jobim and Luiz Bonfá. It won the Oscar for best foreign-language film in 1960.
With its lush exuberance, the film was anything but classical in feel. “It really is not the two lovers that are the focus of interest in this film; it is the music, the movement, the storm of color,” Bosley Crowther wrote in a review in The New York Times.
Even in a supporting role, Ms. Garcia showed an ability to beguile. “Léa Garcia,” Mr. Crowther wrote, “is especially provoking as the loose-limbed cousin of the soft Eurydice.”
Among her other notable films was “Ganga Zumba,” the debut feature by Carlos Diegues, a pioneer in Brazil’s reformist Cinema Novo movement, which was made in 1963 but not released until 1972. She brought power and complexity to the character of Cipriana, the lover of the title character, who escapes a sugar plantation in the 17th century to lead Quilombo dos Palmares, a haven for other fugitives from slavery.
“It’s not shameful to be a slave,” Ms. Garcia often said, according to family members. “It’s shameful to be a colonizer.”
The pace of her career scarcely slowed over the years; she spent decades as a staple of Brazilian soap operas like “O Clone” (“The Clone”), “Anjo Mau” (“Evil Angel”), “Xica da Silva” and “Marina,” and was seen on other TV series as well.
Even in her 80s, Ms. Garcia remained productive. She starred in the drama series “Baile de Máscaras” in 2019 and returned to the stage in 2022 in the play “A Vida Não é Justa” (“Life Is Not Fair”), in which she played three characters and explored themes of diversity, equality, justice and relationships.
Complete information on her survivors was not immediately available.
In the Ela interview, Ms. Garcia discussed her hopes for her great-great-granddaughter, who was 7 months old at the time. “I hope for a fair and egalitarian country that respects diversities,” she said. “That’s what I want, and much more.”
Julia Vargas Jones contributed reporting from São Paulo, Brazil