Naya Rivera: A Film Critic’s Appreciation of a TV Star

Naya Rivera singing ‘Alfie’ from ‘Glee’ Season 6, Ep. 6 — airing on Netflix (Photo taken from my screen)

I was much older than the target demographic for ‘Glee’, but I watched it semi-faithfully for these reasons: A) the intentionally diverse casting and primetime representation of many marginalized groups B) the clever reinvention and integration of pop songs and C) Naya Rivera.

Truth be told, since the show could be so wildly uneven, Rivera was often the ‘A’ reason I tuned in, always hoping she’d get a scene or a number.

Naya Rivera portrayed Santana, the tart-tongued (to put it mildly) captain of Glee’s cheerleading squad. By casting an Afro-Latina actress in the part, the show’s producers were already trouncing on stereotypes; by the year of the show’s debut, curtly dismissive cheerleaders were a staple of teen-centered entertainment, but they were usually white and hetero. As the show progressed, Santana fell for her teammate Brittany, came out to her family and friends, graduated from high school, tried to make her way in the big city, and eventually married Brittany. As a queer Latinx young woman with entrenched defense mechanisms, the character of Santana had to bear a lot of ‘representation’ duty, like an extended cheerleading ‘shoulder sit.’ But here’s the thing: Naya Rivera made it all seem as if it were as easy as a pony-tail toss.

Re-watching the early episodes, with Santana barely getting a cutaway, it’s easy to believe Ryan Murphy that the producers didn’t realize the size of talent they had on their hands when they first cast her. Rivera didn’t so much fight for more screen time as her talent compelled it, willed it. She’s mostly background in the first few episodes, until Santana and Brittany (Heather Morris) get drafted by Jane Lynch’s villainous cheer coach Sue Sylvester (the show does not lack for antagonists) to infiltrate the new Glee club and destroy it from within. From her earliest numbers and ultra-snippy encounters with the other kids, Rivera’s Santana starts to steal scenes.

This wasn’t just a function of the writing and directing. In fact, as clever, campy, sincere and delectably witty as ‘Glee’ could be (rewatching it this week, I chuckled at lots of throwaway lines) it could also be clumsy and over-reliant on whimsy and parody, sometimes in the same scene. In order to make the repeated point that Santana was caustically tough on the outside because she was hiding deep anxiety on the inside, the writers gave her so many withering and cruel things to say that emotional reality was often sacrificed on the altar of ‘Bitchy Quirkiness’ and frankly, because you imagined the writers were cracking themselves up at the saltiness of their latest insult. (Some were classics; too many of them hung on the lower rungs of humor, including easy body function jokes.)

But here’s the next thing: no matter how ridiculously florid the abuse Santana hurled at a classmate or teacher, Naya Rivera delivered the lines with alacrity and impeccable timing. And that’s what really made me sit up on my sofa and take notice.

Here was an actress who seemed to have the range of the marquee women from Hollywood’s ‘Golden Age’ of the 30s and 40s. The tumble of words the ‘Glee’ writers gave her didn’t faze her; she could deliver them with the rapid screwball comedy chops of Rosalind Russell or Jean Arthur. In an era of more tentative, introspective actors, Rivera had the steely drive of Bette Davis or Joan Crawford. Her larcenous way with a wry line was reminiscent of the great character actress Thelma Ritter; her ‘brassiness’ recalled Joan Blondell; the blaze in her eyes felt like the one emanating from Ida Lupino. (The comparisons had a visual equivalent — Rivera’s red-carpet personal style often favored form-fitting pencil skirts, modern iterations of a forties ‘dame.’)

Probably no greater compliment I can give is to say Rivera reminded me of the legendary Barbara Stanwyck. Able to navigate romantic comedy, drama and detective noir with husky-voiced fervor, Stanwyck could be devastating when she was furious yet hard to resist when she worked her charms. She was slight of figure but imposing of presence. Rivera had those cinematic assets as well. Because she started as a child actor, on ‘The Royal Family’ and especially on the great ‘The Bernie Mac Show’, by the time she got to ‘Glee’ she knew how to work a camera, as self-possessed and confident in her talents as Stanwyck was. Why this is important is that when an actor is too self-critical or tentative, we get uncomfortable or pulled out of the story. Reading testimonials from her cast mates (Chris Colfer says he sometimes was so in awe of her performance he’d forget he was in the scene with her) we see they also marveled at her self-assurance, and Rivera cannily used it to make Santana both poised and poignant.

Where Naya Rivera carved out her own space, different from most of our past silver-screen sirens, is that she could sing, and she was Afro-Latina, multi-racial, far from the whites-only casting of the Warner Brothers and MGM eras. That meant something to me; as a Chicano man of a certain age, I can remember times when I was a kid when my family would count all the ‘Latin’ movie stars we could think of and we often stopped literally with the fingers of one hand.

As someone who studies and loves writing about film, my head was nearly scratched raw from trying to figure out why Naya Rivera wasn’t swooped up from ‘Glee’ by the 2010s studio gatekeepers and given the chance to be a film superstar in vehicles that were worthy of her, bypassing the B-movie stage. She didn’t even get the big-screen ‘best friend’ parts in Hudson or Witherspoon rom-coms, which is what actresses of color with comic chops were often relegated to in the 2000s. Why this oversight happened, and I’m sure there’s a lot of background showbiz politics and personal reasons as to why, the result is we were denied someone who could have been a major screen star and given us the pleasure of an above-the-title, singing-dancing-acting triple-threat. If Rivera had been white, the big-screen star-making machinery would have overcome all obstacles to not just take a risk on her, but bet on her.

It really felt like Naya Rivera could do it all. Stanwyck and Davis had formidable talents, but singing wasn’t considered one of them, so that made Rivera a modern-day extension of their bravura, as though they’d been reincarnated in a child actress who was bristling at the confines of Disney channel and tv screens.

And Rivera had that voice! Some of us have our own version of a sort of ‘opposite ASMR’; we derive pleasure from singers who have a husky rasp in their voice, and rather than whisper, know how to belt. In this regard, Naya Rivera was a godsend. It gave her the ability to tackle songs associated with Tina Turner and Amy Winehouse and Stevie Nicks, no small feat. Yet Rivera could also narrow the grit in her wide voice to just a few flecks of hurt and hope, as in the poignant moment when she confesses her love to Brittany in a plaintive version of Christine McVie and Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Songbird.’ (This will sound like sacrilege to other Fleetwood Mac fans — I’ve seen the band in concert many times — but I just never really responded to McVie’s performance of her song except in cool, admiring ways. But I found Rivera’s vulnerable cooing of the song transfixing.)

Rivera’s musical performances on ‘Glee’ traversed many genres, but nothing seemed to catch her off-guard. I enjoyed many of the singers on ‘Glee’ —the show had over 700 musical numbers! — but if Rivera was given the lead, you knew you were about to get a showstopper, complete with signature focus, considerable ebullience and precision as a dancer. These gifts were captured best when ‘Glee’s’ hyper-active camera and editing stood still and just let her perform.

Rivera tackled Turner’s ‘Nutbush City Limits’ with ferocity. It’s too bad that the way she was filmed — with the aforementioned slice-and-dice, even leering editing — forever leaves us with a case of ‘what might have been.’ We get precious snippets of seeing Rivera singing, while the musical filming style of ten years ago, influenced by ‘Moulin Rouge’ and ‘Chicago’, attempts to whip us into an erotic frenzy with close-ups of halter-top abs and pom-pom zooms. This was a shameful miscalculation, because it has the opposite effect. If the camera had just stood planted and simply recorded the performance, Naya Rivera would have delivered the sexual fire and then some.

The best musical numbers with Rivera showcase all her talents — the ability to act out a lyric, the Fosse-flavored choreography, and a singing voice alternately tender and roof-raising. Her performance of Winehouse’s ‘Valerie’, in which she gets to ditch the ‘Cheerios’ uniform and stomp the stage in a party frock stands out as one of ‘Glee’s’ best and most effortless songs overall — it really looks like a romp that captures teenage brio and which would be electric to see live. (Later in the show, when Rivera sings ‘Back to Black’, you even got a glimpse that, as criminal as it might seem to suggest to purists, there’s a helluva Amy Winehouse jukebox Broadway musical waiting in the wings somewhere, and Rivera could have easily been its star.)

As commanding as Naya Rivera could be as a solo singer, her duets were full of a delicious tension. The job in a duet is to share the scene as democratically as possible while still bringing out the best in your partner and elevating the song. These were skills many in the cast had, though they occasionally had to juggle the meta-element that when the show became a phenomenon, the behind-the-scenes who-likes-who, who-hates-who gossip that fascinated early social media audiences could be at odds to the show’s scripted plot (though it seems the show’s creative team also deliberately worked the real-life stuff into the fictional stuff. A notable example of this was when Rivera and Lea Michele, who were rumored and since confirmed to be clashing backstage personalities — and as recent reports show, Rivera wasn’t the only one to find Michele difficult — sing a sweet song called ‘Be Okay’, almost as though they were ordered to by the network. Both are thoroughly professional, and by the end you don’t just think that maybe Santana and Rachel are really friends, but that Rivera and Michele had buried all their hatchets in a Fox studio wall as well.)

The duet partner for Santana I liked best was provided by one of ‘Glee’s’ other volcanic vocalists, Amber Riley. As Riley has since shown in her London West End role as Effie in ‘Dreamgirls’, and in TV productions of ‘The Wiz’ and ‘The Little Mermaid’, she is a formidable talent. Yet watch one of their songs together, ‘The Boy is Mine’, and see if your eyes don’t want to stay just watching Rivera’s performance in its entirety?

To see a more dynamic and perfectly matched dual performance, ‘Glee’ gave us the galvanic gift that is Amber Riley and Naya Rivera alternating and harmonizing into their own ‘wall of sound’ on the Tina Turner classic, ‘River Deep Mountain High.’ Turners vocals on the original are so singular, nothing can touch them. Just the way she crests the first line with a jagged crag in the middle of a note lets you know this is going to be sung from a place of both ache and power.

The ‘Glee’ version leans into the power angle. Santana and Mercedes brim with the ‘girlpower’ term used at the time, the youthful brio of being able to dream of scaling mountains. The choreography then counter-points and really gets it right by giving the singers the dance moves reminiscent of 60s girl-groups, and while it starts out sort of cute and ironic, by the end the choreography becomes mature and electrifying. When Riley sings the first verse, she has gospel runs and exquisite phrasing. She could easily overwhelm anyone. Rivera’s choice is to find her own place to put the appealing but melancholy cracks in her voice, harmonize beautifully, and then release her own blasts of power. The performance says more about ‘empowerment’ than pages of script could. ‘River Deep Mountain High’ is also notable for giving Rivera a chance to be charming in ways she usually didn’t get to be with all her ‘mean girls’ posing; when they get to the part about the ‘rag doll’, both singers mug, but Rivera’s brief clownishness when acting out that rag doll is unexpectedly loose and charming.

Of course, the journey for Santana on the show, and you’ll find many ‘Glee’ fans and pop culture critics who will argue that the show ultimately was about Santana, crucially centers on the classic ‘finding your voice’ view of young adulthood, and central to that, the relationship between Santana and Brittany. Nearly any news or lifestyle site of the past week that had a space for pop culture featured the heartbroken, deeply affected voices of many lesbians and queer people writing about the deep connection they felt towards the relationship and the visibility and identification it gave them.

Of more than passing interest, depending on how transgressive you thought of it, was the pairing between an Afro-Latina character and a white blonde cheerleader who could have stepped out of the background of a Taylor Swift video. Think of where we were in 2009 and that still would have been pushing boundaries. (The show was one of the first to normalize same-gender kisses.)

In Rivera’s scenes with her non-accepting Abuela (the great Ivonne Coll), she is as real as it gets — not only deeply hurt, but uncomprehending in the way so many gay kids can be when they are rejected simply because of their orientation. “But I’m the same person I was a minute ago.” One can imagine these scenes (and the contrapuntal ones between Kurt and his more accepting father) provided a lifeline to young queer people themselves caught up in the process of making decisions about how to come out, and in particular, to Latinx queer people, who found representation and resources hard to come by and certainly not in the media.

And in real life, Rivera, who did not identify as gay, proved to be a significant ally. She responded to queer fans, particularly young women, and she represented by hosting the GLAAD media awards, advocating for The Trevor Project and by speaking responsibly and articulately about what her fans had confessed to her.

The way the show frequently featured LGBTQ imagery was playful and willful. They weren’t representing all queer women; they were representing these two using a particular transgressive iconography. Teen lesbian cheerleaders weren’t invented with ‘Glee’; the queer film ‘But I’m a Cheerleader’ was released in 1999. But by keeping Santana (as well as the other ‘Cheerios’) in their squad outfits 24/7, Rivera started to look like it wasn’t just her cheer attire, it was her superhero uniform. You have your masked and fully-covered marvels; here was a fearless teen titan in sleeveless emblematic mini-skirt cutting through the hallways. Her superpowers? A withering glare that could refreeze the Arctic, an ability to shoot insults like a laser beam, and a pinkie-finger-linking with Britney that could heal your heart. Most of all, a voice that could fill a canyon and fleet feet that could leap over all calamity.

Until she couldn’t. When superheroes die, mere mortals look to the sky and feel, perhaps unreasonably but still undeniably, abandoned. Shocked, stunned, grievous. We look backward, because looking forward has just been removed as an option, and the realization of what will never be is too excruciating.

I couldn’t figure out what happened to Naya Rivera after ‘Glee’, given my hopes and expectations. She released quite a catchy single, ‘Sorry’, and later a memoir, ‘Sorry (Not Sorry.’) I didn’t realize she had joined a new show, the Youtube continuation of the ‘Step Up’ series, but now I do and she’s terrific in it. But to those of us who dropped our eyes from her a bit, I just remember it was because it seemed like there was tabloid stuff, personal tumult, a few seemingly misguided appearances or comments here or there. I was a hopeful, hopeful fan of her talent, not slavish to any TMZ notorieties — but those great female stars of the 30s and 40s? They were no strangers to splashy headlines either.

When I did watch ‘Turner Classics’ or my library of DVDS with some of those ‘Golden Age’ actresses, more than a few times I’d think of Rivera, search IMDB to see if she was getting that Oscar-worthy role yet. Or when there were increasing public discussions that called for better representation of people of color in media, I’d think: Naya Rivera! What’s she doing now? Why isn’t she in a big movie, headed for her superstardom? How did Hollywood’s famously white-screen blindness eclipse even gifts this generous?

So I’d check in the way we do now, with her IG feed or in passing hear about the occasional tweet. There would be a picture of her beauty, sometimes posed in the ‘sexy’ currency that builds and keeps ‘followers’ entranced and ‘promotes content.’

But occasionally Naya would post a picture with her son Josey, who she eventually was raising as a single mom. As many of her followers saw, in those fateful days of early July, I ‘liked’ a beautifully tender picture with Mom and Josey, eyelash close, captioned ‘Just the two of us.’ It seemed so peaceful. This must be what she wants to be doing, I thought. Happy for her. One of the miracles of ‘Glee’ was how they put on hour-long musicals once a week for six years, with 18-hour days. Who could begrudge anyone some rest after that?

But selfishly I also still wanted that album, that movie, that new film directed by her, something more from the force of nature that is, was, Naya Rivera and I gave more than a passing thought that with today’s reckonings, with greater sensitivity to the racism that undergirded so many institutions, the world would finally open up to her in the way it did for so many white actresses before her. It was her time.

Until it wasn’t.

That’s hard to reconcile. We’re supposed to say, as fans from afar, our grief is nothing compared to that of her family, friends, cast mates and of course that’s true. But it’s also true that the grief of a fan is not nothing. Those of us who didn’t know her personally, but were in awe of her talent, shouldn’t shut feelings of loss down. I think it honors Naya Rivera to mourn publicly the way so many fans have, ‘Gleeks’ or not. She was someone who had such hard-won achievement yet still such potential. And for some reason, the power brokers that be didn’t see it or find a place for it in time. We can grieve that mistake, and that which can’t be brought back or won’t be left as a long-career legacy.

That someone with so much soulful presence could suddenly disappear from this earth, at a time when we are all so careful not to lose each other, was wrenching. In consolation, I turned to a lot of Rivera’s performances from the show, though now of course they all carry a melancholy, stinging twinge. (For more on this, just look at the many comments on the pages where the videos are originally posted.)

You hear Naya Rivera sing Winehouse, and it’s hard not to think of how they both died young. You see her love for Brittany acted so convincingly, you think about Heather Morris, the actress who played her and wonder how she will weather this — thoughts that are none of your business, but you still have them. I found myself thinking of Kevin McHale who played ‘Artie’ on the show, and who seems so clear-headed; what would he say? You read Chris Colfer’s tribute to her and shed more than a few tears. You hear her sing ‘If I Die Young’ in tribute to Corey Monteith, and you recall that Rivera’s body was finally found on the day that Monteith died. It’s a lot.

There’s a memorable moment in the early run when Monteith’s Finn stops Santana in the familiar Glee alley of lockers and linoleum. She’s annoyed that he has outed her, and indeed he’s done her wrong. But the character is also written as sincere. Finn’s logic may be that of a teenager’s but he tells Santana that he didn’t ‘out’ her to hurt her, but to help her realize that she would still be accepted. He’d heard of someone who recorded an ‘It Gets Better’ video but later killed himself. He doesn’t want that to happen to her; ‘you mean something to me.’ He tells her that if something ever happened to her and he didn’t do everything in his power to stop it, he could never live with himself. Santana is left speechless at the tenderness, even as she’s furious — Rivera could convey both in a single look.

The context we have now in 2020 makes the brief scene heavy with portent and sadness. In actuality, Rivera was saddened that she couldn’t do more to stop Monteith’s untimely death from a drug overdose. That would be subtext enough. But now, with the timing of her death and the anniversary of his? It’s shattering. But I kept watching, and there was something that reminded me of my own experience teaching high school. A few minutes later, or a few episodes later, the kids are singing and dancing and throwing ‘Big Quenches’ at each other, and seldom has the show’s mission to show the fullness of life seemed so clear. I’ve found that to be true when I’ve gone through difficult times, or my school has, and still had to walk through the classroom door. No matter how sad I’ve been, there’s always a student offering, well, cheer.

Maybe we did get the movie Naya Rivera was on this earth to make after all. Because that scene between Santana and Finn was early in the show’s run. By ‘Glee’s’ end several years later, Santana didn’t hurt herself. She survived high school, she stumbled a little but recovered, she found her way, she was able to get onstage at a Broadway audition and sing ‘Don’t Rain on My Parade’ and give us a big, big moment of triumph; maybe she’ll get the part, she’s definitely going to get the girl. Just like an old musical.

And that’s why I wrote this: we talk about ‘Glee’ as a TV show, but maybe it was one long film. If you go back and watch ‘Glee’ with a particular focus on Rivera, you’ll see an extraordinary rise-and-fall-and-rise-again achievement; she’s one of the major leads of an epic. Sure it’s a movie full of silliness, toss-aways, occasional meanderings or repetitive plotlines, but it’s also full of heart and compassion. This seasons-long coming-of-age starred this African/Latina/Queer Ally/Queen who reigned with a crackling laugh, a stunning beauty and vivacious spirit.

If that’s all we were fated to get of Naya Rivera, she hit her mark — the line where enough and not enough meet. Maybe the silvery phantoms of Bette Davis, Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford and Barbara Stanwyck, who all knew their own injustices within the Hollywood system, maybe they were all waiting in the wings as she sang the curtain down. “Come on kid,” they might say, in old movie parlance. “You went out there a youngster but you came back: a Star!”

Here are the performances by Naya Rivera referenced in this article:

Film, Music, Peak TV, Diversity— Tom Cendejas is sitting on a sofa and unwrapping Pop Culture with a Latino eye, one husk at a time.

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