What a fraud, you might have thought glimpsing astrologist Walter Mercado on TV in the ’90s. But you wouldn’t forget his face. The bejeweled and blonded psychic hotline pitchman looked like a sorcerer from outer space. Cristina Costantini and Kareem Tabsch’s giddily glittery documentary “Mucho Mucho Amor” traces the half-century that Mercado was a global icon, his fingers whirling like flamenco dancers as he hypnotized audiences from Holland to Brazil.
Mercado was as at-home on “Sally Jesse Raphael “as he was in his birthplace of Puerto Rico, where strangers would jockey to stroke his fabulous 15-pound capes, or even finagle a kiss on the cheek. Howard Stern hooted that he was “bigger than Jesus Christ.” Mercado demurred that he was closer to Buddha. But when the film starts, Mercado hasn’t been on camera for over a decade. Many fans assume he’s dead. How could that grande dame live without a spotlight?
No fear. “Mucho Mucho Amor” isn’t about the hunt, despite its opening similarities to the kitsch-icon-gone-rogue podcast “Missing Richard Simmons.” Costantini and Tabsch quickly dispense with the suspense. Within minutes, Mercado, now 86 and as handsome as ever, welcomes the camera into his home in San Juan, whose tangerine- and mango-painted Moorish exterior hints at the glamour within: oil portraits, costumes, awards statues, personalized Ken dolls and a doting assistant named Willie who fetches his vitamins and fixes his makeup. Says Willie, he’s not merely Mercado’s right hand, “I’m the left one, too.”
The “Sunset Boulevard” allusions shine even before a photographer asks Mercado if he’s ready for his closeup. “I’m just like Dorian Gray,” beams Mercado, curling his pink-glossed lips into a coy smile as he concedes to a touch of botox. Yet, unlike Norma Desmond, Mercado continues to be adored by fans like Lin-Manuel Miranda and Eugenio Derbez, both of whom cameo in the doc to sing his praises, as well as a phalanx of blonde nieces and seemingly every person in the Miami airport, who gape as Mercado rolls past in a motorized cart, hands raised in benediction like the pope.
Horoscopes swear our lives are charted by the stars. Mercado, however, was a self-made construction. A misfit boy in a rural village, he survived being different — that is, feminine — by becoming a child healer, a holy tot who granted blessings on the townspeople. “I fabricated the famous person in me,” says Mercado. At 18, he fled the farm for the capital to study ballet and theater and break into TV. As a telenovela actor, well, he bit his thumb a lot. He read his castmates’ palms backstage until one day, a Telemundo executive impulsively put Mercado on air ostensibly to promote his latest play. Mercado, still wearing his stage costume of a Hindu priest, riffed on the constellations for almost an hour, and the phones lit up. Mercado’s theatrical techniques made people stop flipping channels. His deep eye contact, perfect posture, grand tilt to his chin and expressive hands seemed to reach through the screen to clutch the viewers’ attention. And, of course, his wardrobe — custom, heavy, expensive — that said he was closer to the heavens than to a K-Mart.
Mercado looked like a religious icon. He became one, too, though thankfully his cult preachings, a stew of astrology, Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism, were exclusively positive. When Mercado made a specific prediction — say, telling the comic Sinbad that he would be the biggest comedian of the 21st century — he was usually wrong. Better to stay vague and spread hope, and be so compelling that nobody minded if he gave the same basic advice to every sign, every day, for decades: Believe in yourself. His optimism, speculates the doc, is why Mercado became the patron saint of grandmothers and immigrants. Which makes it more of a sin when Mercado bilks his fans with a pricy hotline where he promised things he couldn’t deliver, like winning lottery numbers.
“Mucho Mucho Amor” uses tarot cards to structure his life — The Magician, The Star, The Cloaked Man, The Hermit — but while Tom Maroney’s editing salsas through Mercado’s rise and fall with quickness and humor, it knows when to pause and appreciate the details. As for who he loved — a question of raucous speculation to homophobic comedians — Mercado never said. When pressed, he’d demur that “sex is spirituality.” Mercado won’t leave the closet, though cinematographer Peter Alton’s camera spots the framed portrait of Oscar Wilde in his home. For the LGBTQ community who grew up seeing the glamour-puss stretch television’s strict gender roles, his closet spoke for him.
“Mucho Mucho Amor” also deifies Mercado, breezing past his faults. It never, for example, talks to a victim who might have spent money they didn’t have hoping for a miracle. The negativity is fobbed onto Mercado’s former manager Bill Bakula, who appears in the film to defend writing a contract where Mercado naively forked over his image and name in perpetuity. The doc gives Mercado’s story back to Mercado. Better, it shows that Mercado is still the same spiritualistic, highfalutin’ fashion-plate as a retiree eating breakfast at home as he was on TV. The film’s biggest revelation is that Mercado’s mystical, magnificent, big-hearted shtick was no fraud — he was always the real deal.