Penelope Cruz and Cecilia Roth in "All about My Mother"
Penelope Cruz and Cecilia Roth in "All about My Mother"

The term “Almodóvar’s women” is irrevocably tied to his cinema, though it is not a phrase that I like. For a start, it perpetuates the trope of a male leader surrounded by a rotating orbit of females. More importantly, the women in question - whether fictional characters, or the actresses who play them - aren't owned or molded by him.

Over the course of a thirty year career, Almodóvar has been praised as a feminist and (less commonly) derided as a misogynist. The truth is distorted by the misconception that he has ever claimed to represent the authentic reality of womanhood. His aim has always been to riotously expand what society deems permissible behavior for women of all types. Whether this operates within the bounds of realism is beside the point. From sex workers to nuns, lesbians to grandmothers (not always mutually exclusive categories), he has aimed to dignify and celebrate aspects of femininity that others have deemed superficial or periphery.

It is not only female actors he has used repeatedly. Most famously, he has made seven films with Antonio Banderas, while more recently he has created three large roles for Javier Cámara. But his career will always be associated with the dozen or so actresses who together form one of world cinema’s most distinctive and recognisable repertory companies.

There is not the space to honour every actress in question. The likes of Assumpta Serna (“Matador”) and Elena Anaya (“The Skin I Live In”) can claim their place in the hall of fame on the basis of those roles alone (though Anaya first popped up in “Talk to Her”), while regular supporting players Lola Dueñas, Loles León, Kiti Mánver and Bibi Andersen have all made three or more appearances. Then there are leading ladies Veronica Forqué (“Kika”) and, in particular, Victoria Abril (“Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!”, “High Heels”), who while only appearing in three films over five years, was seemingly something of a muse over this brief period.

But by my calculation, there are seven actresses who have appeared in five or more Almodóvar films. Four of these have had multiple starring roles, while three are more commonly supporting characters. Together they paint a picture of the luridly rich variety of roles Almodóvar has created over the years.

Purely for fun, I have ranked them according to how many films they have featured in - with perhaps surprising results.

Penélope Cruz
Credits: 5
Best role: Raimunda in “Volver”

It is hard to remember a time when Penélope Cruz was best known in the English-speaking world for being Tom Cruise’s girlfriend and starring in mediocre films such as “Woman on Top”. By then she had already appeared in two Almodóvar films, including (and this sentence could refer to no other director) her wonderfully touching performance in “All About my Mother” as an HIV positive nun pregnant by a transvestite. Even so, her star turn in “Volver” was considered something of a revelation, leading to her becoming the first Spanish actress to be Oscar-nominated (she is also the only one ever to win, and the only Spaniard other than her husband Javier Bardem). Following “Broken Embraces,” she could have made it three in a row had she not been forced to turn down the lead role in “The Skin I Live In” due to her pregnancy. Even so, her heartfelt thanks to the director during her Oscar acceptance speech for “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” was not without good cause - one wonders if she would ever have been offered such a juicy role were it not for the range of her Almodóvar portfolio.

Julieta Serrano
Credits: 5
Best role: Mother Superior in “Dark Habits”

Julieta Serrano is now 80, and has not acted for Almodóvar for over twenty years (despite maintaining an active career). But during the 1980s, she was one of his most frequently used players, appearing in five of his first eight feature films. Among many of the director’s trademarks is his refusal to leave women of a certain age outside the sexual agenda - apparently even if they have taken a vow of chastity. Which is why Serrano never had a better role than in the shoddy but entertaining “Dark Habits” as a drug-addicted predatory lesbian Mother Superior - the kind of part that might sound completely ridiculous outside the Almodóvar universe, but which makes perfect sense within.

Marisa Paredes
Credits: 5 (plus one uncredited)
Best role: Huma Rojo in “All About my Mother”
Marisa Paredes is synonymous with Almodóvar’s penchant for granting meaty roles to mature women, with most of her best parts for him coming after the age of forty. Although she acted alongside Carmen Maura in “Dark Habits”, Paredes has widely been considered Almodóvar’s replacement for his most celebrated muse (see below). Possibly her most significant role in the director’s oeuvre is as the star of “The Flower of my Secret,” given the turning point that film represents in his transition from frothy comedies to a more melancholy tone. But for me she stands out, in a film packed with great female roles, as Huma Rojo, the tense, conflicted actress in “All About my Mother.” Far from resting in the shadow of Blanche DuBois (the theatre role her character is playing) Paredes makes the part iconic in its own right.
Rossy de Palma in "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown"
Rossy de Palma in "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown"

Rossy de Palma

Credits: 6
Best role: Marisa in “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown”

Rossy de Palma is one of those Almodóvar stalwarts whose face is instantly recognisable even if her name is not. Indeed, it is her face - often likened (distastefully?) to a Picasso portrait - which has gained her a second career as a fashion muse for the likes of Jean-Paul Gaultier. But even if drawn to her for aesthetic reasons, on film Almodóvar has found interesting ways to channel de Palma’s qualities as an actor. She received Goya nominations for her roles in the much-maligned “Kika” and “The Flower of my Secret,” but has never been better used than in “Women on the Verge” as the terrific snob Marisa. Since the mid-90s, she has only returned for a minor role in “Broken Embraces.” Given that Almodóvar’s interest in her was at least in part cosmetic, it would be a shame to see her, of all his actors, neglected in middle age.

Cecilia Roth
Credits: 6 (plus one uncredited)
Best role: Manuela in “All About my Mother”

Roth is the only actress on this list to have appeared in both Almodóvar’s first feature film and his most recent - a span that has kept her on his screen from her early twenties to her mid-fifties and counting. She is also the only non-Spaniard on this list, having been born in Argentina and emigrated to Spain at the start of her career. Her work in earlier films is well worth digging out, in particular her starring role as Sexilia, the nymphomaniac pop star, in “Labyrinths of Passion.” She is a good example of how Almodóvar does not dismiss actors after a certain age (though he has certainly had his fads in terms of casting, as suggested above) as she could be seen getting up to as much fun in this year’s “I’m So Excited!” as she was three decades ago. But she will likely always be best remembered for her anchor role in his most unanimously praised film, “All About my Mother”, as tragic mother Manuela.

Carmen Maura
Credits: 7
Best role: Gloria in “What Have I Done to Deserve This?”
If anyone can claim the crown of Almodóvar’s quintessential muse, it is surely Carmen Maura. But their story has its own dramatic narrative, with a feud that led to a nearly two decade rift, at least on professional terms (the recurrent rumour is that it began when Almodóvar failed to invite Maura as his date to the Oscars). However, it was finally healed with her suitably dramatic return to screen in 2006’s “Volver.” Appearing in five of his first seven films, it will never be known whether their collaboration would have wilted or continued to flourish in the absence of the fallout. But the work they did create is indelible, from trans woman Tina in “Law of Desire” to Maura’s multi-award-winning starring role in “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.” Despite this, it is her turn as housewife and cleaner Gloria in Almodóvar’s bonkers but heartfelt homage to Italian realism “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” that leaves the strongest impression on this author.
Chus Lampreave in "Volver"
Chus Lampreave in "Volver"

Chus Lampreave

Credits: 8
Best role: Grandma in “What Have I Done to Deserve This?”
It seems fitting that Almodóvar’s most frequently used actor is not one of his headline stars, but the redoubtable stalwart, 82 year old Chus Lampreave. Even if her name is not immediately familiar, the most casual of Almodóvar fans will recognise her face from three decades of appearances. While he has tended to cast her in similar and often small roles, she has emerged as a classic scene stealer - she was Goya-nominated for her role in “The Flower of my Secret,” and won the Spanish Actors Union’s Best Supporting Actress award for her part in “Volver.” But it is her role in “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” where she really gets to shine, with a deeply touching and humorous performance as an old lady baffled by modern living. “In my town, they say if you haven’t seen Granada, you haven’t seen anything,” she mourns. “But I’ve never been there.” The line finds Almodóvar, as with the film as a whole, at his most pithy and attuned. But as an expression of limited horizons and modest experience, it is one that few of his female characters can claim.