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.
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 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.
Rossy de Palma
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.
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.