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Heroines of Cinema: Almodóvar’s Seven Favorite Actresses

Heroines of Cinema: Almodóvar’s Seven Favorite Actresses

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.
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
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
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”
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”
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”
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
Credits: 6
Best role: Marisa in “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown”
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”
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
Carmen Maura
Credits: 7
Best role: Gloria in “What Have I Done to Deserve This?”
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
Credits: 8
Best role: Grandma in “What Have I Done to Deserve This?”
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.

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