Joaquin Phoenix is going to win Best Actor. He’s going to win because Joker has made more than a billion dollars at the global box office while retaining what fans and detractors alike might call its “edge”—a serrated quality of storytelling and characterization that differentiates it from Marvel’s anodyne Avengers adventures. He’s going to win because he’s the film’s shimmering jagged instrument, cutting through the monochrome monotony of Todd Phillips’s direction and occasionally drawing blood. I’m not a fan of Joker, but there’s no denying the visceral power of its star’s interpretation of the title character, which splits the difference between previous cinematic incarnations and the actor’s own repertoire of spectacularly damaged protagonists. At worst, Phoenix is being rewarded for transmuting the remarkable invention and commitment of his acting in movies like Two Lovers and The Master into rictus-grinning shtick; at best, his statuette will serve—like so many before it—as a retrospective reward, a belated but welcome acknowledgement of a deserving body of work.
The same narrative of an actor getting his due could be applied to Phoenix’s fellow nominee Antonio Banderas, whose performance in Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory was feted at Cannes and recognized by the New York Film Critics Circle, but will likely go home empty-handed at Sunday’s ceremony. Whereas Joker—the highest-grossing R-rated movie of all time—has become a millennial version of A Clockwork Orange in the way it’s sparked discussion (much of it hysterical and superfluous, but still), Pain and Glory is a small, Spanish-language character study. Even in a year in which the six nominations for Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite represent a form of subtitled incursion on the Academy’s parochial tastes, Banderas is still a long shot.
But he’s also the best choice by far in a strong category. If Phoenix’s work in Joker is effective in part because it evokes his persona as American cinema’s reigning weirdo, Banderas is similarly drawing on his past in Pain and Glory, specifically his earlier Almodóvar roles dating back to 1982’s Labyrinth of Passion—a title that concisely describes the Spanish auteur’s initially twisty and tempestuous aesthetic. Both Almodóvar and Banderas began their careers in the early 1980s, during La Movida Madrileña, a countercultural movement centered in Madrid that exploded after the death of dictator Francisco Franco and opened the door for creators and audiences alike to plunge into the realm of hedonistic excess and ecstacy. As one of the key artistic figures within the movement, Almodóvar cultivated a raw yet innovative filmmaking style that prodded social and cultural taboos and scandalized national audiences. And Banderas—then a stage-trained actor—proved a willing and malleable collaborator, whether as a bullfighter plagued by vertigo and Hitchcockian visions in Matador, the edgiest corner of the queer love triangle in Law of Desire, or an obsessive, hapless kidnapper in Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! While Almodóvar clearly revelled in his leading man’s handsomeness, he also continually wrought variations on Banderas’s beauty, turning it into a source of anxious vulnerability or treating him as a slapstick clown, as in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, where the actor held his own while surrounded by a formidable roster of actresses.
In the 1990s, as Almodóvar continued to burnish his reputation as the greatest Spanish filmmaker of his generation, Banderas was drafted to Hollywood, singled out as a transatlantic fetish object by Madonna in Truth or Dare, and cast by Jonathan Demme in the key supporting role of Tom Hanks’s lover in Philadelphia. By and large, American filmmakers proved less imaginative about how to handle Banderas’s handsomeness, casting him in the kinds of Latin-lover parts that Almodóvar had already parodied, or else treating him as a foreign adornment, as in Interview With the Vampire and Assassins (which, if nothing else, gave us this GIF). Action hero roles soon followed, both at the low-budget end of the spectrum with Robert Rodriguez in Desperado and at the blockbuster level in The Mask of Zorro, as well as recurring, good-humored parts in family franchises like Spy Kids and Shrek. These roles consolidated Banderas’s celebrity without necessarily showcasing his gifts—he had become a gigantic international movie star whose résumé was surprisingly light on great performances. Despite acting for Woody Allen, Brian De Palma, and Terrence Malick, he didn’t really have a signature 21st-century role—unless you count the voice of Puss in Boots.
The Skin I Live In, which reunited him with Almodóvar for the first time in over a decade, was a step in reversing this trajectory: Cast as a mad scientist whose experiments in transgenics are carried out at a secluded estate, Banderas gives a committedly hammy performance, embracing the delicious tastelessness of the artsploitation premise and creating a magnificently malevolent, tragically damaged villain. But where The Skin I Live In is primarily a triumph of artificiality—a pastiche of older genre movies stitched together Frankenstein-style in sync with its themes of body mutilation and identity crisis—Pain and Glory embraces a naturalism that pushes Almodóvar and Banderas’s collaboration to an unprecedented high point. At its core, The Skin I Live In was a monstrous, unsettling, elaborately veiled metaphor about filmmaking—about trying to remake people into doppelgängers of one’s loved ones. Pain and Glory addresses the creative process more directly, through a simpler trick of substitution: It’s a self-portrait that casts Banderas as a nonidealized version of Almodóvar, a hall-of-mirrors setup that allows each to elegantly reflect and refract the others’ best qualities.
The first time we see Banderas’s Salvador, he’s submerged in a swimming pool that doubles for a brief moment as a sensory deprivation tank and a substitutive womb: Pushing 60 and devastated by a range of physical ailments (some the collateral damage of self-inflicted behaviors), he’s trying to shut out sensation and enjoy the silence. The premise of Pain and Glory is that after a lifetime of doing exactly what he wants in his personal and professional life, Salvador is being punished—or at least that’s how he interprets it—for his freedom, and Banderas’s physicality in the role is remarkable. No longer moving with the grace of a bullfighter or of Zorro, he’s a spent force whose only remaining liveliness is seen around his eyes—unless he’s stoned on pain medication or heroin, in which case Banderas also nails a specific sort of zombification.
There’s pathos here, but also a tinge of affection—traces of Almodóvar’s own manner and gestures that the director has obviously encouraged while stopping short of self-glorification. There’s less explicit autobiography in Pain and Glory than some of Almodóvar’s other movies, but what makes it personal—and convincing—is the sense that the filmmaker and his surrogate are looking back on their accomplishments in an attempt to forge some way forward. As Salvador reflects regretfully on his childhood and youth, his atrophied artistic muscles start flexing again, beginning with a revisitation of past filmic triumphs (an anniversary screening of his breakthrough feature, whose barely glimpsed Pop Art aesthetic makes it a stand-in for Almodóvar’s work) and then a desire to reconnect with figures from his past. He writes a play about his experiences during La Movida Madrileña and about the love of his life, a relationship that ended as a casualty of his own success; now, 30 years later, the show’s popularity unexpectedly—and yet inevitably—brings the man who inspired it back to his door.
The sequence in which Salvador reencounters Frederico (Leonardo Sbaraglia) is Pain and Glory’s finest moment, carried by Banderas’s brilliantly internalized emotionalism. In the film’s earlier scenes, we see Salvador’s fragility and egotism—the headstrong, self-dramatizing narcissism that has long ago lost its sense of charm for all but his closest friends and supporters. In Frederico’s company, though, Salvador scales back, as if trying to will himself back to the moments of their shared happiness, and also to not betray his own skepticism and shame about where he’s ended up since. What follows is halfway between a seduction and a long goodbye, with Frederico refusing to deny his attraction even as he inventories the stable, rewarding life he’s made for himself, embracing his homosexual desire with his other life as a husband and father. “You’re the only Spanish director my family knows,” he tells Salvador, his eyes brimming with pride and affection; the pause Banderas takes after asking whether he means his “new” family is like the moment at the top of a roller coaster before it descends, anticipation merged with terror and the strain—palpable and heroic—of keeping it all inside.
It’s too reductive to say that Banderas deserves the Oscar just for this scene. He’s on point throughout Pain and Glory, nimbly navigating the script’s tonal switches from satire to drama and consistently finding ways to play with—and against—the vanity that goes with being so supernally attractive. What it illustrates, though, is how it’s possible to convey complexity in a split second, between the lines of dialogue and with the kind of spontaneity that’s rare in movies but all too recognizable in real life. It’s not right to call what Banderas does “under-acting,” because he brings it all to the surface and lets it show, except that somehow the disappointment and the dignity seem to belong fully to the character—for better or worse, he’s earned them. The actor simply disappears—which is no easy feat when said actor is Antonio Banderas—and what’s left is a pure, universal, surpassingly humane sort of hurt that I’ll be thinking about long after Phoenix’s antic, theatricalized anguish in Joker has faded from memory.
Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.