Some actors never live down a single line reading. In 1981, Faye Dunaway won the second-ever Golden Raspberry award for Worst Actress for her portrayal of Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest largely because of her unexpectedly camp delivery of the not-at-all-funny-in-context cry “no wire hangers—ever!” Stranded in the middle of Norman Mailer’s critically reviled crime thriller Tough Guys Don’t Dance, a flustered Ryan O’Neal threw his hat in the ring. And even as he bears the Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, Nicolas Cage entered bad-acting Valhalla while pleading with his captors to spare him in The Wicker Man. Say it with me now: “Not the bees!”
Personally, it’s been hard to take Penélope Cruz totally seriously since the moment in Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky when her Sofia rebuffs a question from an artificially disfigured Tom Cruise by promising, “I will tell you in another life, when we are both cats.” “That’s the greatest thing I’ve ever heard,” responds Cruise, as if sarcastically annotating the scene on behalf of the audience. Whether Crowe was scoring points off of the whimsy of Cruz’s character or the cruelty of Cruise’s, the line lands with a brutal thud. It’s hard to blame Cruz, who was reprising a role she played to perfection in Spanish director Alejandro Amenábar’s excellent sci-fi thriller
Abre los Ojos; Vanilla Sky sprinkles way too much manic-pixie dust on its star, insisting on Sofia’s lucid dream-girl qualities instead of letting the actress evoke them naturally. But even if the new-age cringe of the dialogue is basically undeliverable, Cruz doesn’t help matters with her smirky, sing-song delivery.
Twenty years later—long after she transcended the exotic newcomer status seized on by Hollywood casting directors and exacerbated by a much-publicized romance with her Vanilla Sky costar—the 47-year-old Cruz has long since begun another life on-screen as a reliably great actress. Forget about Vanilla Sky, or Sahara, or Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, or all the other movies that wasted her gifts. As Cruz has gotten older, and balanced her work in U.S. movies with regular forays in her native Spain, she’s developed a formidable skill set as a relaxed comedienne who doesn’t so much play against her otherworldly beauty as find ways to integrate it into wry, multilayered characterizations. Pedro Almodóvar was one of the first filmmakers to recognize Cruz’s talent and ability to play against type, casting her to hilarious, memorably harrowing effect as a sex worker giving birth on a bus in 1997’s Live Flesh, and has continued to use her as his muse at regular intervals. “I think that when I work with Penelope now, I’m a better director thanks to Penelope,” Almodóvar told Empire in 2011. “And [she’s] probably a better actress thanks to me.”
Cruz received her first Academy Award nomination in 2007 for Almodóvar’s black comedy Volver, in which she played an abused wife whose daughter kills her husband en route to opening up a catering business; interrupted by a neighbor while mopping up the gory crime scene, her Raimunda glances down at the crimson fleck on her neck and says, “Women troubles”—a wonderfully double-edged line that the actress gives wicked top spin. At Cannes in 2006, Cruz shared an ensemble prize with several other actresses from the film, but she carries Volver on her shoulders.
The same goes for Almodóvar’s new and terrifically twisty comedy Parallel Mothers. Once again, Cruz is up for Best Actress, and sadly, she isn’t likely to win: Currently, the odds-on favorite is Jessica Chastain for her performance as Tammy Faye Bakker in The Eyes of Tammy Faye. But considering that Cruz has always been at her best working with Almodóvar, there’d be poetic justice in recognizing her for a film that arguably represents their crowning achievement together, just as it would have been wonderfully right for Antonio Banderas to win in 2020 for his work with the same filmmaker in Pain and Glory.
The premise of Parallel Mothers is sociologically loaded, juxtaposing the pregnancy of Cruz’s character, a middle-aged magazine photographer named Janis, with that of teenager Ana (Milena Smit). They’re two women at different ends of the age and class spectrum, united by a shared hospital room and the unexpected circumstances resulting in their delicate conditions. For Janis, an inheritor of a libertine late-’60s counterculture (her name is a reference to the late, great Ms. Joplin), motherhood is an experiment in self-sufficiency. The opening scenes show her engaging in an extended fling with a man whom she has no desire to settle down with, scenes that hearken back to the liberated sexuality of Cruz’s early roles; even while shooting subjects for work, Janis has an uninhibited allure.
After learning that she’s expecting, Janis refuses an abortion, telling the father that he has no responsibility since she possesses the resolve (and finances, and support system) to succeed on her own terms as a single mom. For Ana, things are less triumphant; there are other, terrible reasons that the father isn’t in the picture, and the impending delivery is a source of anxious uncertainty.
One of Almodóvar’s great talents as a writer is that his characters all speak in distinctly different voices: Janis embraces maturity without sacrificing her freedom, while Ana copes with being forced to grow up too fast. The generational interplay also works because Cruz is so generous to her younger costar, raising Smit’s game through perfectly calibrated reaction shots. Bound together by exhaustion, adrenaline, and mutual affection, the two women watch their babies together through glass and resolve to stay in touch.
This being an Almodóvar movie, though, the best-laid plans go awry, and the vectors of the pair’s ensuing lives as mothers don’t just run parallel, but converge and intertwine in patterns encompassing every imaginable form of love, empathy, betrayal, and solidarity.
Few directors are as good as Almodóvar at using costumes, props, and and other matters of decor and design as storytelling tools—a shot of Janis in a T-shirt that reads “We Should All Be Feminists” underlines the theme of distaff empowerment even as it clashes with the character’s cozy domesticity and luxury-class surroundings. The idea of Janis as a kind of bougie Yummy Mummy luxuriating in a mix of progressive rhetoric and designer aesthetics (all her baby gear is high-end and color coordinated) lurks affectionately at the edges of her characterization, with its sly evocations of entitlement. Cruz has always held the camera—even in Vanilla Sky, with its mesmerized, point-of-view close-ups—and her self-assurance works perfectly for a character who’s determined to and capable of having it all. But then Janis’s bubble is burst by a bizarre medical test result that suggests her daughter isn’t actually hers—that somehow, there was a switch at the hospital, and she and Ana have been raising the wrong daughters all along.
This is potentially the stuff of screwball comedy, but Almodóvar quickly lowers the boom. Reconnecting with Ana, Janis learns that Ana’s daughter, Anita, has died tragically from crib death—a piece of news that widens the gap between the two women while drawing them closer in a mix of good and bad faith. When Janis subsequently hires Ana as a live-in nanny at a lavish salary, is it to let the heartbroken girl stay (unknowingly) close to her accidentally estranged infant? Or is it to mitigate her own guilt? Does Janis see the hapless Ana as a surrogate daughter, or a mirror of her younger self whom she could mold in her own image? Is she looking for an apprentice? A caregiver? A charity case? A lover? And how long can a woman with a keen sense of her country’s repressive history—who as the film opens is attempting, in tandem with Spain’s Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory, to investigate the fate of a group of murdered anti-Franco freedom fighters—allow herself to keep a secret?
The personal is political in Parallel Mothers, and the unfolding relationship between the central melodrama, with its shifting power dynamics and whiplash-swift oscillations in tone, and the second, buried narrative of fascist violence and revolutionary resistance, is the work of a master storyteller—one who’s increasingly unshy about his subtextual agendas. In his early, irrepressible ’80s comedies, Almodóvar defied Spain’s history of authoritarianism by throwing taboos on-screen like confetti. As he’s gotten older, he hasn’t so much lost his edge as refined it, so that his movies draw little streaks of blood instead of explosive geysers, and Cruz matches his approach with a supremely controlled performance style.
There are two sequences in particular that showcase Cruz’s precise, devastating subtlety. In the first, Janis asks to see a cellphone video of Anita, whose status as her own flesh and blood can’t be disclosed; in the space of one short reaction shot, Cruz distills at least three kinds of heartbreak—for herself, for Ana, and for the baby—all of which Janis must modulate carefully in the moment lest she give herself (and her secret) away. In the second, she observes an open grave and registers the contents within not with surprise but a recognition that stops short of acceptance; the film closes by taking in her expression of fulfillment and defiance. In the end, Parallel Mothers is a film about the hard, necessary process of excavation—of things unburied and brought into the light. As ever, Almodóvar digs deep, and in Cruz he has a star who he can keep pulling from without ever reaching the bottom—an actress who has not only lived down her early foibles but crafted a body of work that her peers are hard-pressed to live up to.
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.