25 years ago, Penélope Cruz appeared in a little film called Live Flesh. The project was the first collaboration between the actress, who was still finding her footing in the Spanish film industry, and the respected director Pedro Almodóvar, who was the toast of his native Spain thanks to the back-to-back successes of his Oscar-nominated Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and the unapologetically NC-17 thriller Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!
Cruz’s role in the film was small but vital. Appearing only in the film’s opening, the actress plays a pregnant prostitute who goes into surprise labor and is forced to give birth in the backseat of an off-duty city bus. Hooting and hollering, screaming in agony as she delivers her son into the world in less-than-ideal circumstances, Cruz looks right at home in the film. Her performance is over-the-top but strangely alluring. In no short order, it’s perfectly Almodóvarian. Immediately, it was clear that they made a good match. As Cruz recently told the Times about her chemistry with the director, “We know each other, we can feel each other, we can read each other’s minds.”
Which is why, perhaps, the two continued to work together after. In the years since, Cruz has gone on to appear in six more of the director’s films. There was the melodramatic swirl of All About My Mother two years later, followed by Volver, which would earn the Spanish actress her very first Oscar nomination. Now, Cruz is riding high on her latest film with Almodóvar, the excellent Parallel Mothers. One of last year’s best releases, the film netted the actress her fourth Oscar nomination in 15 years, and though (despite my best wishes) she did not leave the Dolby Theater with her second golden statuette, she made a valiant effort, turning a late-breaking entrance into what very easily could have been the night’s biggest surprise.
In honor of Parallel Mothers (in theaters and streaming On Demand now) and Penélope Cruz’s near-Oscar win for yet another Pedro Almodóvar film, NYLON has revisited all seven of the pair’s collaborations. From the bright humanism of Pain and Glory to the silly slapstick of I’m So Excited, this is NYLON’s definitive ranking of Cruz’s best performances in Almodóvar films.
7. I’m So Excited (2013)
As a longtime fan of Pedro Almodóvar, I could never say the director has made a “bad” film — just some that are less ambitious and memorable than others. I’m So Excited fits squarely into that category. A silly romp about the eclectic passengers of a plane that is in danger of crashing, the 2013 film (released soon after the refreshingly horror-tinged The Skin I Live In) is perfectly fine, an at-times hilarious farce featuring a typically unhinged cast of zany characters.
Alas, Cruz does not play one of them. The smallest part in her ongoing partnership with Almodóvar, Cruz’s role in I’m So Excited is relegated to just several lines in the film’s opening scene. The scene is a delight, as Cruz, playing an airline baggage handler, crashes a car into her coworker on the tarmac, promptly feels queasy, and then admits to her partner (played by Antonio Banderas) that she’s a couple months pregnant. (“All the eggs I eat every morning? When did I ever eat so many eggs?” she asks, wondering how he never noticed that something about her had changed.) But alas, it’s still just this. As enjoyable of a scene as it is, it will never stand a candle to some of the far superior performances she has given in other projects.
6. Live Flesh (1997)
Two and a half decades after its release, Cruz’s first collaboration with Almodóvar is still notable. Like I’m So Excited after it, Live Flesh also relegates Cruz to just the opening. But in the latter, Cruz, playing pregnant prostitute Isabel, is charged with setting the mood for the entire story. Isabel’s son eventually grows up to be the film’s tortured protagonist, and Cruz’s bus birth scene is our first entry into his tragic story. As always, Cruz meets the assignment, dialing up the stakes of this birth, and resultantly, turning a small part into one with immeasurable impact. Sweating profusely and wailing in agony as she’s directed to push, Cruz gives a remarkably physical performance, her face contorting seemingly uncontrollably. It’s maddeningly effective; an hour and half after the actress departs the film, never to return again, one can’t help but still think about her opening scene. It’s no wonder Almodóvar kept Cruz in constant rotation after this — and given how natural she seemed playing an expectant mother, it’s quite easy to understand why the director has continuously called upon her to play motherly roles.
5. Pain and Glory (2019)
That being said, it’s hard to argue that any of Cruz’s “mother” roles in Almodóvar films matter more than her role in the director’s 2019 Oscar-nominated Pain and Glory. Starring Antonio Banderas (another Almodóvar regular) as an aging cinematic auteur, the film is Almodóvar’s most obviously personal, the story serving as an autofiction take on his own life as his protagonist reflects on the tragedies of his past while looking forward to the possibilities for his future. And there, playing the story’s mother figure (an avatar for his actual mother), was Cruz.
Like the aforementioned films, Pain and Glory is far from Cruz’s biggest role in an Almodóvar project. Despite its size, however, Cruz makes the most of her scenes as Jacinta. Almodóvar writes the character as a sympathetic figure facing insurmountable odds. Seen only in flashbacks, Cruz’s Jacinta is balancing the weight of the world, forced to work, maintain a comfortable home (which is more like a cave), and raise her precocious son on very little. Stern but loving, overprotective but extremely nurturing, Cruz is tasked with a lot. But ever the consummate performer, Cruz keeps her character grounded, never once stripping Jacinta of her innate complexity. It may not be Cruz’s best mother role, but it’s possibly her most important, at least as far as Almodóvar is concerned. In a recent Times profile of the actress, Almodóvar said, “Penélope has a blind faith in me… [and] this blind faith fills me with the confidence to request anything of her.” In Pain and Glory, this request is “humanism” — and Cruz delivers admirably.
4. All About My Mother (1999)
While the characters Cruz has played in Almodóvar films have run the gamut, one quality has stayed pretty consistent from project to project: their capacity for compassion. Nowhere is this more clear than in All About My Mother, one of Almodóvar’s most beloved films (his first to win an Oscar), which stars Cruz in what can only be described as the living embodiment of kindness and love: a nun. And not just any nun, either. But one who has wholly dedicated her life to the marginalized by working in a shelter that caters to sex workers (many who are queer). Once again, the director casts Cruz as a pregnant woman — this one is young and impressionable, pure and innocent of heart, and really desperate to leave her overbearing mother’s home.
Like much of Almodóvar’s strongest work, All About My Mother dials up the melodrama to a delightfully stirring degree, and Cruz fits into that heightened world perfectly. Rosa is perhaps Cruz’s most tragic role (she was impregnated by a trans sex worker and has since learned that she’s also contracted HIV), but the actress successfully manages to find the light in Rosa’s story. Like all nuns, Rosa seems resigned to accept the cards she was dealt, and Cruz’s embodiment of a character who’s determined to focus on the good in life no matter the tragedy of her circumstance (a scene in which Rosa sees her father, who is suffering from Alzheimers and doesn’t recognize her, is devastatingly effective) is commendable.
3. Volver (2006)
No one shows emotion like Penélope Cruz. It’s a fact very easily supported by her sprawling filmography, where highlights like Vicky Christy Barcelona have drawn upon her innate ability to communicate deep-seated feelings with little more than the expressions on her face. It’s also a skill that was used to great effect in Volver. As Raimunda, an overworked mother determined to protect her family at any costs, even if it means covering up a crime that could ruin her daughter’s future, Cruz is a force as she juggles mixed emotions in every new frame. Her eyes well up with tears as her daughter recounts an attempted sexual assault. Her face twitches as she struggles to ensure that her clear excitement doesn’t mask her feelings of betrayal when she learns of her own mother’s secret life. Volver, like many Almodóvar films, throws a lot up into the air (there’s murder, naturally, but also a subplot about an unexpected catering gig for a film shoot), and as its center, Cruz seems remarkably attuned to its emotional volatility.
And how could we forget about her unforgettable musical moment, performing the title track in front of a crowded restaurant full of entertainment-hungry patrons. While using her real voice just might have moved this incredible performance up into the top two spots, the actress still deserves praise for her impressive lip-syncing, which she specifically trained for in preparation for this part. Stories like these are tailor-made for future Oscar glory — and fittingly enough, Volver would eventually earn the Spanish-born actress her first nomination from The Academy.
2. Parallel Mothers (2021)
Parallel Mothers, the most recent collaboration between Cruz and Almodóvar, would place near the top of this list on sheer size alone. The film follows two mothers — one, an older established photographer; the other, a young woman whose pregnancy is the result of a sordid sexual assault — who give birth next to each other in the same hospital room. Cruz plays the older one, Janis, who is in almost every scene of the two-hour film. Unlike the more traditional ensemble work that has become the actor and the director’s bread-and-butter over the years, Parallel Mothers features a true lead performance from Cruz, who relishes the opportunity.
As always, Cruz is a preternaturally magnetic screen presence. But in Parallel Mothers, the actress is asked to employ that magnetism to greater effect — especially in the film’s second half, after a surprise reveal forces Janis to make a decision some may find it hard to justify. Without ever villainizing her, the rest of the film operates on multiple axes, challenging viewers to confront our own tendency to cast judgment by digging deep into the inherent contradictions of Janis’ current state. To connect properly with the character, audiences must understand that, although Janis may be acting one way, it’s still possible that she is riddled with guilt for not acting in the opposite. It’s a tall order, but Cruz displays a unique ability to turn her character’s interior equivocation into something sturdily tangible for viewers to latch onto.
The actress shows the character’s ambivalence in every frame, adding necessary nuance to a role that would flounder without it. Cruz has referred to her character as “an amazing liar,” but in her adept hands, Janis becomes so much more; her emotional complexity only deepens this morally gray story. The performance has deservedly earned Cruz several Best Actress awards (Venice Volpi Cup, NSFC, LAFCA), her fourth Oscar nomination, and many “career-best” mentions from critics all over. But for me, there is still one other performance that gets the slight edge.
1. Broken Embraces (2009)
Before you try to fight me, just hear me out: from a certain angle, it’s only fitting that Broken Embraces would take the top spot. In Almodovar’s erotic thriller about his usual favorite things (sex, obsession, murder, identity, passion), Cruz plays Magdalena (“Lena” for short), a character who is defined by her otherworldly allure. Men are driven crazy by the mere sight of her, willing to do anything to be by her side. The film believes she has the power to make men move mountains for her, and Cruz brings every ounce of that undeniable charisma to the screen. Sure, some of that might come naturally — Lena is a figure of great beauty, and Cruz doesn’t have to do anything to be beautiful — but much of this performance’s strength lies in the myriad other ways Cruz works to breathe life into this character. A sexy secretary who becomes the prized arm-candy to a wealthy but typically entitled financier — and later, the promising ingenue to a rising film director — Lena could have easily tipped over into stereotype. But Cruz elevates the character into something far more enchanting, enriching the entire film as a result.
Broken Embraces features all the trademarks of Cruz’s strongest works with Almodóvar (multiple timelines, striking closeups, and of course, several shots of the actress crying), but the film’s refusal to stick to any singular tone allows Cruz to show off even more of her dynamism as a performer. She’s such a dynamically skilled performer, in fact, that she even shines when playing the opposite: in a scene where her character is meant to be giving a bad performance, Cruz still commands attention — and it takes a truly great actor to make bad acting look good. In a cast full of scene-stealing characters (a blind screenwriter; an effeminate gay son with revenge on the brain; a DJ who overdoses while spinning Uffie, just to name a few), Cruz never fades into the background. (The image of Cruz sporting a Marilyn Monroe-inspired wig for Broken Embraces’ film-within-a-film is one of the most recognizable in Almodóvar’s oeuvre.)
Broken Embraces may not be the strongest entry in Pedro Almodovar’s decades-long filmography, but the towering performance Cruz gives is indelible. Sexy, mysterious, and a little bit dangerous, it’s quintessential Almodóvar. And yes, we can thank Penélope Cruz for that.