This week, Penelope Cruz seeks to save her father’s soul and find the fountain of youth in a rejuvenated Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. No matter how that quest turns out or what the critics may say, there is no doubt that On Stranger Tides will be seen by many more people than any of Cruz’s past films – if it does as well as the previous adventures of Jack Sparrow, it could make more than all of her other films put together!
Which prompts the question: is that level of fame something that she wants or needs?
You could ask the question of Johnny Depp too. The actor who once said that he never wanted to see his face on a McDonalds' cup has become synonymous with a blockbuster series based (lest we forget) on a theme park ride. In fact producer Jerry Bruckheimer cast Depp in the first place precisely because for his credibility, to counteract the natural suspicion that the movie was nothing but a cynical money-grab.
To Bruckheimer’s credit, Depp was given free rein to express himself in the part, and he obviously enjoys himself immensely in these movies. But the tension between his vaudeville shtick (part Bob Hope, part Carry On Swashbuckling) and the lavish fx work never entirely goes away, and it’s a battle that Depp seemed to be losing in At World's End.
Still, Cruz might well rationalise that the chance to be upstaged by Johnny Depp is not to be sniffed at. And after all, they pay her to do it. It’s not like she’s been shanghaied.
But as a career move, I suspect her involvement reflects the paucity of choice for a Hispanic actress in Hollywood. A few weeks ago we were thinking about her husband, Javier Bardem, and remarking how few Spanish actors have ever made it in America. But that goes double for Spanish actresses. She may be one of the most beautiful women in the world and an actor of unusual sensitivity and range, but in English-speaking roles she will always be defined by her strong accent. Puerto Rican-American Jennifer Lopez can go up for the same parts as Jennifer Aniston or Sandra Bullock, but it will never be that easy for Cruz, and unlike JLo, or Salma Hayek for that matter, she has shown no inclination to nursemaid her own projects.
Looking at Cruz’s career, it’s hard to ignore how much better the Spanish films are than her Hollywood pictures. Of course it helps that in Spain she’s made four films with Pedro Almodovar, who writes arguably the richest roles for women anywhere. Take away Volver, Broken Embraces, All About My Mother and Live Flesh, and the discrepancy is not so great. But still, the Spanish industry can point to Jamon, Jamon, Open Your Eyes, and Belle Epoque. Throw in the Italian drama Don't Move, and it’s a pretty good collection. (There are half a dozen more, none of which have made it across the Channel, at least as far as I know.)
That list tips heavily to the turn of the century, her busiest period when, buoyed by a celebrity boyfriend in Tom Cruise, she was all over the paps and touted as the hottest thing since… Nicole Kidman? But even where the films were interesting, Cruz is rarely more than a pale shadow of the actress when she is performing in her mother tongue.
There has also been Elegy, with Ben Kingsley, directed by Spain’s Isabel Coixet, and the disappointing Luc Besson production, Bandidas, with Salma Hayek… and Gwyneth Paltrow’s brother’s film, The Good Night. You begin to see how much she owes Almodovar? Where other filmmakers seem blinded by her beauty, he alone sees the complete woman, capable of expressing so much more than romantic ardour. In Volver, especially, Cruz is a revelation, complex, mature, and anxious as well as (to be sure) voluptuous.
The only English-language director who has given her anything remotely as juicy is Woody Allen, and she rightly won the Oscar for her supporting role alongside Bardem in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Her crazy bohemian artist may be half caricature, but Cruz brings such passion and fire to the part she ignites the movie. Probably no coincidence that here again she was able to play half her lines in her native tongue.
The good news is, Cruz and Allen are working together again on the forthcoming Bop Decameron. And the film after that will be Twice Born, costarring Emile Hirsch but directed by her Don’t Move director, Sergio Castellitto. Whether she will also be roped into a couple more Caribbean jaunts only the global audience can say, but personally I’m hoping that someone (Almodovar?) will have the wit to bring Bardem and Cruz back together on screen sometime soon – and preferably speaking Spanish.
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