Almodovar’s lucky year

'Mother' helmer honored at Palm Springs fest

NEW YORK — The last year of the old millennium was a special one for Pedro Almodovar on at least two counts:

The rights to his first international hit, “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” are back in his possession. And second, thanks to his current film, “All About My Mother,” American auds and critics finally get what it means to be Almodovar.

The helmer is being honored at this year’s Nortel Palm Springs Intl. Film Festival with the Intl. Filmmaker Award, and the fest will screen “Mother,” along with other foreign film submissions.

Regarding “Woman on the Verge,” film trivia buffs will recall that a decade ago TriStar bought the rights for Jane Fonda.

“She felt that role of a woman abandoned,” Almodovar remembers. “But then she met Ted Turner and that loneliness disappeared from her life, and she decided to abandon the cinema.”

Those who know Almodovar’s cinema will be pleased to learn that the filmmaker often sounds as melodramatic as a Douglas Sirk movie. It also may delight that he can quickly flick the switch and turn the conversation into a camp dialogue. Apparently, TriStar wrote three very different scripts for the Americanized “Woman on the Verge.”

“After Jane, they did a script for Whoopi Goldberg and then (one for) the comeback of Paula Prentiss. I liked that idea,” he adds, leaving no doubt as to his favorite actress among the three.

The Hollywood industry may have no use for Almodovar — it seems his directing of the Jan De Bont-produced project “The Paperboy,” from a novel by Pete Dexter, has also gone south — but audiences and critics are finally acquiring a distinct taste for his quirky sensibility.

So far, “Mother” has been recognized by both the New York Film Critics Circle for best foreign-lingo pic and netted a Golden Globe nomination in the same category. One has to go all the way back to 1988 and the release of “Women on the Verge” to find any major U.S.-based critical org honoring Almodovar. That year, the National Society of Film Critics gave the director a special award, for “originality.”

“One of my problems from the very beginning (in America) is people ask me, ‘Should I laugh or should I cry? Is your film serious or is it a comedy? Are you joking or are you serious?’ No one in Europe asks me that,” the director says. “You can laugh, you can cry at the same time. I combine these tones because you can combine them in life.

“Now with ‘All About My Mother,’ they admit the movie can be funny and dramatic at the same time. This is the first time in the United States the people see that.”

The director is particularly grateful that audiences know when to bust a gut, and more important, when to shut up when viewing his latest work. “When Manuela (Cecilia Roth) shows the baby to Lola (Toni Canti), they don’t laugh,” he says with considerable pride.

Admittedly, this scene is a stretch: Manuela is the surrogate mother for the newborn baby of Hermana (Penelope Cruz), who was impregnated by the AIDS-stricken transvestite Lola, who is Manuela’s old boyfriend. From his very first film, “Pepi, Luci and Bom” (1980), Almodovar has labored to keep his characters’ sexual options wide open.

Outrageous? Almodovar says not, even though his own upbringing defined the small-town standards of 1950s Spain. “My family belongs to another century,” he explains. “My two sisters and one brother, we have the same father and mother and we were all born in the same place. Now this kind of unity has disappeared.”

Certainly, from “Dark Habits” and “Matador” through “High Heels” and “All About My Mother,” Almodovar’s films have remained committed to a certain let-live ethos despite the fluctuations in Robin Williams’ movie wardrobes.

“Remember when every actor was doing drag and then stopped?” Almodovar says. “It’s not capricious or marketing that my films are the way they are. This is life the way it is today.”

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