Oscar voters take their duties seriously and seem to have a few key criteria in voting: Is this work emotionally honest, does it pop off the screen, and is it something that will be admired 50 years from now?
Penelope Cruz in “Parallel Mothers” checks all those boxes. There are no guarantees with Oscars, but if there’s justice in the world, she will be nominated Feb. 8. She grabs the screen and invites comparisons to the best work of Bette Davis, Anna Magnani and Barbara Stanwyck, but is very much an original.
Cruz plays photographer Janis, who becomes a single mother. As she withholds the truth about her baby, she is trying to uncover the truth of mass killings that have been covered up since the Francisco Franco regime.
She rehearsed with writer-director Pedro Almodovar for four months. Still, filming was difficult. “I couldn’t release any emotions in the early section, when Janis is lying and hiding her fear and anguish. It was exhausting as an actress to live with this every day.”
“After two months of that, the confession was coming and I knew that I was going to explode and give Janis the release she needed. I was looking forward to that moment; it was like a ticking bomb that I couldn’t take any more. As an actress, I needed that to happen, but at the same time I was terrified of the confession because I knew it was so important to get it right.” The actress says she’s happy that they filmed mostly in sequence.
This is her seventh film with Almodovar, and he is not only a friend but also her much-admired collaborator. “I think Pedro is one of our greatest directors working today. His work is extremely inspiring. He’s our leader. He knows what movie he wants to make,” she says. “That goes for every department. At the same time, he’s always open to suggestions.”
Sometimes a role gets under the actor’s skin and is hard to shake. Living with Janis’s pain and deception took a toll.
“I try not to bring that energy home because I’m a mother of two,” says Cruz. “Sometimes I had to stay at work an extra 30 minutes, crying in the hallway, to go home without taking all that confusion and fear with me. And then return the next day to start all over again, to go 100 percent on the set.”
But Cruz always knew it was fiction, while women in the real world have to deal with such difficulties constantly. “I was trying to honor women in that situation, who deal with any loss — or threat of a loss — related to their children. That was my fuel every day.”
Franco died in 1975, but the damage of his 36-year regime lives on. “Parallel Mothers” shows Janis’s attempts to restore justice.
“I knew families that had experiences like that,” says Cruz, “and they had secrets and a fear of talking about it. It’s wonderful how Pedro keeps both things in his script, the moral conflict of my character and how she wants to inspire truth, but at the same time she’s lying about the most important thing, which is her daughter. She had no mother, no father; she grew up wondering whether she doesn’t deserve a family. The message of Janis is also the message of Pedro: It is not about revenge, it’s about human rights.”
When the film premiered at the Venice Film Festival, Variety reviewer Owen Gleiberman said Cruz “leaves you breathless.” She won the best actress honor at the fest.
Told that it’s her best performance, she responds modestly, “I can say it was the most challenging, most difficult. Janis has to constantly hide how she feels. That is the complete opposite of my nature. But I am happy with the results. I am one piece of the puzzle and am grateful to be part of it.”
She adds, “I like to think the movie is very good so I hope people watch it. It’s shot in Spanish. I’d like to encourage people to see more foreign films.”
That’s an important point, especially in the U.S. Americans are often nervous with films in other languages and consider reading subtitles to be homework. That’s often true with Academy voters.
Here’s a small sampling of unforgettable actors who were never Oscar-nominated: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Gong Li, Giulietta Masina, Toshiro Mifune, Jeanne Moreau and Ingrid Thulin.
A few of the great actors who were nominated in subtitled films but haven’t won: Antonio Banderas, Catherine Deneuve, Gerard Depardieu, Marcello Mastroianni, Liv Ullmann, Max von Sydow and Steven Yeun.
Oscar voters are not obliged to vote for Penelope Cruz, but they are reminded: Fifty years from now, her work will be remembered. So make sure you see it.