Antonio Banderas is unabashedly enjoying his 2019. In May, he won the best actor award in Cannes for his performance in Pain and Glory as Salvador Mallo, an aging and ailing filmmaker whom writer and director Pedro Almodóvar has clearly based on himself. Talking with Banderas for Interview, Penélope Cruz, who plays Salvador’s mother in flashbacks to memories of his childhood, asks him if the award caught him by surprise. “I have been an eternal nominee,” says Banderas. “For many years I’ve been nominated for important awards, but I never got onstage. Four times at the Golden Globes, four times at the Goyas, the SAGs, the Tony Awards, all of them. I never believed that I could win until I was told that I won. The truth is, it is a joy. I’m not going to hide it.”
Pain and Glory will screen at the New York Film Festival before opening in theaters on October 4. Banderas also appears as Ramón Fonseca Mora, a real-life lawyer arrested for money laundering, bribery, and other skeezy activities in The Laundromat, Steven Soderbergh’s new film about the Panama Papers scandal. That one is currently touring the festival circuit before it begins playing in theaters on September 27 and streaming on Netflix on October 18. And New York’s Quad Cinema is currently screening a series of films featuring Banderas through September 26.
It was Almodóvar who launched Banderas’s career in movies, plucking him from Madrid’s theater scene and casting him in a small role in Labyrinth of Passion (1982). “With his inky, slicked hair, olive skin, and nobly handsome profile, the young Banderas sometimes looked like a sketch of a 1930s gigolo,” writes Christina Newland in the Notebook. “His good looks were not just fulsome; they fed into the old Hollywood archetype of the ‘Latin lover,’ a handsome but often untrustworthy type personified by actors of a darker persuasion, like Mexican silent star Ramon Novarro or even Italian heartthrob Rudolph Valentino. Almodóvar knew this, it seems, right from the beginning, and as an appreciator of old Hollywood, it seems he liked to make sly cinephilic reference to it.”
Banderas plays one of three leads in Law of Desire (1987), which Michael Koresky, writing for Film Comment, calls an “especially vivid showcase for the actor’s ability to control the camera as both stalker and object of desire. He has long refused to let his astonishing handsomeness define his career, mitigating his matinee-idol presence with a wise, Clark Gable–like self-awareness that never disturbs the authentic on-screen chemistry he always has with his co-stars.”
After a string of films that brought both the director and his star international fame, Banderas headed off to Hollywood, where he married Melanie Griffith, struggled with his English, and broadened his fan base with winning turns in Arne Glimcher’s Mambo Kings (1992), Bille August’s The House of the Spirits (1993), Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia (1993), Neil Jordan’s Interview with the Vampire (1994), and Robert Rodriguez’s Desperado (1995). He even costarred with Sylvester Stallone in Richard Donner’s Assassins (1995), an action movie about professional killers with a screenplay by the Wachowskis. He played Zorro twice and hit pay dirt with roles in two fat franchises, Spy Kids and Shrek.
By 2011, though, after a period of estrangement, Banderas and Almodóvar were anxious to work together again. In The Skin I Live In, inspired by Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1960), Banderas plays a plastic surgeon gone quietly mad. In her review for the New York Times, Manohla Dargis wrote that it was “a pleasure to experience a performance from Mr. Banderas that peels away his persona and burrows under the skin.”
Pain and Glory is about overcoming a stubborn creative block, overcoming addiction, overcoming the loss of a loved one, and also “about the mutual vulnerability and strange alchemy of collaboration,” as Angelo Muredda points out in Cinema Scope. Talking to Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri, Banderas says that he thinks “this movie is more Almodóvar than Almodóvar. Why? Because what are we? Are we the things that we have done, the things that we have said, or are we the things that we wanted to say but we didn’t say? . . . Almodóvar, in this movie, comes to terms with himself and his fans . . . There is reconciliation with his mother. There is forgiveness. For him, I think this movie became very therapeutic in a way, because I remember that he was getting happier and happier as the movie was advancing.”
In the New Statesman, Ryan Gilbey argues that with “a few exceptions (Gael García Bernal in Bad Education, Javier Bardem in Live Flesh, Banderas in everything), men in an Almodóvar production come a distant fifth place after women, decor, cinematography, and music.” In Pain and Glory, “Banderas has a tentative charm—he is always holding something in reserve—and is captivating in an encounter with an old flame, Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), but he’s fighting a losing battle against the lugubriousness of the material.” Even the few critics who, like Gilbey, find Pain and Glory to be one of Almodóvar’s weakest films agree that this scene is one of the most remarkable in the oeuvre. It “runs an entire emotional gamut,” writes Filmmaker’s Vadim Rizov, “from initial delighted reacquaintance to a platonic catch-up, the will-they-or-won’t-they tension finally acknowledged and paid off in a sweet, melancholic way—it’s a fairly devastating two-hander that takes its unhurried time to unfold, a self-contained incident all the more poignant for being unrepeatable.”
It’s through posture, gesture, and tone—certainly not looks—that Banderas, who turned fifty-nine last month, conveys the exhaustion of an artist who fears he’s reached the end of the line. “You couldn’t fairly say,” writes the Irish Times’ Donald Clarke, “that Banderas looks on his last legs—they haven’t invented the bomb that could crinkle his pulchritude—but he hones a fragility that seems all the more poignant for its positioning in such a handsome frame.” For the Observer’s Mark Kermode, Banderas has never before “seemed so vulnerable, his eyes darting back and forth in fear and wonder, shining through a mask of deadpan melancholia and regret.”
For more on Pain and Glory, listen in as Eugene Hernandez, Michael Koresky, and Nicolas Rapold discuss the film on the Film Comment Podcast in the run-up to the NYFF, opening on September 27. And today sees a new video essay from Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin in the Notebook on two films featuring Banderas, “Total Design: Pedro Almodóvar’s Law of Desire and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.”
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