Penélope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) - Supporting Actress Sunday
With this week's nominated performance, Woody Allen "breaks" a fairly long-standing tie for 2nd place among directors whose actresses at the edges have garnered the goldenboy's attention as nominees for Best Supporting Actress. This week's profiled performance marks the 9th Best Supporting Actress nomination to emerge from a film directed by Woody Allen. (Of course, Allen's still a long way behind William Wyler's longer standing record of 12 nominated Best Supporting Actress performances; however, it does break him from the secondplace 8-pack fraternity, which also includes Elia Kazan, Martin Scorsese and Mike Nichols. For a complete -- albeit now outdated -- breakdown of the directorial stats regarding supporting actresses, see my 2007 post on William Wyler, The Patron Saint of Supporting Actressness.) What's more, this week's nominated performance just might put Allen in a whole new tie -- with Kazan alone -- for the most Best Supporting Actress winners. (But we'll just have to wait and see about that, won't we.) For now, we can be very content to consider the actual work of Woody Allen's tie-breaking 9th nominated Best Supporting Actress...
...Penélope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)
approximately 15 minutes and 15 seconds
roughly 16% of film's total running time
Arriving to the film at its midpoint, Cruz's Maria Elena adds a startling jolt of instability to the experiments in sexual chemistry undertaken by Javier Bardem, Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall (each of whom delivers an appealing, if unenlightening, performance).
Perhaps most essentially, Cruz's Maria Elena speaks what she sees to be the truth with an unabashed, unworried frankness.
Where Hall's Vicky and Johansson's Cristina struggle with "how to say" what they're thinking or feeling, Cruz's Maria Elena just spits her feelings right out there -- whether people want to hear them or not. And, throughout, Cruz handles Maria Elena's impassioned certitude with an appealing verve.
The actress's formidable beauty and charisma meld with Maria Elena's intimidating frankness and erratic instability to create an immediately palpable, instantly unforgettable character.
In this way, Cruz's Maria Elena is, like so many of Woody Allen's supporting actresses, a muse (albeit of an uncertain sort)...a dangerous crucible bringing with her the possibility of fundamental transformation for the protagonist/s.
On the one hand, Cruz's Maria Elena inspires the characters around her to make the art they are uniquely capable of creating. Here, Maria Elena even inspires Johansson's insipidly languorous Cristina to become a photographer, with Maria Elena serving has her most inspiring subject and most exacting tutor.
On the other hand, Cruz's Maria Elena challenges the characters around her to express their love and their sexuality in whatever ways make sense to them, defying conventional morality and respectability as necessary. Here, Maria Elena's more manic aspects dissolve into the radiant glow of love as she, Cristina and Juan Antonio commence an improbably harmonious -- but apparently grand -- threesome.
Indeed, the film revels in Cruz's Maria Elena as a mysteriously alchemical presence capable of transforming those around her. For it is through the crucible of her truth-telling passion that what might have been a love triangle -- complete with dangerously sharp edges -- becomes a comforting and sustaining circle of love.
This magic does not last, largely because of Johansson's inability to trust Maria Elena's transformative embrace. (The stubborn algebra of Allen's romantic calculus positions Spaniards as the variable of "passion" with Americans as the variable of "ego," with passion making the possibilities less predictable but infinitely more vast and with ego reducing possibilities to a finite set of predictable outcomes. It's a glib equation, rife with received cultural biases, yet it seals the boundaries of Allen's necessarily hermetic cinematic world.)
Yet Cristina's disavowal of their relationship -- their opus of erotic creativity -- sends Cruz's Maria Elena right over the edge, and Cruz's Maria Elena becomes once again a goddess scorned, left to rage at the stupidity and short-sightedness of these silly mortals.
Cruz's handling of Maria Elena's spiral into near psychotic fury is brilliantly human and completely hilarious. In this scene, Cruz masterfully maneuvers the Spanish and English of her dialogue to deliver laugh lines with ease while also anchoring the entire scene in Maria Elena's genuine pain. The masterstroke in this sequence derives from Cruz's loose transition among Maria Elena's rage, her vulnerability, and her deep deep pain at the loss of their most beautiful creation. In this scene, we become less scared of Cruz's Maria Elena even as we become ever more frightened for her.
It's really hard thing to do -- to shift the ways an audience feels about a character while doing basically the same things the character has been doing all along -- yet it's a transition that Cruz effects almost imperceptibly.
Penélope Cruz's performance as the "force of nature" Maria Elena is heartbreaking, hilarious and (most astonishingly, given how thinly the character is written) legibly human. Like most of Woody Allen's greatest actresses at the edges, Cruz takes the broad strokes of her character as written and provides startlingly humorous, humane texture. It's a great test for any actress -- to make one of Allen's plot device ladies real -- and, here, Penélope Cruz passes that test...masterfully, bilingually, beautifully.
Now if only Woody Allen could return the serve...