In a culture that’s passionate about action expressions like surrealism, bullfighting and flamenco it helps when your parents want you to grow up and be a star in the softer world of make believe.
Growing up in the impersonal world of a working-class high rise in a barrio of Madrid, that ever precocious child and Oscar winner for both foreign and Hollywood films–Penelope Cruz–could have had a career doing permanent waves like her mom. But thanks to pushy parents and the filmland gods, and God–she broke out.
While Spain searched for identity after half a century of fascism, young Penelope mimicked movie voices in front of a Sony Betamax that biographers say her working class parents worked hard to buy.
The future star was sent by her hairdresser mom and salesman dad to the National Conservatory, Madrid’s equivalent of Juilliard, where she studied flamenco, jazz and ballet. Her younger siblings also showed talent. Sister Monica would become a successful flamenco dancer and brother Eduardo launched a pop music career.
Fortunately Penelope didn’t need to win a national talent contest to make it to Hollywood like Jean Seberg, who crashed and burned after helping color the world of director Otto Preminger, or a manufactured second magnitude star like Susan Boyle.
She was a big fan of director Pedro Almodóvar. Some film pundits say her seeing his classic Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! at the tender age of 14 transformed her life. She stopped dancing as fast as she could and with the help of a persistent agent who believed in her, she segued into cinema.
Her first important role was as the daughter of a prostitute in Bigas Luna’s 1992 Spanish classic Jamón, Jamón. Ironically, she did dance and was not bashful about nudity. She did a hot disco encounter with a young hunk played by one Javier Bardem who was just starting his own film career. Their attraction ran in the background for over a decade and their subsequent marriage in 2010–after her much publicized relationship with Tom Cruise dissolved into, uh, friendship–made the Cruz-Bardem pair an Oscar-winning power couple who understand Hollywood’s global values but live in a world defined by modern Spanish cultural traditions.
No continental European female star crossed over to and charmed the American movie market as fast and with as much success as has Penelope Cruz. While critics have praised and panned her performances, Cruz possesses an innately Spanish quality that brings out something that only the French have words for, je ne sais quoi.
It’s akin to the movie world fascination with Antonio Banderas, who seduces the English-trained ear with the plucky turn of phrase in his heavy Spanish accent. The Penelope Cruz experience is a process. And even though she did receive four years of training in a New York acting school, she walked away without the heavy method that took some Oscar-winning Hollywood stars to the top.
At home in Spain, where World Cup-winning soccer stars are known by their nicknames like Xabi and Pepe, Cruz rates the highest compliment the Madrid and Barcelona celebrity zines can mete out. She is known proudly to millions of fans as “P” (pronounced “Pe”). No Elvis, no Frank, no first name marquee status required.
Her Spanish eyes possess the mystical effect of drawing human intuition, like a Ouija board or the classic Lacanian psychiatric mirror response. Maybe even reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s German model friend Nico singing “I’ll Be Your Mirror” with the Velvet Underground.
Vulnerable, flexible, pliant, humorous. Cruz offers and elicits these bankable filmland qualities. And her cause-related activities supporting the likes of Mother Teresa and others seem more genuine than some names one finds along Hollywood’s Walk of the Stars. She just needs to get Spain to come up with a phrase that covers je ne sais quois, so the world can watch P 3.0 up her game.