WITH WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN, an utterly anti-romantic comedy about lonely women and the war of the sexes, Almodóvar marshaled the kinds of performances from women that prompted critics to call him a women's director. Made with the Spaniard's iconoclastic blend of social satire, aesthetic kitsch, high-pitched melodrama and a cast of fun-house characters, Women brought Almodóvar an Oscar nomination for best foreign picture. Though this proved to be his breakthrough picture, bringing him fame in Hollywood, Spanish critics considered Women tame in comparison to the director's earlier shockers, and in 1990's Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! he returned with a more provocative encore.
"A raunchy peep show for highbrows," as one columnist called it, Tie Me Up! brought Almodóvar notoriety when the Motion Picture Assn. of America gave his "perverse" love story of kidnapping, bondage, drug abuse and radical passion an X rating. Outraged, he declared the rating an act of censorship and, with his U.S. distributor, Miramax Films, sued the MPAA on the grounds that the association had acted "arbitrarily and capriciously." There was also, says a Miramax spokesperson, some speculation that the contested rating reflected a bias in favor of studio films and against independents.
As evidence, Miramax screened the controversial sex scene between Antonio Banderas and Victoria Abril for a New York judge, along with a selection of erotic scenes from such R-rated films as 9 1/2 Weeks and Fatal Attraction, suggesting that Tie Me Up! was no more likely than those films to encourage depravity. In the end, the judge refused to overturn the X rating, and Tie Me Up! was released unrated.
With Women, Almodóvar had become a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and so began a mutual courtship, with the Hollywood majors vying for the remake rights to Women, which were eventually secured by Tri-Star for Jane Fonda. Madonna invited him to the set of Dick Tracy, where she said she'd love to work with him, and Billy Wilder, Almodóvar's American idol, invited him to lunch. But the subsequent experience with Tie Me Up! may have soured the director on the idea of making a film here. It certainly put him in mind of Wilder's word to the wise: Avoid Hollywood "at all costs." In a long outcry published in El País, Almodóvar described the MPAA's policies as Machiavellian.
"It seemed to me an enormous act of aggression against an author," Almodóvar says now of the X rating. "It wounded me. I still would really like to make a movie in English, but I have to be very careful about any such endeavor." Asked how he believes the R-rated erotic scene in High Heels, in which Miguel Bose fairly devours Victoria Abril, will go over in America, the director insists he's remained faithful to his original vision. "My movies are like prostitutes for strait-laced people," he says, smiling impishly. "It's that sensation of the prohibited, of sin, that makes them even more attractive in a country of conservatives like the United States."
While the director's themes may appear risque elsewhere, in Spain they earn consistent accolades. A recent special issue of the arts magazine El Europeo, for instance, commemorated Almodóvar as one of three artists whose work had most marked the decade of the '80s—the others were illustrator Mariscal, whose line drawings have sparked interest at Disney Studios, and Miguel Barcelo, a painter whose neo-abstract tableaux are fetching six-figure prices in trendy American galleries. What these three had most in common, El Europeo noted, was "the aesthetic of irony and parody."
Almodóvar agrees. "For about the last 10 years, the culture, and especially those in the vanguard—painters, singers, writers and so on—discovered that all the stereotypes were a stupendous material with which to work. And so now, as a matter of fact, the new generation of artists, most especially painters and musicians, use the entire range of stereotypical Spanish culture with enormous humor."
In High Heels, irony appears in Becky's melodramatic love songs, or boleros, which she sings with exaggerated pathos, and in a female impersonator, reminiscent of Almodóvar's early days as a punk rocker who dressed in drag-fishnet stockings and high heels de rigueur. Almodóvar may be kinky, but he is above all irreverent. His gifts for comedy, caricature and sheer grotesquerie have made his films a must for anyone interested in understanding how Spain has progressed from the machista society it was in Franco's day.
Says Carmen Corredor, chief news editor of the national affairs desk at Television Espanola, "Almodóvar is a genius, because he broke with all the strictures. He captured very well the Spanish moment, the whole transition period and the changeover to democracy. He also captured the progressive mindset, in particular what more marginal people were like." Says Diego Muñoz, film reviewer at El País: "Almodóvar uses images from the streets, not the official culture. He's a chronicler of modern times."
After What Did I Do to Deserve This? became his first hit in Spain in 1985, the Ministry of Culture offered to underwrite 50% of his subsequent adventure, Matador, a film that promised a fresh interpretation of Spain's national blood sport. In fact, Almodóvar delivered a travesty of the Spanish Eros-Thanatos obsession, lampooning the bullfight while offering a dark ode to passion. His comic spirit was cloaked in the criminal lawyer who stabs her lovers with a hatpin upon climax and in a retired matador who is also a homicidal maniac. In the end, the two lovers come together for one last tryst, killing each other simultaneously—another instance of an Almodóvarismo.
Matador was more successful elsewhere in Europe than in Spain, where the bullfighter remains an unassailable hero for many. But the sensitive portraits of men in that film prefigured the Fellini-esque Law of Desire, in which Pablo (a variation on the name Pedro), a director of popular homoerotic features, is plagued by a possessive lover (Antonio Banderas) while actually pining for another man who prefers friendship. In another of his improvisations on gender, Almodóvar has a woman play Pablo's brother, a transsexual named Tina (a variation on Agustín).
To get this straight, how is it that a gay director from the underground whose earlier work is regularly compared to art films by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, John Waters and Andy Warhol, makes low-budget features essentially feminist in nature and—in Spain of all places—triumphs at the box office? In fact, Almodóvar had to succeed in foreign countries before Spain took full notice of him. When his third film, Dark Habits, drew raves at the 1983 Venice Film Festival, Spanish critics and intellectuals started to take an interest. Then, when former New Yorker critic Pauline Kael heaped praise on Law of Desire, El País reported it as front-page news.
As Almodóvar's fame increased abroad, his stature grew at home. In Spain, where American films and television programming have a lion's share of the entertainment market — 80% in 1990 — Almodóvar is considered an international heavyweight. According to figures compiled by the Ministry of Culture, four of his films are among the 20 highest-grossing movies made in Spain since 1966, and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is the country's highest-grossing film ever, behind E.T., Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Pretty Woman and Batman.
Says Roberto Blatt, a philosopher and cultural analyst based in Madrid: "Almodóvar's success here is more the result of his acceptance abroad. He represents the new exoticism which Spaniards themselves are enamored of."
By portraying Spaniards who are at least as progressive as their counterparts in Paris or London and by holding up Madrid as a rival to cosmopolitan New York, Almodóvar makes his compatriots feel they've been put on the postmodern map. And as Almodóvar's films become increasingly streamlined, with higher production values, an international crew and greater emphasis on innovative fashion and design, the director's private evolution parallels the direction in which Spain itself is heading-away from a recent past as one of Europe's poorest countries to a capitalist economy flooded with commodities and a strong peseta. No wonder each new Almodóvar movie is a national event, drawing both popular audiences and highbrows.
The novelist Javier Marías, one of Spain's leading young intellectuals, says he goes to all of Almodóvar's films. "Everyone does, I suppose, even if it's only out of curiosity. I mean, if there's a new film by Almodóvar, you must see it, because otherwise you won't have anything to say in conversations for some months."
LIKE MANY A YOUNG MAN NEWLY ARRIVED from the provinces, Almodóvar was struck with wonder for Madrid—to him, a Labyrinth of Passions, the title of his second film—a city that he has explored as restlessly as the complex relationships that are the basis of his stories. A small-town dreamer educated by Franciscan priests, Almodóvar was 17 when he finished high school and moved to the capital in 1967, a time when Madrid night life was just catching up with the Rolling Stones and David Bowie. His initial experience as a performer came in the theater troupe Los Goliardos, and later the Almodóvar-McNamara duo appeared at the now-legendary clubs Rockola and Elijame, singing songs with lyrics such as "Suck It to Me." He also authored adult comics for alternative newspapers and shot the foto-novelas—similar to comic books, using black-and-white photos to tell a story—that primed him for his first Super-8 shorts. "I did a short called Sex Comes, Sex Goes," he remembers, "in which a boy falls in love with a lesbian and changes his sex in order to conquer her heart. But then he gets interested in men, and the lesbian feels totally offended because his very reason for having become a woman in the first place no longer applies."
Almodóvar's skill as a director was born entirely of the trial-and-error method with which he made a dozen of these amateur shorts. "I'm a popular person in the best sense," Almodóvar says. "My origins are humble and everybody knows it."
From 1979 to 1985, Almodóvar wrote a regular column in La Luna in the guise of a beautiful international porn star named Patty Diphusa. This earlier facet of Almodóvar's androgynous personality has been revived in a collected volume titled Patty Diphusa and Other Writings. A bestseller in Spain, Patty will be published this spring in the United States. Patty Diphusa's passions are "fashion, taxis, department stores, Madrid, radio, TV, all magazines and newspapers, and cafes," declares the director's alter ego, echoing the enthusiasm of a provincial who's made it in the big city.
When critic Francisco Umbral dedicates an entire chapter of his latest book to Almodóvar and calls him "a resolute postmodern," he describes not only the director's passion for Madrid—a city that was virtually created by the '60s economic boom—he also identifies the dislocation that is the common denominator between Almodóvar and millions of Madrilenos who also migrated from the country.
Under the influence of his avowed "holy trinity"— directors Buñuel, Wilder and Alfred Hitchcock — Almodóvar gorges himself on Spain's sitcoms, soap operas and even commercials and especially delights in permutations of the counterculture such as transvestite cabaret and S&M rock. He culls ideas from the weekly tabloids that write up the lifestyles of those he calls "the fauna of Madrid." Recently the director—who still lives in a central Madrid apartment—was spotted doing a little research on a Sunday afternoon downtown. "He was standing in line at the 7-Eleven," says my informant, "reading through a copy of Hola!"—a cross between the National Enquirer and People magazine.
"More than describing Madrid's serious reality," Blatt says, "Almodóvar is giving free rein to a personal fantasy of cosmopolitan life, which is a 'light' view from the vantage point of a popular character newly arrived from the countryside. His 'normal' people are always eccentric. He uses them to give an impression of realism, but they are made interesting by the fantasies of their author."
Whether Pedro Almodóvar is imitating contemporary Spanish life or reinventing it, his production company is booming. Today, when the Spanish film industry is in crisis, producing an average of only 40 features a year—down from 100 in the first half of the '80s—El Deseo has three projects already slated for 1992. The Almodóvars are producing two young Basque directors, who approached them with a a sci-fi thriller; an adaptation of Ruth Rendell's novel Live Flesh, based on a screenplay by American Don Ferguson, and Almodóvar's next feature, as yet untitled, which the director has half written. El Deseo has also bought the rights to the Paul Bowles story "The Time of Friendship" and is negotiating the rights to Jane Bowles' novel Two Serious Ladies.
IN THE PENULTIMATE week of production, High Heels has moved to a sound studio. This evening the director is shooting the scene that divulges the final surprise of High Heels: a female impersonator who plays Becky del Paramo reveals his other identity to Rebecca, confesses his love, proposes marriage and discloses a surprising truth.
When neither Victoria Abril nor Miguel Bose have quite grasped the twisted emotional tenor of the moment, Almodóvar acts out both parts. He seems equally at ease as man and woman, working the lines till his actors are ready to take over. Four hours later, the crew, actors and Almodóvar break into applause when at last they get the scene right.
"I'm very proud of the fact that throughout my career I've elicited marvelous performances from women," Almodóvar says later. "I've also elicited strong performances from men, but they've almost always been those of Antonio Banderas. So, I could cite five strong female performances in a movie and one masculine. So women win."
Perhaps because Almodóvar has always surrounded himself with women, or men dressing up as women, or impersonated one himself in the character of Patty Diphusa; perhaps because his best friend is actress and TV host Bibi Anderson — a man who became a woman — his films are considered signposts along the highway of sexual liberation as well as a celebration of women's independence. Yet you can't help but wonder just how much Almodóvar's personal fantasies, particularly of women, have to do with contemporary Spain.
"Neither the decors nor the characters nor the situations," he says of his movies, "are realistic. Nevertheless, my challenge is to make them seem totally probable." But at the same time, he insists, "a movie must be artificial. For me, a movie is the representation of something, and in such representation there is always distance and artifice."
Pilar Miro, one of Spain's rare women directors, says that although Almodóvar's women sometimes seem like caricatures, "I could recognize myself, my mother, my sister-in-law" in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. And, talking about Carmen Maura's role as a man who becomes a woman in Law of Desire, critic Santos says Almodóvar just may be portraying the "fantasies of the good Spanish housewife. He exaggerates, but, well, I think one should exaggerate a little, don't you?"
Almodóvar's women may be eccentric creatures, but they are invariably imbued with heroic qualities. "My women have this vitality," the director says, "where vitality is always stronger than the pain they may be suffering." He calls Carmen Maura's character in What Did I Do to Deserve This? his "Don Quixote of the Housewife" and says that Becky del Paramo's sacrifice for her daughter shows that "mother love will always win out." Such passion for women reflects Almodóvar's dual nature as an artist who desires men personally yet finds them less challenging in his art. "There's something in the male character that bores me," he says with a playful look.
In fact, it is an ongoing relationship with a lover he's had for years (and whose identity he chooses not to make public), Almodóvar says, that has been the basis for his exploration into the life of the couple. His close relationship to his mother, who has played cameos in several of his films, also contributes to his interest in "the triumph of the matriarchy." Does his High Heels quest for women's luz vital make him a committed feminist? "My films are absolutely in favor of woman's autonomy in every sense. However, I probably don't talk about it in purely feministic, militant terms, but rather as women living their own social hierarchy."
Almodóvar's obsession with women seems so persistent, I inquire whether, like Bibi Anderson, he has ever considered a sex change himself. "No, no," Almodóvar says emphatically. "Nonetheless, I tell you, women fascinate me as a dramatic subject, as protagonists, and I'm equally fascinated by imitations of women. Bibi is one of my best friends, but for me she's always been a woman. How can I say it? I always respect and admire these kinds of people who create not only their own personality but their own body, their own identity. I think it gives them enormous superiority. As a director, I create stories and characters, and I think that a person who changes sex is like the director of his or her own life."
And when he talks about matriarchy, is he thinking of life in Spain? "And in America! What do you have to say about Reagan's wife? Or Betty Ford? Woman is very strong, much stronger than man, and that's all over the world."
Jordan Elgrably lived in Granada and Madrid and wrote for such publications as El País, El Europeo and Vogue España, before relocating to Los Angeles, where he became the West Coast editor for the Barcelona-based magazine, Woman. This is one of several long features he wrote for the Los Angeles Times in the '90s.