Spanish film director Pedro Almodovar (born 1949) was a leader of New Spanish Cinema in the post-Franco era. Known for films such as Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Almodovar was praised for his insightful depiction of women. After a creative downturn in the 1990s, a mature Almodo var emerged at the end of the decade and into the 2000s, with films like All About My Mother.
Almodovar was born on September 25, 1949 (some sources say 1951), in Calzada de Calatrava, La Mancha, Spain. This is a small village in a remote part of Spain. Almodovar moved with his family to Extremadura, Spain, when he was eight. There, his father ran a local gas station and made wine at home. The family included his mother, Francisca Caballero, two sisters, and one brother.
Almodovar showed promise as a writer from an early age. When he was about ten years old, he won a prize for an essay he wrote about the immaculate conception. Almodovar had a very intensely Roman Catholic upbringing, which he wanted to escape.
Moved to Madrid
The day after Almodovar finished high school in 1968, he moved to Madrid, Spain. Because could not afford college, he supported himself by holding a number of odd jobs. He sold books and made jewelry. Eventually, he found a real job to support himself. From 1970 to 1981, Almodovar was employed by the national phone company, first as a clerk then as an administrator. Though he really did not fit in, he needed the steady income.
While Almodovar had a number of legitimate jobs, he also had a creative side. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, he wrote comic strips and articles for underground publications such as Star, Vibora, and Vibraciones. In the 1970s, he contributed to other newspapers like El Pais, Diario 16, and La Luna. For La Luna, Almodovar had a cartoon character Patti Diphusa that he did under a pseudonym. He also wrote a soft-porn novel and some X-rated comics.
Within a few years, Almodovar moved into arts and theater. He joined an avant garde theatre group, Los Golidardos, and did some acting. There he met actors and actresses who would later be stars in his films, such as Carmen Maura and Antonio Banderas.
Made Early Movies
From about 1974 through 1978, Almodovar began to experiment with films, making super-8 shorts. In 1978, he made a feature length movie in super-8, F—, F—, F—me, Tim. Later that year, he made his first feature in 16mm format, Salome.
In 1980, Almodovar made his first feature film that received commercial release. Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls on the Heap was filmed on 16mm that was blown up to 35mm for release. It was funded by friends and made for about $60,000. The story focused on women from northern Spain who were in the big city. As with many of his most popular films, Pepi, Luci, Bom featured a colorful style and many characters that lived on the fringes of society.
Emerged as Leader of New Spanish Cinema
In the early 1980s, Almodovar began making low budget feature films that were supported by government funds and other producers' money. In 1981, he directed his first feature, Labyrinth of Passion, for which he also he also composed and performed the score. This complex movie about love was Almodovar's first starring Banderas, who would become a film star in America in the 1990s.
Almodovar began getting some early international notice with his third feature, Dark Habits (1983). This was his first feature that was popular outside of Spain. The plot attacked the hypocrisy of the Roman Catholic Church in black comic fashion. The story focused on nuns who put on fake miracles to fund their cocaine and heroin habits.
In 1984, Almodovar had his first international hit, What Have I Done to Deserve This? This was another black comedy/satire-type movie about a dysfunctional family. Slightly based on his own past, the story had such characters and plot strands as a cleaning woman with an addition to speed and a Madrid housewife who sells her son to a homosexual dentist. The housewife also kills her husband and makes soup with his remains that she serves to the police.
As Almodovar continued to make such films, he was recognized as the leader of New Spanish Cinema and the head of La Movida (The Movement), the post-Franco Spanish pop culture scene. General Francisco Franco had been the fascist dictator of Spain for three and a half decades before his death in 1975. While much of Almodovar's work was a reaction against the repressive culture of Franco, he ignored the dictator's existence in his films. Almodovar had been influenced by American directors like Billy Wilde and Preston Sturges, who had done irreverent comedies decades earlier.
Though Almodovar was gay, he did not think of himself as a gay filmmaker. Many of his films concerned universal passions and concerns and featured women at their center. He was often praised for his insightful depiction of women. While Almodovar used a narrative structure that appealed to American audiences, his films were permissive and irreverent, international and democratic. They had mainstream appeal, despite their sometimes disturbing use of satire.
In 1985, Almodovar formed his first production company, El Deseo, with brother Agustin. The following year he directed Matador, which had at its center two characters for whom killing equals sex. Retired bullfighting star Diego and Maria, a lawyer, are linked because of their shared desire. This film bucks many conventions and showed how Almodovar's movies are full of interesting details.
Almodovar directed his first big budget film in 1987, Law of Desire. This marked the first time Almodovar produced his own movie, which he would do many times in the future, but the film still received much state money. Law of Desire was a love story with a triangle of homosexual and transsexual love at its center, again starring Banderas. Almodovar was criticized for depicting unprotected gay sex in the movie.
Had American Hit with Women on the Verge
One of biggest hits of Almodovar's career came in 1988 with Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Starring Maura and Banderas, the farce was more conservative than his previous movies but attracted a wider audience. The plot focused on the lives of out-of-control, lonely, abandoned women in a 48-hour period. Maura played Pepa, a self-important soap opera star who is dumped by her lover via answering machine. Interesting consequences come into play after she tries and fails to kill herself. The film was inspired by the one-person play The Human Voice by Jean Cocteau.
Women on the Verge was the highest grossing film in Spain in 1988 and one of the best successes in Spanish box office history. The feminist film was also the highest grossing foreign film in the United States in 1989. In the United States, it did $7 million in ticket sales and was nominated for an Academy Award as best foreign film. American critics like Vincent Canby of the New York Times praised the film. He wrote, "In Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Mr. Almodovar sets out to charm rather than shock. That he succeeds should not come as a surprise. The common denominator of all Almodovar films, even the one that winds up in an ecstatic murder-suicide pact, is their great good humor."
Almodovar was less conservative on his follow-up to Women on the Verge, 1990's Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! The plot focused on the kidnapping of a woman, a porn and horror flick actress named Marina. She is taken by Ricki, a recently released mental patient who was obsessed with her and wants her to fall in love with him. Marina is also admired by the director of her films. Tie Me Up! becomes a love story as Marina does fall for Ricki.
Tie Me Up! was rated X in the United States. Critics were also not as kind, with many regarding it as inferior to Women on the Verge. Despite this potential problem, the film attracted $4 million in box office in the United States.
In the early 1990s, Almodovar made two wacky movies that did not do nearly as well at the box office. In 1991, he did High Heels, a comic melodrama which was not particularly successful. More filmgoers were offended by Kika (1993), which featured characters dying for love. The title character was a woman who never changes her loving attitude no matter what happens to her. Some audiences were offended by a rape scene that was played for laughs. Critics were not positive in their reviews. Shawn Levy wrote in Film Comment, " Kika is so filled with coincidences, contrivances, and unforeseeable interlockings that it feels like an entire season's worth of a primetime soap opera played in two hours on a bullet train… ."
Up to this time, Almodovar's movies had been very comic in nature. But in 1995, he created The Flowers of My Secret, which seriously addressed the idea of self-revelation. While the story focused on women, specifically a romance writer whose marriage is failing, it is much less comic. The writer can no longer write romances, so she starts writing under her own name. The film grossed about $1 million in the United States.
Addressed Franco Regime
With his next major film, Almodovar achieved several firsts in his career. Live Flesh (1998) was loosely based on the novel of the same name by Ruth Rendell. This was the first time Almodovar did a film based on another's material. He also addressed the issue of Franco which had previously been taboo for him.
Live Flesh was a crime drama with elements of noir. It was not as stylized as his previous features but still had violent love, a common element of his movies. The story focused on five people linked by a murder and how it affected their lives over a number of years. Live Flesh played well in Spain, in part because it was topical about the potential of the current government.
Won Awards with All About My Mother
Almodovar retained his serious attitude for his next movie, All About My Mother (Todo Sobre Mi Madre; 1999). This was the first film in what many critics considered the mature Almodovar era. The film was a melodrama, with comedic elements, about a nurse named Manuela. Her teenage son Estaban dies when he is hit by a car, and she searches for his father, a transvestite. Her desperation and life changes form the core of the story. All About My Mother won more awards than any other of Almodovar's films, including the director's prize at the Cannes Film Festival and the best foreign language film at the Academy Awards.
The mature Almodovar continued to push his boundaries. In 2002, he wrote and directed Talk to Her (Hable Con Ella), a romantic comedy. The film was set in a hospital where two women were in a coma: Lydia, a bullfighter, and Alicia, a dancer. Both have male caretakers who become friends. For the first time in one of his films, the primary characters were men. This film received much critical praise and was nominated for a British Academy Award for best original screenplay. Almodovar was nominated for an Academy Award for best director for Talk to Her and his screenplay for the film was nominated for the writing (original screenplay) Academy Award. Almodovar walked away from the 2003 Academy Awards with the Oscar for writing (original screenplay) for Talk to Her.
As a filmmaker, Almodovar retained his own unique vision of Spanish life and the kind of characters he chose to depict, but grew past his own limits. He told Time International in 1999, "I've been making movies for the past 20 years—and, really, the same kind of movie. Sometimes I was accused of being scandalously modern, sometimes an opportunist. But now critics have realized that whatever it is I do, it is authentic. They see how close I feel to the characters in the margin. Characters at the margin of life are at the center of my movies."
Pendergast, Tom, and Sara Pendergrast, eds., International Dictionary of Films and Filmakers-2: Directors, St. James Press, 2000.
Associated Press, November 20, 2002.
Boston Globe, December 18, 1988; February 24, 1989; December 25, 2002.
Daily Telegraph, August 17, 2002; August 23, 2002.
Economist, April 1, 2000.
Film Comment, May-June 1994.
Financial Times, August 10, 2002.
Houston Chronicle, December 29, 2002.
New York Times, September 16, 1988; September 18, 1988;September 23, 1988; February 11, 1990; April 22, 1990; January 18, 1998.
Newsweek International, May 31, 1999.
Seattle Times, December 27, 2002.
Time, January 30, 1989.
Time International, December 13, 1999.
Toronto Star, January 18, 1989.
Variety, April 20, 1998.
"75th Annual Academy Awards," Oscar.com, http://www.oscar.com (March 24, 2003).