In the footsteps of golden age comedy greats

Antonio Banderas, Pedro Almodovar and Penelope Cruz
Antonio Banderas, Pedro Almodovar and Penelope Cruz
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Like him or loathe him, Pedro Almodovar is a genuine auteur in the old tradition. Film Critic Tony Earnshaw explores his art to present the facts in the case of Mr Almodovar.

He’s a self-confessed movie buff who sold bric-a-brac on a market stall to fund his early films. Now, 40 years later, he commands attention for the uniqueness of his style and for the breakaway nature of his highly unusual movies.

But look closer at those movies and Pedro Almodóvar’s influences become apparent. This is a man who immersed himself in movies, who was entranced by the screwball comedies of Howard Hawks, Billy Wilder and Ernst Lubitsch, who adored 40s icons like Katharine Hepburn and Carole Lombard.

Seven decades on, aspects of those glorious old pictures crop up in Almodóvar’s oeuvre. His latest – and his 20th feature – is I’m So Excited! It’s a screwball comedy cloaked in high camp – Hawks meets Almodóvar at 37,000 feet. Almodóvar is a student of cinema in that he knows precisely what he wants to achieve on the screen. He also has an encyclopaedic knowledge of his preferred genre in terms of what works, why, and with whom.

Within comedy, he says, the style that teaches filmmakers about rhythm is that crazy American invention known as screwball. As evidence he cites classics such as George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story, Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby, Billy Wilder’s Ninotchka, Preston Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story and Sullivan’s Travels, and To Be or Not To Be from Ernst Lubitsch, “and any comedy where the comeback is delivered by Cary Grant, Carole Lombard or Katharine Hepburn”. He is reluctant to add Marilyn Monroe to that particular fraternity, observing that “Marilyn is a goddess of the genre but she had her own rhythm, a lethal rhythm”.

The 63-year-old Spaniard adds: “Seductresses need that rhythm in order to seduce. Marlene Dietrich, even when directed by Lubitsch, never managed to talk quickly. They are the exceptions. Beautiful stars, male or female, aren’t usually good comic actors.

“Let’s add Sophia Loren and Penélope Cruz to the list of exceptions. Both are gorgeous and they can also talk at breakneck speed, but of course one passes as a Neapolitan and the other is from Alcobendas. But, for example, Claudette Colbert can talk a blue streak, and Ginger Rogers and also Katharine Hepburn, who is very beautiful to contemporary eyes but was odd for the canons of the time.”

If he looks back to his icons he looks forward to his own methods of filmmaking. A script, he insists, “isn’t finished until the film has opened”. Almodóvar rehearses a script as if it was a play. Coincidentally, both Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, his last proper comedy made 25 years ago, and I’m So Excited! seem like plays, in that the action in both takes place mainly on one set. “I rehearse them like plays, but I don’t film them like plays,” he says. “In fact, I’ve never directed a play; I don’t know what it’s like. [My films are] very oral comedies, the action lies basically in the words and the characters’ openness.”

He reveals that despite the spontaneity typical of the genre, the comedies he’s made to date – and I’m So Excited! is no exception – are rehearsed exhaustively during pre-production and afterwards during shooting. “Spontaneity is always the product of rehearsal,” he says.

Timing. Rapid-fire dialogue. Rehearsals. All of them sit intimately in Almodóvar’s toolbox. They are crucial, he says, “Otherwise, even though the situations are funny, and the actors excellent, the film becomes long and so do the scenes. I don’t want to point the finger, but one example of this problem is Bridesmaids.

“The director lets the actresses improvise until they come up with the right joke.You shouldn’t improvise in front of the camera but long beforehand. To crown it all, both the editor and the director are in love with the actresses and the material shot.” He claims the result is an attractive film, but one that lasts 125 minutes. It is saved because Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy are wonderful comedians.

His other golden rule concerns the length of his movies. Like Alfred Hitchcock, Almodóvar believes that comedies shouldn’t last more than an hour and a half.

“You just have to see how the ones we like most usually last between 75 and 90 minutes,” he says. And he’s probably right.

Penélope Cruz and Antonio Banderas – both Almodóvar regulars – crop up in I’m So Excited! And for once they share a scene. These are the performers he has turned to for his particular brand of lightness and sexuality. Is it an exclusive European thing? Can the modern American stars match them? Almodóvar has an opinion on that, too.

“The rhythm depends on the actors and the editing,” he says, warming to a favourite theme. “There are schools that favour this rhythm and schools that are an attack against it. Among the former, it helps to have a lot of experience in sub-products (vampires, zombies, diabolical possessions, aliens, robots, espionage, etc.) or to come from cabaret.

“To me Saturday Night Live seems like cabaret, the cradle for decades of the best American comics. The Actor’s Studio, however, with all the respect and admiration it deserves, seems just the opposite to me. Brando, a comedy actor? No.

“And he tried it. He even sang and danced in Guys and Dolls, stiff as a board, but Brando was too self-aware. I don’t know if Montgomery Clift ever actually tried it but I can’t imagine him. Or James Dean. Or Daniel Day-Lewis.

“I don’t debate his greatness but no matter how thin he is, Daniel Day-Lewis can’t manage to give the slightest sensation of lightness.

“Marilyn Monroe is still the exception. Adopted by the Strasbergs, she managed to overcome the weight of the Method.”

Almodovar’s life in films

Pedro Almodovar, the most internationally successful Spanish filmmaker since Luis Bunuel, was born in 1949 in Calzada de Calatrava in the Spanish region of La Mancha.

He went to Madrid in 1968, and made a living by selling used items in a flea-market.

From 1972 to 1978, he made short films with the help of friends.

In 1987, he and his brother Agustín set up their own production company.

Among his most well-known films are Law of Desire (1987) Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), High Heels (1991), All About 
My Mother (1999), Talk to Her (2002) and Bad Education (2004).