Moviedom’s biggest annual night is upon us with the 33rd Academy Awards being handed out this Sunday. And for years Spanish movies have punched well above its weight in the world (for example, with past Oscar winners including Pedro Almodóvar, Antonio Banderas, Javier Bardem, and Penélope Cruz).
More than a few actors, directors, and musicians have also become international household names over the years, and I thought I’d take this opportunity to talk about the best and the brightest. The envelopes, please!
Now 69, the premier avatar of post-Franco Spain’s cultural blossoming in the 1980s, the 19-year-, 21-movie oeuvre of this prolific director from La Mancha (pictured above with Rossy de Palma and Penélope Cruz) has ranged from the wild, wacky comedies of his youth (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown was a game-changer for me personally) to searing dramas and even pyschological horror, with women usually front and centre as his muses, as well as boundary-pushing themes like homosexuality (Almodóvar himself is gay), transsexuality, incest, sacriligiousness, and more. In addition to being highly awarded in his home country (for example, with nine Goya Awards, Spain’s Oscars), he’s been celebrated abroad more than any other Spanish director, with wide distribution of his films along with two Academy Awards (best Foreign-Language Film for All About My Mother and Best Original Screenplay for Talk to Her), two Golden Globes, five British Academy Film Awards, six European Film Awards, and four prizes at the Cannes Film Festival. His latest, Dolor y Gloria (Pain and Glory), with Antonio Banderas and Penélope Casas, is due out in March.
Like several other thespians on this list, the Málaga-born 58-year-old (whose real name is José Antonio Domínguez Bandera) came to prominence thanks to appearances in various Almodóvar films such as Women on the Verge…, Labyrinth of Passion, Law of Desire, Matador, and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! He went on to make it big in Hollywood in films such as Evita, Interview With the Vampire, Philadelphia, the Shrek movies, and Zorro, and has amassed a body of 96 films; in his latest, he plays the lead in Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory (out next month), and The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle is due out in 2020.
Born in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria and about to turn 50, Bardem has appeared in more than 40 films in since 1990 – not just Spanish movies like Biutiful, Carne Trémula (Live Flesh, directed by Almodóvar), Mar Adentro (The Sea Inside), Loving Pablo, Tacones Lejanos (High Heels, also Almodóvar), and Todos lo Saben (Everybody Knows, his most recent film, in which he stars with wife Penélope Casas, below), but also plenty of Hollywood productions, most notably Before Night Falls, Eat Pray Love, No Country for Old Men (for which he received an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor), Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Skyfall, and Vicky Cristy Barcelona. He and Casas are without a doubt Spain’s if not Europe’s top film power couple.
One of world cinema’s greatest and most provocative auteurs, this filmmaker from a small town in Aragón (1900-1983) started in the silent era as part of the avant-garde surrealist movement in Paris, with a 1929 short film of surreal, free-flow, occasionally disturbing imagery which became perhaps the most famous ever: Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog). From there, in a career that continued till 1977, Buñuel produced some 32 more films in France, Spain, the United States, and Mexico in a variety of genres – melodrama, costume drama, comedy, romance, documentary, crime, fantasy, adventure, even western. Notable classics included L’Âge d’Or (The Golden Age), Belle de Jour, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (his last), Robinson Crusoe, Susana (The Devil and the Flesh), That Obscure Object of Desire, Tristana, and Viridiana.
Born and passed away in Barcelona, the late, great soprano (1933-2018) was one of the foremost opera divas of the 20th century, appearing in most of the great classics of Italian bel canto during her career (though it was marred in 2015 by a conviction in Spain for tax evasion); her many international awards included three classical-music Grammys, and her voice was noted for its power, purity, and precise control/technique. In later years Caballé devoted herself to quite a bit of charity work, and served as among other things as an UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, and she became famous beyond the opera world for Barcelona, a rousing duet with Freddy Mercury given prominent play at the 1992 Olympics.
Another Catalan classical superstar, tenor Josep Maria Carreras i Coll is still going strong at age 72 in a monumental career that began in 1954 and has included more than 60 roles. He also became famous to the world at large as one of the Three Tenors with Luciano Pavarotti and Plácido Domingo (below), apart from his own career touring and recording with them from 1990 to 2003, and also made other forays beyond opera, for example into zarzuela (Spanish operetta) and Broadway musicals (for example making full-length recordings of West Side Story and South Pacific with Kiri Te Kanawa).
Those of a certain age in the USA and other English-speaking countries may remember this bubbly sexpot persona with her silly catchphrase “cuchi cuchi!” and her ubiquitous appearances in the late 1960s and 1970s in Las Vegas, on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and sitcoms such as Laugh-In, Fantasy Island, and The Love Boat. But María del Rosario Pilar Martínez Molina Baeza, born in Murcia in 1951 (though a conflict in documents suggests it might’ve actually been 1941), is actually a classically trained guitarist – under the legendary Andrés Segovia (see below). And furthermore, in the decades since Charo (long a U.S. citizen) has been recording and performing as one of the world’s most accomplished flamenco guitarists (spiced up with occasional TV appearances on the likes of Dancing With the Stars).
Born in the Madrid community town of Alcobendas in 1974, Cruz started acting at age 15, first in a video for the pop group Mecano, then two years later her film debut in the comedy Jamón Jamón (Ham, Ham, also one of the very first for her now husband Javier Bardem), followed by a number of other Spanish movies in the 1990s, including Belle Époque in 1992, a comedy-drama which won not only a Goya for Best Film but also an Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film. Then beginning in the early 2000s Cruz began to break out in Hollywood, in movies such as All the Pretty Horses, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, two Sex and the City movies, Vanilla Sky, Vicky Cristy Barcelona (Best Supporting Actress Oscar), and Woman on Top. She has since remained active in Spanish cinema, as well, in movies like Todos lo Saben (Everybody Knows) and especially a lot of Almodóvar: Amantes Pasajeros (I’m So Excited), Carne Trémula (Live Flesh), Todo Sobre Mi Madre (All About My Mother), Volver (Going Back), and the about-to-be-released Dolor y Gloria (Pain and Glory). She’s also been very involved in volunteer and charity work, as well as a spokesmodel for L’Oreal, Ralph Lauren, and the Spanish clothing line Mango.
This 78-year-old Madrid native is probably the most internationally famous Spanish opera singer of all, yet José Plácido Domingo Embil actually launched his singing career in Mexico, to which his family moved in 1949 to start a zarzuela (Spanish operetta) company, eventually signing on as a tenor at the Mexico National Opera (he later also took on baritone roles) and by the early 1960s graduating to leading roles not just in Mexico but also the United States and even Israel. Over the course of his illustrious career Domingo has not only sung at virtually every prestigious opera house and festival in the world, but also directed opera productions and even symphony orchestras. And like the other opera greats on this list, no small part of his celebrity has been due to his televised appearances and crossover work – not just as one of the aforementioned Three Tenors but also branching out into pop and other genres, both alone and with artists including Charles Aznavour, Tony Bennett, Michael Bolton, John Denver, Diana Ross, and Dionne Warwick. He’s also become involved in humanitarian and culture-promotion causes, and his many awards include nine Grammys and five Latin Grammys.
Born in Madrid and with residences in Miami, the Dominican Republic, and Málaga, this now 75-year-old crooner launched his impressive career by winning Alicante‘s Benidorm International Song Festival in 1968 and rapidly becoming one of Spain’s top pop singers. In 1979, Julio José Iglesias de la Cueva moved to Miami and started singing in multiple languages including English, Italian, French, Portuguese, and German – vastly expanding his global appeal and name recognition. Eventually Iglesias added to his repertoire duets with other famous artists including Paul Anka, Willy Nelson, Diana Ross, and Stevie Wonder. With 300 million copies of 80 albums sold, this musical powerhouse holds a number of records, including having recorded songs in the most languages (14); being the world’s topselling Latin as well as continental European artist; and one of the top ten record sellers in music history. His myriad awards include seven Grammys (including the first Lifetime Achievement Award for a Latin Artist).
Alicia de Larrocha
Like Montserrat Caballé born and died in Barcelona (1923-2009), Spain’s greatest classical pianist was less than five feet tall but was an outsize presence in the pantheon of the 20th century’s greatest classical musicians. She was magisterial in all the greats – Beethoven, Brahms, Liszt, Mozart, Rachmaninoff, and others – but was best known for her championship and popularisation of Spanish composers such as Isaac Albéniz, Manuel de Falla, Enrique Granados, Federico Mompou, and Antonio Soler. De Laroccha’s many awards during her astonishly long career – 76 years – included three Grammys.
Descended from aristocracy as well as a very-early-20th-century Spanish prime minister, Antonio Maura, this now 73-year-old started out as a cabaret singer in the 1960s and began her film career in 1970, coming into more prominence in the 1980s especially as the muse of Pedro Almodóvar in movies such as Entre Tinieblas (Dark Habits), Ley del Deseo (Law of Desire), Matador, Qué He Hecho Yo Para Merecer Esto? (What Have I Done to Deserve This?), and of course Women on the Verge…, which introduced her to a wider global audience. Maura’s 85 movies have included a number of genres, both comedic and dramatic, yielding her four Goya Awards; her most recent role is a supporting one in the just released romantic comedy Gente Que Viene y Bah (People Come and…Gaah!).
Together with Almodóvar and Buñuel, this 87-year-old from the Aragonese city of Huesca completes the triad of Spain’s best-known cinema directors. Starting with short documentaries in 1955, Saura’s first full-length film, Los Golfos (The Delinquents) premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1960, and since then he’s amassed a body of 47 works, the most notable among them Cría Cuervos (Raise Ravens, released in the USA as Cria!), Deprisa, Deprisa (Faster, Faster), Goya en Bordeaux, Mamá Cumple 100 Años (Mom Turns One Hundred, nominated for the Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar in 1980), Tango (also Oscar nominated, in 1999), and his Flamenco Trilogy: Bodas de Sangre (Blood Weddings), Carmen (Oscar nominated in 1984), and El Amor Brujo (Bewitched Love). In addition to the aforementioned Oscar nominations, Saura has thus far received two Goyas and numerous other film-festival and other awards around the world.
Whether it’s flamenco or classical, Spaniards are the world’s most accomplished and famous guitarists, and this Jaén-born virtuoso (1893-1987) indubitably tops the list on both counts, celebrated for his range, personality, expressiveness, phrasing, and style. From his first public performance in 1909, he developed a wide repertoire of not only maestros like Bach but of course especially the great Spanish composers such as Albéniz, de Falla, Granados, and Joaquín Rodrigo (who even dedicated his Fantasía Para un Gentilhombre to Segovia), along with others such as the great Brazilian composer Heitor Villa Lobos. He also taught many other famous classical guitarists, including Julian Bream, Christopher Parkening, and John Williams, and in 1981 the legendary classical guitarist was created a marquis by King Juan Carlos I. His accolades are too numerous to mention, but include eight Grammy nominations and one win, in 1986 for lifetime achievement (fun fact: there’s even an asteroid named after him, 3822 Segovia).
This comedic ventriloquist (1896-1999) born Wenceslao Moreno in a small Salamanca town is perhaps the most “retro” on this list – again, those of “a certain age” might remember his frequent appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, later The Muppet Show, and other TV variety shows, along with appearances in Las Vegas. He was actually a teenage bullfighter but after an injury started performing ventriloquism combined with juggling and plate-spinning, with characters including “Johnny”, drawn on the back of his hand, and “Pedro”, a disembodied head in a box famous for his catchphrase “s’awright!”). Señor Wences received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the US National Comedy Hall of Fame in 1996.
And speaking of the Academy Awards, if you’re flying with Iberia soon, take note of these movies, nominated for various categories, available on its inflight entertainment system: If Beale Street Could Talk, Black Panther, BlaKkKlansman, Bohemian Rhapsody, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Cold War, At Eternity’s Gate, The Favorite, Green Book, Roma, A Star Is Born, Vice, and The Wife.