The stardom of Penélope Cruz can be dated precisely as beginning in 1992 with the release of Jamón jamón (Bigas Luna, 1992) and Belle epoque (Fernando Trueba, 1992). The two films side by side encapsulate two facets of her star image; on the one hand, Cruz’s position as what Eugenia de la Torriente describes as the ‘mito erótico nacional’ [‘national erotic myth’] (2004: 38) as Silvia in Jamón jamón, and on the other, the virginal ideal in the character of Luz in Belle epoque. But they also caused her to debut on the national stage in two films that either consciously questioned and parodied Spanish identities or conflated contemporary Spain with Spain’s past; Cruz’s emergence at a time when Spanish identity was openly being discussed and Spain was actively (and publicly) trying to redefine itself has shaped the form and content of her stardom, the ways in which she interacts with the national, and the image of Spanishness that she represents as an end result. From the outset of her career, Penélope Cruz has also been constructed as a star who specifically ‘belongs’ to Spain: a number of Spanish female stars have emerged in the last twenty years but none are so possessively claimed as she. Cruz is commonly referred to in the Spanish press as ‘nuestra Penélope’ [‘our Penélope’] and her star image is presented as signifying innate aspects of Spanish womanhood, and she is seen as embodying Spain, or ‘España hecha carne’ [‘Spain made flesh’] in the words of director Bigas Luna (Trashorras 1999: 132).
Peter Evans notes how many daughters she has played onscreen and describes her as ‘la “niña”, es decir, la de todos los espectadores, la de toda España, a la que se refieren a menudo como “nuestra Penélope”’ [‘the little girl, that is to say, that of all the spectators, that of all of Spain, she who they refer to at least as “our Penélope”’] (2004: 54-55). This is further emphasised by the roles that are located within a specifically Spanish context: the arrival of the Second Republic in Belle epoque; incarcerated as a ‘political subversive’ during the last years of the dictatorship in Entre rojas (Azucena Rodríguez, 1995); a ‘gran estrella’ recalling Imperio Argentina in La niña de tus ojos / The Girl of Your Dreams (Fernando Trueba, 1998); Goya’s model for ‘La maja vestida’ and ‘La maja desnuda’ in Volavérunt (Bigas Luna, 1999); as well as her short role in the prologue (set during the ‘state of exception’ in 1970) of Carne trémula / Live Flesh (Pedro Almodóvar, 1997). These films position Cruz and her star image within narratives that have cultural and historical significance to Spain and therefore embed her within the cultural imaginary: ‘a nation is nothing without the stories it tells itself about itself’ (Triana-Toribio 2003: 6). This post examines the representation of Penélope Cruz as embodying Spain, specifically in the film La niña de tus ojos, the film for which she won her first Goya for Best Actress in 1999.
Barry Jordan argues that the ‘new’ generation that emerged in Spanish cinema of the 1990s appeared ‘not to be burdened by the weight of the past or the need to settle any political or ideological scores’ (2000: 75) and similarly Rob Stone says of Penélope Cruz that ‘born in Madrid in 1974 and therefore wholly lacking in experience of the dictatorship, Cruz is typical of a generation that grew up in a Spain which placed no limits on their aspirations’ (2001: 199). This ‘typicality’ is key in terms of stardom, as the star is an amalgamation of representation and identification (Hayward 2006: 383), ‘like us’ but not ‘like us’, or as Laura Mulvey argues ‘they act out a complex process of likeness and difference (the glamorous impersonates the ordinary)’ ( 1989: 18). This is heightened in national stardom, since as Bruce Babington argues, what makes an indigenous star so fascinating to a domestic viewer is how the star ‘relates intimately to a specific national, class, political and cultural environment’ (2001: 22). Cruz’s Spanish films consistently position her as being ‘of the people’, as being a normal working woman, at the same time as they emphasise her specialness: she is held up as representative of Spanish women but in so doing she is also (contradictorily) being marked out as special, suggesting that her star image is not straightforwardly reflective of Spanish women but is also a projection of what Spanish women would like to be (or what someone thinks Spanish women should be like). Penélope Cruz may have grown up after the dictatorship, however, her relative youth does not preclude her star image from being used in representations of Spain’s historical and political past, or being used to embody or act out discourses that relate to that past. Cruz’s body, and the femininities that she has performed, have been an integral part of the creation of her star image in Spain, and the onscreen representations of her body interact with concepts of Spanishness and gender. Arguably La niña de tus ojos is the film in which Cruz’s body and performance are most obviously used to enact a visual representation of feminine Spanishness.
La niña de tus ojos takes place in 1938. The outbreak of Civil War in Spain in 1936 seriously damaged the Spanish film industry with the result that a number of directors and stars started to look outside of Spain for work. An opportunity presented itself in the form of the Nazi desire for their cinema to penetrate the Latin American market –Joseph Goebbels had the idea of co-productions of ‘españoladas’ (Spanish popular musicals) using the German UFA studios as the base and filming double versions of the films in Spanish and German. This is the background for La niña de tus ojos, where a Spanish director and his cast arrive to make a film in Berlin, only to find that in fleeing the Civil War they have put themselves in the midst of Nazism. The team try to be apolitical and each has different reasons for agreeing to participate (only one of them is openly Francoist). For example, Cruz’s character, Macarena Granada, is there because the producer has promised to try and get her anarchist father out of jail, a narrative strand that, in the absence of an actual father onscreen, again positions Cruz as a daughter of Spain (although given the political views of her anarchist father, and the era that the film is set in, in this instance she cannot be construed as a daughter for all of Spain). The film’s director, Fernando Trueba, argues that the characters are put into the position of ‘involuntary heroes’ when the developing situation forces them to take a stand.
With the Spaniards being abroad, the film sets up a complex negotiation of projections and reflections of nationness from various perspectives. From the outset, the Spanish experience difficulties with the German studio’s interpretation of what Spanishness is (the Spanish set designer (Santiago Segura) despairs when he sees the ‘Spanish village’ set, complete with Mosque in the background - Spain’s Moorish history is emphasised in the German designs (hence the Mosque and a proliferation of crescent moons)), culminating in some very Aryan-looking extras who, on the orders of Goebbels, are replaced with ‘prisoners of war’ (who look more ‘Spanish’). At the same time, the Spanish themselves are creating a heightened version of Spanishness to put before the camera, as demonstrated in the sequence where Macarena sings ‘Los piconeros’, a song that has associations with the female star of 1930s Spanish cinema, Imperio Argentina. [Most of the sequence can be seen in this youtube clip]
La niña de tus ojos recalls the career of Imperio Argentina and the films that she made in Germany with Florián Rey, specifically Carmen, la de Triana (1938) in which she sang ‘Los piconeros’ (the same song that we see Macarena sing). The first ‘gran estrella’ of Spanish cinema (Vizcaino Casas 2000: 170), in the 1930s Imperio Argentina ‘was considered the most representative of Spanish (feminine) ideals’ (Triana-Toribio 2003: 7). While director Fernando Trueba has stressed that the film was inspired by, but not based on, Imperio Argentina’s time in Berlin, there are a number of undeniable similarities between the narratives depicted. However, there are also important differences because while Rey and Argentina were supporters of Franco and their co-operation with the Nazis in the making of the German productions remained a taint on their careers, Macarena starts the film as an apolitical figure and later works against the Nazis (she risks her life and career (and those of her fellow cast and crew) to save a Russian Jewish prisoner, who is being used as an extra on the film, from the concentration camp and execution). Ann Davies argues that Trueba’s film effectively rewrites history and redeems the image of an earlier star so as to circumvent the problem of the protagonist being constructed as an exotic Spanish other by the Nazis (2005). This is an example of what Gledhill means when she says that star images can reconcile, mask, or expose ideological contradictions (1991: xiv); here the star image of Penélope Cruz both masks and reconciles those aspects of Argentina’s image that are problematic in a contemporary context. As is also the case with the earlier Trueba-Cruz collaboration, Belle epoque, the era in which the film has been made has shaped the vision of the past that is onscreen.
The ‘Los piconeros’ sequence is also a further illustration of the allegorical status of the bodies of female stars within national cinemas (Vincendeau 2000: 36); in this sequence Cruz / Macarena is Spain, dancing flamenco, dressed in shades of red, orange and gold with flowers in her glossy dark hair, and furthermore specifically invoking the spirit of the folklórica. Nuria Triana-Toribio defines the folklórica as ‘a woman singer, and sometimes dancer, who performs in a style inspired by Andalusian rural music’ (2003: 179). One of the most famous folklóricas was Imperio Argentina and the films in which these particular women / stars appeared were sometimes known as españoladas (the genre the Nazis wished to exploit). Cruz’s looks had already been viewed as relating to the stars of the folklórica at around the time of Jamón jamón (Bigas Luna has revealed that one of his producers objected to his casting Cruz because he thought that she looked ‘too Spanish’ and ‘demasiado folklórica’ (Angulo Barturen 2007: 56-7)), and her costume in this sequence also references the traditional folklórica attire, also known as Andalusian or ‘gypsy dress’: the flounced dress and tall hair comb, although here, instead of the usual Spanish shawl with fringes, there is simply fringing on the dress itself and the traditional fan is absent. [As an aside, it is worth noting that this sequence has become so iconic within Spanish cinema that images of Cruz in this scene have been used as the cover image for at least four books on Spanish cinema]. The emphasis on symbols of Spanishness in this sequence is suggestive of masquerade, which is usually connected to excessive performances of femininity (Riviere  1986) whereby femininity is ‘sustained by its accoutrements’ (Doane 1991: 34), but which Ann Davies ties to the national by suggesting that stereotypical images of Spain act as ‘a sort of masquerade’ (2004: 6) of nationness. That this is a ‘production’ of Spanishness that may not be genuine is signalled via Macarena’s miming, and miming to music that she describes as being ‘ni español ni nada’ [‘not Spanish nor anything’].
They are also filming in Germany and the non-Spanish extras have to be taught how to clap with the correct rhythm, and several scenes later we see Macarena do the routine again, with the same costumes and music, but miming to German. While the genuineness of the national identity put on display may be called in to question by certain aspects of the sequence, arguably authenticity is also indicated via the very specific type of Spanishness that is being performed. As her surname indicates, Macarena Granada is of the southern region of Spain where the film within the film is set and she possesses the appropriate Andalusian accent, which is not the natural accent of the madrileña Penélope Cruz. Fernando Trueba had needed convincing of Cruz’s suitability and says that:
buscaba a una actriz que tenía que ser como ella pero en andaluza, y Penélope insistía en que podía hacer el acento y que su abuela era andaluza, pero yo temía que no se viera al personaje, sino a una actriz imitando un acento. Hasta que me convenció. (Casanova 2004: 128).
[I was looking for an actress who had to be like her but Andalusian, and Penélope insisted that she could do the accent and that her grandmother was Andalusian, but I was worried that one would not see the character, but an actress imitating an accent. Until she convinced me.] -my translationAlthough Ann Davies posits that the masquerade of nationness is ‘a “pretence” of Spanishness that in many ways becomes indistinguishable from whatever the real thing might be’ (2004: 6) (following Riviere’s reading of ‘genuine womanliness’ and ‘masquerade’ ( 1986: 38)), in Cruz’s case the associations that she already has with the national (accumulated from the likes of Jamón jamón and Belle epoque) mean that when she participates in a performance of Spanishness (i.e. attention is drawn to Spanishness as a performance, as in the ‘Los piconeros’ sequence), the ‘performance’ does not detract from a belief that there is a ‘genuine’ Spanishness behind the performance as well (because of how ingrained Spanishness is in Cruz’s star image); Fernando Trueba’s worry about casting a madrileña as an andaluza stems from a concern that the masquerade would be visible (we would just see an actress imitating an accent) but in the end he was convinced by Cruz, arguably because her Spanishness is taken as genuine irrespective of the regional inflection performed. At the same time, the casting of Cruz not only emphasises that a particular type of Spanishness is being performed within the film (because her own regional identity does not match that of Macarena) but also highlights her uniqueness (her ‘star monopoly’ (McDonald 2000: 12)) within the Spanish star system: Trueba may have looked for someone ‘like her’ (but Andalusian), but he was unable to find anyone else like Penélope Cruz.
Time and again the film positions her not only as embodying Spanish womanhood (for example, when Goebbels meets Macarena at the Embassy reception he whispers ‘España, España’, and during his various ‘seductions’ / assaults she is positioned as ‘a Spanish woman’ when she says that she doesn’t know what German women are like but Spanish women take things slower, and also in his dislike of Macarena speaking German (‘It’s more exciting when I can’t understand you’)) but Cruz and Macarena are also representing a specifically Spanish brand of female stardom. As well as the references to Imperio Argentina, the film makes a number of reflections on the lives of actors and the construction of stars, and Macarena’s positioning as the ‘Princesa del cine español’ of the late 1930s is reinforced by the fact that she is played by Penélope Cruz, the ‘Princess’ of contemporary Spanish cinema. For example, although it is an ensemble film, Fernando Trueba acknowledges that Cruz is the heart of the film (Mora 1998) and she is presented as ‘the Star’ of the cast in the way that her character stands out by wearing more vibrant colours and richer fabrics than the others.
Bruce Babington argues of indigenous stars that:
[They] give things to home audiences that Hollywood luminaries cannot – reflections on the known and close at hand, typologies of the contingent, intimate dramatisations of local myths and realities […] (2001: 10)
Penélope Cruz’s engagement with Spanish national narratives and, in this specific example, her interaction with Spanish cinematic history, is revealing of how her own star image is constructed and how she is seen by the Spanish film industry. No other Spanish actress from the last twenty years has been quite so possessively claimed by the Spanish public as she has. Perhaps this is partly because of the timing of her arrival in the public consciousness, but arguably it is also because her stardom started so young that Spanish audiences feel that they have seen her grow up onscreen: Bigas Luna, who has directed Cruz twice so far, says that ‘para mí ha pasado de ser aquella Niña Jamón a la Gran Maja Española, hermosísima, España hecha carne’ [‘for me she has passed from being the little ham girl to the Great Spanish Mistress, beautifully, Spain made flesh’] (Trashorras 1999: 132). That is what certain stars are in a national stardom context –their country made flesh– and it is something that Penélope Cruz perceptibly embodies.
[This post combines a paper that I gave at a conference (Gender and National Identity in Film and Television: A Postgraduate One-Day Conference) at UEA in 2006, with parts of the La niña de tus ojos sections from the Penélope Cruz chapter of my PhD thesis.]
References and Further Reading:
Angulo Barturen, J. (2007) –El Poderoso Influjo de “Jamón, Jamón”, Madrid: El Tercer Nombre, S.A.
Babington, B. (2001) –‘Introduction: British stars and stardom’, British Stars and Stardom: From Alma Taylor to Sean Connery, edited by B. Babington, Manchester: Manchester University Press, pp.1-28.
Bigas Luna (2007) – ‘El descubrimiento de una estrella’, Magazine, La Vanguardia, 14th January, p.48.
Casanova, M. (2004) –‘Penélope Cruz vuelve al mejor cine’, Cinemanía, month unknown, pp.126-131.
Davies, A. (2004) – ‘The Spanish femme fatale and the cinematic negotiation of Spanishness’, Studies in Hispanic Cinemas, 1:1, pp.5-16.
(2005) –‘Rewriting Dubious Desires: Imperio Argentina as Nazi Germany’s Exotic Other’, unpublished conference paper.
de la Torriente, E. (2004) – ‘Penélope a la italiana’, El País Semanal, 12th September, pp.36-43.
Doane, M. (1991) – Femmes Fatales: Feminism, Film Theory, Psychoanalysis, London & New York: Routledge.
Dyer, R. ( 1998) – Stars, with supplementary chapter by P. McDonald, London: BFI Publishing.
(1986) – Heavenly Bodies, Film Stars and Society, London: BFI Publishing.
Evans, P.W. (2004) – Jamón, jamón, Barcelona: Ediciones Paidós.
Gledhill, C. (1991) –‘Introduction’, Stardom: Industry of Desire, edited by C. Gledhill, London & New York: Routledge, pp.xiii-xx.
Hayward, S. (2006) – Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts- third edition, London & New York: Routledge.
Jordan, B. (1999a) –‘Refiguring the Past in the Post-Franco Fiction Film: Fernando Trueba’s Belle epoque’, BHS, LXXVI, pp.139-156.
(1999b) –‘Promiscuity, Pleasure, and Girl Power: Fernando Trueba’s Belle epoque (1992)’, in Spanish Cinema: The Auteurist Tradition, edited by P.W. Evans, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.286-309.
(2000) – ‘How Spanish is it? Spanish cinema and national identity’, in Contemporary Spanish Cultural Studies, edited by B. Jordan and R. Morgan-Tamosunas, London: Arnold.
McDonald, P. (2000) – The Star System: Hollywood’s Production of Popular Identities, London: Wallflower Press.
Mora, M. (1998) –‘Trueba considera que La niña de tus ojos es su película mas difícil’, El País, 4th November.
Mulvey, L. ( 1989) – ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, in Visual and Other Pleasures, edited by L. Mulvey, London: Macmillan.
Perriam, C. (2005) – ‘Two transnational Spanish stars: Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz’, Studies in Hispanic Cinemas, 2:1, pp.29-45.
Riviere, J. ( 1986) – ‘Womanliness as a Masquerade’, reprinted in Formations of Fantasy, edited by Burgin, Donald & Kaplan, London & New York: Routledge, pp.35-61.
Stone, R. (2001) – Spanish Cinema, Harlow: Longman.
Trashorras, A. (1999) – ‘“Volavérunt”. Bigas Luna, en brazos de la duquesa muerta’, Fotogramas, February, pp.130-133.
Triana-Toribio, N. (2003) – Spanish National Cinema, London & New York: Routledge.
Vincendeau, G. (2000) –Stars and Stardom in French Cinema, London & New York: Continuum.
Vizcaíno Casas, F. (2000) – ‘Las estrellas de cine español’, in Las generaciones del cine español, edited by Sociedad Estatal España Nuevo Milenio, S.A., Madrid: España Nuevo Milenio.