1980s

Antonio and Almodóvar

Antonio Banderas in Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!

Pedro Almodóvar has long been hailed as one of the world’s foremost directors of women, with the bulk of his filmography focusing on their stories. But amidst all the performers who have most frequently worked with the Spanish filmmaker, there is a male outlier — Antonio Banderas, who has appeared in a total of eight Almodóvar productions.

Five of Banderas’ eight collaborations with Almodóvar came in the 80s, with the success of Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1989) giving the actor a shot in Hollywood (which the director was supposedly unhappy with). Thereafter was a 21-year gap in the pair’s working relationship, yet Banderas finally returned in the macabre The Skin I Live In (2011). It’s those early films that represent the break-out moment of the actor’s career, bringing him first to wider acclaim in his native Spain and then the wider world. But those early roles are wildly different from the roles that Banderas would take up in Hollywood, where he was broadly typecast as a smoldering Latin lover (something he would eventually send up when he voiced Puss in Boots in the Shrek films).

There is range in those Hollywood roles — Banderas was comfortable in action fare like Zorro and his films with Robert Rodriguez, and he is more than handsome and charming enough to be a Hollywood leading man. But there is something about the fact that where Hollywood saw a mysterious, sensual foreigner, Almodóvar saw a sheepish, cute, effeminate boy.

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Antonio Banderas in Matador

Banderas’ first significant role in an Almodóvar film — after a small appearance in Labyrinth of Passion (1982) — was in Matador (1986), where he plays a wannabe bullfighter, Ángel, with mummy issues who faints at the sight of blood. Shocked when his bullfighting teacher Diego (Nacho Martinez) asks him if he’s gay, Ángel decides to demonstrate his masculinity by attempting to rape Diego’s girlfriend Eva (Eva Lobo), who eventually just pushes him away. The scene itself is miserable and sad, a rare moment of iciness in an otherwise extensively stylised film. Ángel’s eventual imprisonment for confessing to a murder only exacerbates his position as a boy desperately trying to be what he envisions to be a man (by enacting stereotypically male crimes).

Almodóvar has plenty of fun playing with Banderas’ then-undefined screen persona. There’s a natural boyishness to him, a confused innocence in his eyes that the more powerful and self-confident characters in the film abuse. For all his attempts at playing the macho man, Ángel is essentially an emasculated figure with no virility or energy other than his desperation to impress Diego, whom he projects his need for a father figure onto.

That boyishness is once again apparent in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Sporting a glorious quiff and glasses, Banderas comes across more as a shy geek than a passionate sexual animal. As Carlos, the son of philandering Iván (Fernando Guillén), whose betrayal of the lead character kicks the plot into motion, he exhibits some of sexual hunger of his character’s father, hitting on Candela (María Barranco) whilst his partner Marissa (Rossy de Palma) is passed out from ingesting spiked gazpacho. But Carlos’ boyishness turns against him, making him appear more like a child attempting to mimic the behaviour he sees in his father. It’s the complete opposite of the dominant romantic power Banderas would come to be associated with in the 90s.

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Antonio Banderas in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

Almodóvar found a greater variety of notes for Banderas to play in his two of their most substantial 80s collaborations: Law of Desire (1987) and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! In both films, the director draws more on the romantic power inherent in his lead actor’s good looks — but beneath the pretty face, Almodóvar unearths a rumbling ocean of malice, darkness and obsession. Upon release, Law of Desire was Almodóvar’s most openly autobiographical work, telling the story of gay film director Pablo Quintero (Eusebio Poncela), whose on-off relationship with Juan (Miguel Molina) is distorted by the presence of Antonio (Banderas), whose obsession and lust for Pablo results in a murder.

The introductory scene is one of Almodóvar’s beloved opening double-bluffs — a man undresses and performs sexual acts for an unseen male voice offscreen, which is revealed to be the filming of a porn movie — the final scene of Pablo’s movie. Almodóvar returns to introductory double bluffs in many of his films, including Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and All About My Mother (1999). For a director known for bringing autobiography into his films, it’s a reminder to the audience that what appears on screen is ultimately a carefully-constructed fiction.

Banderas first appears in Law of Desire just after the film-within-the-film finishes, as the character Antonio locks himself in the cinema toilets and has a wank, as one does. Perhaps in itself, the act is a self-reflexive comment on the sexual power of the cinema to take over the audience’s senses, especially given the star’s future career as a romantic lead. 

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Antonio Banderas in Law of Desire

Banderas’ Antonio crawls through Law of Desire with an uneasy, snake-like charm, almost like he’s on the prowl. The actor uses the full range of his charm to toy with both the audience and Pablo — when Banderas smiles, dimples appear on his cheeks, and there’s a flash of that innocent boy from Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, but it’s clear that he has a slippery obsession with Pablo. There’s a vacant hunger in Antonio’s eyes that eats away at him. It’s a fantastic performance that electrifies a film drenched in phallic imagery and psychosexual desire. It’s easy to see why Pablo falls for Antonio, as there’s such an overpowering, dominant charm, but the distance allows the audience to see the fated nature of this desire. Overpowering, obsessive desire leads inexorably to tragedy.

This mix of sensuality, immaturity and malice would be developed further in Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, where Banderas plays Ricky, a man let out of a mental health institution who kidnaps Marina (Victoria Abril) — a former porn star-turned-actress — and tells her he’ll keep her tied up until she falls in love with him; a controversial plot for sure. The film’s unwillingness to tell the audience what to think and its willingness to complicate both protagonists has drawn plenty of criticism over the years from people who struggle to differentiate between depiction and endorsement. 

Ricky is an amalgamation of all the roles Banderas had played for Almodóvar up to that point. He has the same danger and capacity for evil as Law of Desire’s Antonio, but with a blankness and innocence that harkens back to the actor’s roles in Matador and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. When Ricky ties up Marina and explains why he’s kidnapping her, the blankness in his eyes suggests a man who is not even dimly aware that what he’s doing is completely wrong. 

With Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, Almodóvar informs the audience why both Ricky and Marina struggle to recognise what constitutes a healthy relationship, with both having lived lives entirely out of their control. Abril and Banderas are both given tricky roles that can easily lapse into caricature. The fact that neither do is a testament to their skill and Almodóvar’s understanding of their specific abilities.

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Antonio Banderas in Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!

A scene towards the end of Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! has Ricky return to the rural village he was born in, bringing the film into wider history; the story of Spain reckoning with its own authoritarian past, the liberating freedom of independence set against the comfort people feel when living in a world where choices are made for them, complicating itself by the way that individuals get themselves uncomfortably mixed up in these stories, and without providing easy answers for viewers. 

Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!  foreshadows what would ultimately become Banderas’ Hollywood persona. Indeed, American producers picked up on the (hetero)sexuality and dominant power of the actor, with the irony being that he seemed to consistently miss the satirical undercurrent of the film. Hollywood producers missed the fact that Ricky’s very desire for a heteronormative lifestyle — wife, kids, steady job — and his willingness to stop at nothing to achieve it is exactly what poisons him. They only saw the sensuality and the masculinity within the role.

Since the early 2000s, it feels as if Hollywood has become increasingly nervous about embracing the sexual attractiveness of its leading men (something that seems to pre-date the Harvey Weinstein allegations). It’s hard to think of a major A-lister today who really smoulders onscreen, and even pinnacle 90s heartthrobs like Brad Pitt and George Clooney have toned it down in recent years as they approach their 60s. Banderas himself was one of those heartthrobs. Yet his early roles depict him in much greater complexity than that.

Almodóvar has long been masterful at using the beauty and charisma of performers, which envelops his films in their visage and turns it back on the audience. Although that talent has been largely used in favour of leading ladies, the director’s working relationship with Banderas, particularly in their 80s heyday, remains an exquisite example of how to use a male actor’s talent and natural looks both against him and for him.

Fedor Tot (@redrightman) is a Yugoslav-born, Wales-raised freelance film critic and editor, specialising in the cinema of the ex-Yugoslav region. Beyond that he also has an interest in film history, particularly in the way film as a business affects and decides the function of film as an art.

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