“Is there something more horrible than that? The selfie?” Antonio Banderas asks cheekily, a little tired, but presiding in the grand yet earnest manner we’ve come to adore for nearly four decades siring our screens.
“It is the big ceremony of arrogance. Of narcissism. All the time making pictures of myself.” He’s at Filmfest München promoting Pain & Glory, his latest with the man who discovered him, lifelong collaborator Pedro Almodóvar. Banderas’ role as Salvador Mallo, a character closer to Almodóvar than the elusive and outrageous director has ever allowed slip out, won Banderas the most prestigious prize in his field—Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival.
Banderas raises his other hand to indicate, on the other hand: “Theater is something ephemeral. You do it, and the next day it’s going to be completely different. The people like me who go on stage—we are actors and we know this. The company changes based on who is in it, and how audiences respond to us. Every day is a different animal, and I love that.”
“In the middle of this,” he laughs, lowers the microphone and his voice, “is cinema.”
The audience responds with stupefied claps, a silent second of processing, then delighted laughter. The moderator sitting to Banderas’ left smiles, raises his microphone and intakes air with which to follow up, but is deflated with bemusement like a soufflé.
In the middle of this, it might be said, lies the career of Antonio Banderas. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say the 59 year old Andalucian actor, son of a schoolteacher and an officer in Spain’s Civil Guard, now finds himself in possession of a career which occupies everywhere but the middle. On one hand you have the image—sex icon, swashbuckler, ravisher of women and men. You have Zorro! On the other, the artist—the craftsperson, the chameleon, key member of the National Theater of Spain during the tumultuous transition from the repression of the Franco era to the exuberance of the creative wave unleashed by the dictator’s death in 1975, called La Movida Madrileña (The Madrid Scene).
There may be no international film star at Banderas’ level with as many boths. Both Hollywood and arthouse. Both enduringly critically acclaimed and the recipient of zero awards at the top ceremonies in both his home and adoptive countries. The Spanish Goya awards even awarded him an honorary trophy in 2015 to make up for the five nominations and misses spanning 27 years. The Oscars haven’t nominated him once! It must be said about the performances: both very gay and very straight. Sometimes simultaneously. Laughing off the hetero valence of his Romeo persona in Hollywood, Banderas recently quipped, happily: “there is probably no actor in the history of cinema who has played more gay characters than me.”
It is not bad to always have it both ways. But for Banderas, it has meant there’s a drop off where audiences and critics would normally join together to begin work building the iconography of an actor who’s blessed us with so many cherished performances. From the frenzied, queer Almodóvar collaborations of the ’80s, to the Latin-inflected romps of the ’90s that established the kind of leading man he would go on to typify in Hollywood. To the breadth-expanding roles offered by American auteurs like Jonathan Demme and Brian De Palma who saw something deeper than the sexualized surface, exotified and diminished, that Hollywood had begun to ossify over him.
Enter the Quad Cinema. On September 18th the Holy Temple of New York City’s cinephilia scene will open its doors to debut Laws of Desire: The Films of Antonio Banderas. It will be the first retrospective of the actor’s work programmed at a major international independent cinema house. Past recipients of the Quad retrospective treatment have been Al Pacino (an unbelievable first of its kind in New York), Winona Ryder, and Harry Dean Stanton.
If you follow film there is a clear impetus for the series: Antonio Banderas is having a huge year. Right now it’s Pain & Glory, the aforementioned Almodovar film garnering unanimous praise as it premieres around the world. Up next is The Laundromat, Steven Soderbergh’s treatment of the story of the Panama Papers, the bombshell 2016 publication of over 10 million documents relating to money laundering, tax fraud, and tax evasion at the highest levels of international finance. Banderas plays the Fonseca in Mossack Fonseca, the corrupt offshore law firm from which the contents of the Panama Papers were harvested.
Quad has announced a special screening of The Laundromat that will close out the series, a day in advance of the film’s US theatrical release. In total Laws of Desire comprises of 13 of the actor’s films, encompassing 37 years, five countries, and three languages. Four of Banderas’ six collaborations with Pedro Almodovar have been programmed—Matador, the titular Law of Desire, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, and to the thrill of fans, a rare print of their first collaboration, 1982’s Labyrinth of Desire. Although beloved, The Skin I Live In was excluded only because it felt a tad too recent to include in a repertory series, series programmer and Director of Communications for Quad Emma Myers assured me.
Non-Almodovar highlights include two films that go a long way to establish Banderas’ claim to the gayest straight actor in Hollywood—Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia, in which Banderas briefly appears as the lover of AIDS-afflicted Tom Hanks, and Neil Jordan’s absolute masterpiece Interview With the Vampire, in which Banderas plays the gloriously bitchy Armand, coven leader of the sadistic Thèâtre de Vampires. Also screening: Robert Rodriguez’s smoldering Desperado, Brian De Palma’s indescribable Femme Fatale, and, incredibly, a 35mm print of the film that introduced my generation to Banderas, Spy Kids.
Emma Myers and assistant programmer Tair Shachar have done an incredible job with this series. The selections comprehensively showcase Banderas’ diverse and complex range of capabilities—the commercial and the artistic, the macho and the flamboyant, the PG spy dad and the gay Islamic terrorist Prince. In Myers’ words: “He’s had this narrative his whole career that the earlier, artier films were better, then he made this crossover and none of the Hollywood movies are particularly interesting. But in between the Almodovar projects he’s done truly fascinating work. You think, how has this guy never been nominated for an Oscar? He’s this huge star, and he’s never had a retrospective… Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, for example. I don’t think any other actor could have made that work, and it works purely because of him. He’s that charming and believable when you watch him—he has that sheer star power.” MM
Pain and Glory opens in theaters on October 4th, 2019, courtesy of Sony Picture Classics. The Laundromat opens in theaters on September 27th, 2019, courtesy of Netflix. Quad Cinema’s Laws of Desire: The Films of Antonio Banderas runs through September 26, 2018 in New York City.