The nominees for Best Actor at this year’s Academy Awards don’t include any major surprises, but it’s a strong list of candidates all the same. Leonardo DiCaprio, Joaquin Phoenix, Adam Driver, Jonathan Pryce, and Antonio Banderas are in contention for their turns in some of 2019’s most critically acclaimed movies. And while everyone has their opinion on who should win the prize, I’m here to make a case for Banderas and his powerhouse performance in Pedro Almodovar’s Pain and Glory.
In the movie, Banderas plays Salvador Mallo, an aging, ailment-addled filmmaker who’s in the midst of a creative crisis, struggling with depression and addiction. He is also estranged from one of his most frequent collaborators, which sort of mirrors the turbulent relationship between Banderas and Almodovar throughout the years. The film revolves around Mallo’s memories and reunions, along with the joy and sorrow that they bring. It’s a deeply personal movie for the director and its lead character is semi-autobiographical. Banderas’ performance is extraordinary. He brings all of Almodovar’s regrets and vulnerabilities to life on the screen, and it makes for some emotionally compelling and deeply moving viewing.
Nothing about Banderas’ performance comes across as an impersonation, either. He becomes this character and turns him into a fully-fledged human being, warts and all. You get the impression that the actor is channeling some demons of his own here, but it’s relatable, as every human being understands loss, regret, and pain to some degree. At the same time, he also manages to bring some tenderness and humor to the role, and his portrayal of addiction is handled with nuance and care.
Pain and Glory is the kind of movie that can only be made by an artist who has demons to expel. Of course, it also helps that the artist in question is a master of his craft who makes brilliant cinema that connects with viewers. Still, for a work this personal, you need a performer who understands the filmmaker’s vision, as well as one who can make it accessible to viewers. Banderas arguably has more insights into Almodovar’s creative process than any other performer who has ever worked with the director, but he also makes this role his own.
Not every Best Actor-winning performance needs to be deep and personal. It’s all about making the best impression. This year’s batch features performances that are hilarious, psychotic, heartfelt, and thought-provoking. Those others are just as worthwhile in their own way. However, Banderas’ will likely resonate with people who discover Pain and Glory for generations to come, simply because it’s more soul-enriching than the others. People will always be able to empathize with his character because it contains elements of us all. Furthermore, the role will also make many viewers see the actor in a whole new light.
When most people think of Banderas, they think of the womanizing action hero who became a household name courtesy of movies like Desperado, The Mask of Zorro, and the Shrek franchise. There’s a case to be made that the actor has been typecast as a swashbuckling hunk and Latin lover, but his filmography is littered with gems that showcase his range and talent. Almodovar is responsible for inspiring a few of those standout turns.
Prior to reuniting for Pain and Glory, Almodovar and Banderas last collaborated back in 2011 for The Skin I Live In, in which the actor plays a plastic surgeon who is haunted by a past tragedy. The film marked Banderas’ desire to move away from the kinds of roles that he’d been predominantly associated with since becoming a romantic action star. His performance in the movie is brimming with emotional intensity, which he’s always been able to demonstrate with aplomb.
Unfortunately, in the years that followed The Skin I Live In, Banderas starred in several projects that didn’t see him return to the heights of his blockbuster prime, nor did they establish him as a versatile character actor. For a while, he elevated some entertaining B-movies like Security and Acts of Vengeance, but he arguably deserved roles that were more befitting of his star power.
Last year saw Banderas garner some well-deserved appreciation again, though. His performance as Pablo Picasso in the TV series Genius was praised across the board, even though the show itself is a mixed bag. Pain and Glory, on the other hand, finally saw the stars align for the actor, and he made a statement.
It’s only fitting that Banderas’ first Oscar nomination is for an Almodovar movie, though. Of all the filmmakers that the actor has worked with in his time, the Spanish director has consistently found new ways to challenge him. Furthermore, with Banderas, Almodovar has an actor who is able to bring his material to life with the passion that he craves. They need each other. And now that they’re both older and wiser, there is a new dimension to their relationship that has created their best collaboration to date.
The reason for Banderas deserving this award is twofold. First of all, his performance is the best of the bunch that he’s up against. Driver’s turn in Marriage Story is just as profoundly human in its own way, but Banderas is more believable in his role. Personally, I think both of those performances eclipse the others on the list, but again, that’s subjective.
Secondly, who doesn’t love a comeback story at the Oscars? While Banderas deserves to win based on merit alone, the award would finally acknowledge a performer who has managed to turn his career around and reinvent himself in recent years. DiCaprio, Driver, and Phoenix will be nominated again as they consistently pick awards-worthy projects. Banderas’s story this year is more interesting than theirs. Sure, it’d be nice to see Pryce rewarded for his wonderful late-career turn in (and likewise first nomination for) The Two Popes, but he doesn’t command the screen quite as effectively as Banderas in Pain and Glory.
Hopefully, this awards recognition at least leads to Banderas returning to the spotlight in a big way. He never lost his talent at all, but the world could do with more reminders of just how damn good he is. But even if he doesn’t win, the movie will undoubtedly change how a lot of people perceive the actor.