In the basement of a five-star hotel in London, just before Christmas, Rebecca Hall — one of the stars of the latest Woody Allen film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona — is holding court before an audience of the British film industry’s biggest cheeses. The people in the room are captivated by the 26-year-old, who is seen as one of the brightest lights coming through in cinema, until an excited whisper comes from the back of the room: “Penelope’s coming, Penelope’s coming.” From that moment, Hall might as well only be on stage to fill the water jugs. She is ignored as flashbulbs go off and necks strain towards the door. Penelope Cruz has entered the building.
There is something about Cruz that makes people forget their manners. When I ask ordinarily sensible friends what I should ask the 34-year-old Spaniard when I meet her, a month later, to talk about her Oscar nomination for her supporting role in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, they all fail to offer a question, and instead swoon over her extraordinary beauty.
And she is stunning; in the flesh she almost looks like a character from a Japanese manga cartoon, with her disproportionately big brown eyes peering out from her tiny little face. Even wearing ripped jeans, a sober black shirt and jacket, and wearing thick makeup that fails to disguise a few reassuring spots, there is something terribly sexy about her — particularly the thicket of dark, messy hair that looks as though it has been roughed up on a pillow all afternoon. Then you have the accent. It’s still audible — she struggles sometimes with the “d” in “Woody,” so that it sounds like “woolly” — but it has certainly mellowed since the days when she first went to Hollywood and had to learn her lines for The Hi-Lo Country phonetically, never really understanding a word she was saying.
Cruz’s sensuality was what got her noticed, aged 17, in the very raunchy Spanish film Jamon, Jamon, in which she rolled around alongside Javier Bardem (now her real-life boyfriend), and it plays a crucial role in her latest film, too. In Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Cruz plays the manic and murderous ex-wife of Juan Antonio Gonzalo, played by Bardem; she returns to the marital home to taunt his new lovers, American tourists played by Hall and Scarlett Johansson.
For the film to work, you have to believe that a man really would risk messing things up with the pouting, gorgeous Johansson by sleeping with his unhinged ex, an artist who had tried to kill him on numerous occasions. But when you see Cruz as Maria Elena, wearing the skimpiest of playsuits (of all things), and painting like a woman possessed, suddenly Allen’s implausible plot doesn’t seem so ludicrous after all.
Cruz doesn’t enter the film until halfway through and can’t have more than about 15 minutes of screen time. But her tremendous performance — plus the much-talked-about kiss with Johansson (currently being perved over by thousands of horny teenagers on YouTube) — steals the show. Without her, the film would just be another one of the sad ageing-male fantasies in which Allen increasingly specializes.
Not that Cruz will hear a word said against the 73-year-old director. Doesn’t it make her feel uncomfortable, I ask, how he latches on to stunning young actresses such as herself and Johansson, and makes lascivious remarks about them as he drapes himself around them for photos? Absolutely not, she insists. “He is so ... he is so charming and so funny and so respectful and so smart, too smart for that,” she says, adding that he only makes pervy comments to make people laugh. “On set he would say something completely wild and I would say, ‘I can’t believe those words came out of your mouth!’” Allen, she says, is “very peculiar — but I love him.”