Mr. Bardem is certainly the most famous Spanish actor of our generation thanks to his diverse performances and chameleon-like ability to change personas. Audience is captivated by his mental and physical transformation every time he performs a role. As a result, he’s received a high number of prestigious accolades all over the world.
He was born into a renowned acting family and after trying other jobs he chose to start a film career. He became prominent in the 1990s, especially in the movies directed by Bigas Luna and Pedro Almodóvar. It was inevitable for such talent to remain recognized only by Spanish filmmakers. He never made efforts to become a marketable actor and so he cautiously chooses each role. Even though he made a significant breakthrough into the American market in the year of 2000, he still remains extremely thoughtful about his new projects.
In one of the interviews he said: ”The award is important in order to bring people to the movie theater. That’s the only principal meaning of any award.”
The following list includes his most compelling performances.
10. Raul in ‘Jamon, Jamon’ (Bigas Luna, 1992)
This dark comedy introduced Penélope Cruz and propelled Javier Bardem to immediate popularity. Bardem thanked Luna on many occasions for launching his career. The film is an exploration of Spanish machismo and eroticism but on a deeper level. It shows the sexual hypocrisy of that time but it’s still filled with romantic love and passion.
The characters are obsessed with wordplay (sex and food always go together), and the audience is allured by the passionate residents of an arid wasteland. Luna’s major success in this little piece of art is showing us that the line between reality and art is very thin.
Bardem embodies the role of Raul, a macho stud paid to seduce a factory girl (played by Cruz). He is an underwear model and a bullfighter hired to separate the two lovers and while being on the mission he shows a lot of meat. The film made him famous even though he was playing a supporting role.
Although he won acclaim for his appearance, he was threatened to become nothing more than a Spanish sex symbol. He was offered to play similar characters but he was deeply convinced there is more than flesh that he can reveal. By turning down the offers he demonstrated that he was determined to leave the comfort zone and pursue a career of a serious actor.
9. David in ‘Carne Tremula’ (Pedro Almodóvar, 1997)
Almodóvar brings his own, quite recognizable magic in creating this intense film which features multiple genres. Translated as ‘Live Flesh’, this film, expectedly, focuses on eroticism and human weaknesses. Flesh appears everywhere, but not only as a piece of meat, but as a part of a soul that expresses love, desire and longing. In addition, the literal meaning of the Spanish title is ”trembling flesh”. Nothing is vulgar in the sex scenes.
Bardem plays a supporting role of David, a wheelchair-bound policeman who got paralyzed in a shooting and later married Elena (played by Francesca Neri), a woman who is actually in love with the shooter. Both of them are trapped in their marriage, trapped in their responsibility and bonded by guilt. The essence of their relationship is the sex scene showing his impotency and her tenderness.
In most of the scenes David can only be seen through bars or grids. Being a cripple seems reasonable after the affairs he had been involved, but on the other hand he doesn’t give up on becoming a paralympian champion. Still, his masculinity is proven only visually. The audience admires him for his strength and persistence but hates him deeply after turning into a jealous, uncontrollable animal.
Bardem spent a considerable amount of time preparing for this role knowing that this is the final act of the macho role he had been playing so perfectly. The embodiment of an impotent sex animal represents a final chapter of his early acting career.
8. Juan Antonio in ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Woody Allen, 2008)
Bardem was Woody Allen’s first and only choice for the male lead in this romantic drama located in Barcelona, ‘the city of passion’. Being an expert on human emotions, the director again explores the neverending complications of love and sex by simply letting them overrule reason and logic.
The story focuses on two American tourists, Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), who are about to spend their summer holiday in Barcelona where they meet an artist and a red blooded Spanish lover, Juan Antonio, who is attracted to both of them.
The problem is that he is still in love with his tempestuous and emotionally unstable ex-wife María Elena (Penélope Cruz). This quartette with Barcelona in the background makes this film both romantic and real. All of them are revealing their needs, fears and passions while embarking on a spiritual quest trying to find out what love is.
Bardem’s charismatic and charming throughout the whole film even though his character proves to be nothing more than an immature guy depending on protection.
Juan Antonio: ‘’Why not? Life is short. Life is dull. Life is full of pain. And this is a chance for something special.’’
Cruz and Bardem have appeared together in 6 films but they didn’t always share scenes. Their first one was ‘Jamon, Jamon’ but they didn’t start their relationship until 2007 and three years later they got married. It’s interesting to mention that Penélope is the first Spanish actress that has received an Academy Award for the Best Supporting Actress (for the role of María Elena in this film).
7. Reinaldo Arenas in ’Before Night Falls’ (Julian Schnabel, 2000)
Even though he was already popular in Spain, international audiences weren’t familiar with Bardem’s work. This screen biography made him internationally famous and he received excellent critiques for his portrayal of a Cuban gay poet and novelist. He became the first Spanish actor (in a leading role) to be nominated for an Academy Award.
Reinaldo Arenas: [narrating] ‘’Leonardo da Vinci was homosexual, so was Michelangelo, Socrates, Shakespeare, and almost every other figure that has formed what we have come to understand as beauty.’’
The plot is based on the autobiography of Reinaldo Arenas and it follows this extremely talented artist from the adolescence to death. He was severely reprimanded by Castro’s regime for both his homosexuality and his work which got him imprisoned for 2 years. Bardem touchingly portrayed Arena’s innocence, passion, sensitivity, frailty, desperation, and exultation. It was an incredible journey for an actor to transform himself into a young man who is hopelessly and carelessly in love with life, and then into a tragic figure crushed by a disease.
Bardem tirelessly prepared for this skillful and nuanced performance. Actually, he had to learn both English and Cuban dialect. In addition, he lost 14 kilogrammes, travelled to Cuba, and spent some time with Arena’s partner in order to learn how the poet walked and talked. Not to mention that he devoured everything that was written by the poet.
After being beefcake in steamy films it was surprising to see him downplaying his masculinity. According to his statements, he finally learned how to cope with his ego and inhabited a role rather than just trying to imitate it. The international offers came flooding but he declined the majority of them proving that he was determined to only play the characters he was interested in.
6. Benito Gonzales in ‘Huevos de Oro’ (Bigas Luna, 1993)
Bigas Luna seems to ridicule macho man characters in his films by boosting their libido, but this time he lets his main protagonist to be completely ruled by his own sex drive. Similarly to ‘Jamon, Jamon’, the characters are in love triangles, they talk a lot about sex, men are obsessed with breasts and older women are craving for some love. Even the title (translated as ‘Golden Balls) is sexual, representing male potency.
This time Bardem is in a leading role playing Benito Gonzales, an extremely ambitious engineer who simply wants to build the tallest skyscraper (undoubtedly a phallic symbol) in the region. He demonstrates a whole range of Machiavellian maneuvers just to have a monument to himself.
Promiscuity seems like the easiest way to erect his building. His behavior gets quite bizarre at some moments (in a karaoke scene or when he draws building blocks on women’s breasts) and you can easily predict an inevitable catastrophe. Symbolically, as his skyscraper starts crumbling, the same thing happens with his potency.
The film was accepted by both audiences and critics and Bardem gained a recognition he needed. He wasn’t just a stud, he was a stud whose sexuality was turned into pathology. Watching Bardem disappearing into his role is what makes this comedy dramatic. His reputation was enhanced and it was more than clear that his talent was emerging. He received his second Goya Award nomination for this performance and the audience was impatiently waiting for his next transformation.