I don't know about anyone else, but I'm thrilled about Penelope Cruz's Oscar nomination for Nine (220 screens). I guess everyone hates this movie, and I know in my heart of hearts that it's not very good. It's frankly kind of a bad idea, although I haven't seen the stage play and I'm of the firm conviction that it is possible to make a good movie out of a bad idea. But that's not why the movie works. It works because it's so completely nutty, as only an all-star Hollywood extravaganza can be. (Plus, how many recent all-star extravaganzas can you name?) It's cheerfully clueless, and moves forward with pride and confidence. And Penelope is the best thing in it.
Penelope is the only one in the cast who seems aware that she's not making Great Art. Her "spitfire" character operates just left of the rest of the proceedings, and she's ready to go off if things get too sludgy or stiff. She draws your eye right to her: she's dangerous and sexy, but also funny and touchingly vulnerable. It's almost the same character that won her the Oscar last year, in Woody Allen's great Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and perhaps even similar to the role that earned her first nomination, in Volver (2006).
Since then Penelope has been on a roll, enjoying something of a comeback. Cineastes first became aware of her in the 1990s in a series of Spanish movies, like Belle Epoque (1992), Jamón, jamón (1992), Live Flesh (1997), Open Your Eyes (1997) and All About My Mother (1999). She caused some serious heart palpitations in those movies, but when she made her inevitable American debut, she found herself in several uncharacteristically passive roles or in complete movie misfires, like The Hi-Lo Country (1998), Captain Corelli's Mandolin (2001) and Gothika (2003). Most viewers probably blamed it on the language and/or culture barrier, but the fact was, she just hadn't found her footing yet.
Of course, now people are probably saying "she just plays the same character all the time," but my argument is that there's nothing wrong with that. Some actors were born to play the same character all the time. How about Charlie Chaplin? Or John Wayne? No one was better than they were in the kinds of movies they made, and they were two of the finest actors of the century. The same goes for actors who get to play the same characters for years on television, like James Gandolfini on "The Sopranos"; he played the same character, but kept finding new facets to it. Range should never be considered superior to depth; it's just a different form of craft.
No one alive today is a better "spitfire" than Penelope Cruz, but a closer look at her career, such as her performance in her other, rather overlooked 2009 film Broken Embraces (160 screens), shows that she does indeed have range. No, I think that too many people have very simply underestimated Penelope over the years. Now she has found her footing. If only she can use that energy to wrest some control over her career and continue to land appropriate roles, she can become one of our great movie stars.