Hollywood is thick with fine actors and glamorous stars, but there’s one thing that’s even rarer than a good original script: the kind of strong leading man who takes your breath away. One contender after another has proved lacking. Tom Cruise has become a freak, a machine-like movie star whose vanity overrides his sex appeal. Johnny Depp is adorable, but seems content to play a pirate for life, and when given a shot at cracking Angelina Jolie’s cool in The Tourist, he looked like he couldn’t wait to get back to his ship. Jolie’s mate, Brad Pitt, seems strangely neutered. Canada’s Ryan Reynolds inherited the title of Sexiest Man Alive, but he has yet to prove it onscreen, and now even Scarlett Johansson isn’t buying it. Leonardo DiCaprio shook off his stigma as Titanic’s teen heartthrob, and matured into a formidable actor, but he seems allergic to romantic roles. Same deal with George Clooney. For a while, he appeared to be the Great White Hope, so boldly debonair and adult, until we began to notice that his career was virtually devoid of love scenes.
Javier Bardem, however, is a breed apart. In a star system overrun by fine-boned boys who refuse to grow up, this smouldering Spaniard has emerged as The Man. Javier has the full package. He is ruggedly handsome, but never looks like he wastes much time in the mirror. He combines the charisma of a matinee idol with the depth of a character actor. He is currently the hottest actor on the planet. Whether he’s doing tragedy or farce, he gives it weight. And Bardem’s leading-man credentials seem impeccable, on screen and off. His stealth engagement with the equally hot Penélope Cruz—they married in July and she’s expecting their first child in February or March—would have all the trappings of a tabloid fable if it were not so refreshingly immune from scandal.
As an actor, Bardem has displayed spectacular range over the past few years. With his Oscar-winning tour de force as a psychopath trickster in No Country for Old Men, he was terror incarnate. As a womanizing charmer in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, he breathed life into the cliché of the Latin lover to build a bonfire of domestic passion with Cruz. And, in perhaps the ultimate challenge, as a Brazilian dreamboat in Eat Pray Love, he fell in love with Julia Roberts. Acting her into the ground with more emotional depth than she deserved, he blithely stole the movie and escaped its sentimental ooze unscathed.
Now Bardem unleashes the most powerful and complex performance of his career in Biutiful, which opens next month. It’s the latest compound tragedy from Alejandro González Iñárritu, the Mexican director of Amores perros, 21 Grams and Babel. But after those multi-plot narratives, for the first time Iñárritu places the full burden of the human condition on one character, and Bardem—named best actor in Cannes for the film—shoulders the role like a Spanish Sisyphus.
He has a lot going on. As Uxbal, a petty criminal in the mean streets of Barcelona, he brokers illegal immigrants who deal drugs and black-market goods. He’s a single father struggling to raise two children of a bipolar party girl. He’s also a psychic who sees dead people. And he is about to join their ranks: he has terminal cancer. Set in the squalor of a Barcelona that tourists don’t see, Iñárritu’s lyrical mix of melancholy and melodrama plays like a requiem. It may be too dark for mainstream audiences. But his soulful performance has tremendous power. He’s like a gored bull, sad and magnificent, running up against the end of life with wounded dignity, burning despair and noble perseverance.
If it’s impossible to imagine another actor in the role, that may be because the role was written for him. “Javier is very close to the character,” Iñárritu told me last fall at the Toronto International Film Festival. “He’s very strong, but I know how sensitive and delicate he is on the inside. So the complexity of this strong face, this minotaur, like an ancient Greek or Roman figure wrapping a poet’s soul—it’s a very strange combination.”
Later, speaking with Bardem, I quoted back Iñárritu’s comment about him being both tough and tender. He shrugged. “Like a melon . . . Melon Brando,” said the actor, who then immediately tried to remove his bad pun from the record, along with any suggestion that he might be in the same league as Marlon. But the Brando analogy is not so far-fetched. With that bull-like jaw and heavy brow, his features have the same classical gravitas, undercut by a sensual mouth and a delicate voice. And like Brando, Bardem’s smouldering charisma offers a rare combustion of animal magnetism and intelligence.
Born in Spain’s Canary Islands, Javier Ángel Encinas Bardem hails from a family of actors that has been making movies since the early days of cinema. And perhaps the reason he’s such a convincing lover on camera is that he’s had a lot of practice. Bardem launched his career typecast as a stud, landing his first lead role opposite Cruz in 1992’s Jamón, jamón (Ham, Ham), a darkly satirical sex comedy by Spain’s Bigas Luna. He played an over-endowed ham merchant named Raul who gets cast as an underwear model. The underwear executive’s wife hires him to seduce her son’s pregnant girlfriend (Cruz) to break up their romance. Bardem plays the role of sexual conquistador to the hilt, barging into a women’s washroom and forcing himself on Cruz with a brutal kiss. His violent courtship ignites a torrid romance that ends badly: Raul clubs his lover’s suitor to death with a ham.
There’s an overbearing metaphor at work in Jamón Jamón. As a walking parody of Spanish machismo, Bardem’s character has dreams of being a bullfighter. In an outrageous show of male frontal bravado, one night Raul and his buddy strip off their clothes, hop a fence, and fight a bull stark naked.
Jamón Jamón turned Bardem into Spanish cinema’s el toro, a sex symbol as famous for his cojones as his acting. Luna followed it with another soft-core sex satire, Huevos de oro (Golden Balls), starring Bardem as an even more monstrous macho stereotype—a developer and pimp who exploits women for sex and money in Melilla and ends up a weeping ruin of a man in a Miami suburb, cuckolded by his gardener (Benicio del Toro).
Bardem, once an avid rugby player, seemed determined to subvert his brawn onscreen. He was a paraplegic basketball player in Pedro Almodóvar’s Live Flesh (1997). And when Julian Schnabel cast him in Before Night Falls (2000), he shed 30 lb. to portray Reinaldo Arenas, a Cuban writer persecuted for his homosexuality—and became the first Spaniard nominated for a Best Actor Oscar. With The Sea Inside (2004), Bardem tackled another real-life role, as Ramón Sampedro, a quadriplegic campaigning for his right to die. It won the Oscar for Best Foreign-language Film.
Bardem’s performance in Biutiful has been overlooked in the pre-Oscar round of Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations. Maybe it’s because he’s speaking Spanish and playing a tortured loser, not conquering a stutter, amputating his arm, or creating Facebook. He admits it’s not an easy film: “It’s like a Francis Bacon painting. It’s ugly. Some people can’t take it. But some people can stay still, look at the picture, and see the hope, the compassion, the love behind the horror.”
It’s telling that Bardem refers to art, because much of the film’s power is a feat of portraiture, as Iñárritu’s hand-held camera, so jittery at first, comes to settle on the haunted face of the dying protagonist. The director says he was “trying to do tragedy from every angle,” and he found them all in that minotaur mask. With his broad eyes and long Etruscan nose, Bardem’s features recall the bold lines of a Picasso painting. He’s now 41. The clean- sculpted features have acquired some character, and in the deepening shadows of Buitiful’s tragic narrative, the creases in his face seem to get progressively longer.
Now and then a glimmer of joy, a concessionary smile, breaks through Biutiful, mostly in scenes with the two adorable kids as they defy their father’s bid to enforce some table manners. Bardem says he learned a lot from the inexperienced child actors. “Everything was a game,” he says. “It’s not about feeling what you’re doing, it’s about pretending. I was in this heavyweight movie, but you have to learn how to detach yourself from what you’re doing or you get lost in your own thing. It doesn’t help you be a better actor to get lost. You have to just be there, and leave some room in your brain to say this is a fiction.”
As the sensitive minotaur approaches the maze of middle age, fatherhood, and the bull of Hollywood stardom, that sounds like a plan.