Pedro Almodóvar’s lockdown diary pt 2: Warren Beatty, Madonna and I

In the second part of his journal of Covid-19 quarantine, the Spanish director writes about escaping out of his apartment for the first time in 17 days – and into memories of Madonna, Warren Beatty and the Oscars.

Updated: 30 March 2021

By Pedro Almodóvar

Pedro Almodóvar and Madonna in Los Angeles in 1989
Sight and Sound

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On Monday night, as the new hardened measures for the current quarantine where being announced, I started feeling symptoms of claustrophobia for the first time. They’ve come up late, as I’ve been suffering from claustrophobia and agoraphobia for a while. I know they are opposite pathologies, but my body is paradoxical – it is one of its characteristics, it always has been.

That night I knew I was going to try to go out the following day; I felt as if I was going to commit a premeditated crime. As if giving yourself to a forbidden pleasure and you cannot do anything to avoid it. It sounds like cheap pulp literature, and it is, but I blame it on the effects of confinement.

I planned it minimally: I’d go to buy food, a genuine shopping trip and a genuine need since I’m on my own. So that Tuesday morning I got dressed to go out and I felt like I was doing something exceptional: dressing! It’s been 17 days since I last did it, and I’ve always experienced getting dressed as something intimate and very special.

I recalled various other occasions of getting dressed – very important moments for me, I now realise, which have remained in my mind since. For instance, I recalled when in 1980 I was getting dressed in Lope de Rueda street, for Pepi, Luci, Bom’s premiere in the Peñalver cinema on Conde de Peñalver street. Even though it was a cinema where they played re-releases, for me it was as if it was premiering at the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles. It was the first time that a film of mine would be watched by an audience, the first time in a real cinema and as part of the commercial circuit, with its seats full of people, the audience watching images created by me with my friends, during the year and a half that it took to film. And those who didn’t leave the cinema laughed so much. I remember I wore a red satin bomber jacket that I bought in Portobello market, in London.

It’s not always that one dresses as part of a plan, or at least you don’t always remember it so. I recall when two years after Pepi’s premiere, still in the midst of La Movida, I consciously dressed in a grey Mao collar suit to go to a bar in Malasaña run by a boy I had my eyes on. I have never been much for Mao collars – I prefer the Perkins because it covers up the double chin. I remember the Mao collar suit because the boy in question became part of my life for the next two, three years. And he left a mark.

I also remember the purple silk Shantung tuxedo by the designer Antonio Alvarado, and the studded ankle boots, like the ones now made by Louboutin, that I wore to my first ever Oscar ceremony in 1989. We didn’t win, my relationship with Carmen Maura blew up into pieces, but I remember that trip to Los Angeles as being full of wonderful events.

Four or five days before the ceremony we had dinner at Jane Fonda’s home; she was obsessed with remaking Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. She’d invited very few people. Anjelica Huston and Jack Nicholson, her partner then, who mentioned to Bibiana Fernández he had spotted her watching the Lakers that very afternoon. Cher, with natural make-up to make her look as if she had no make-up on, more gorgeous, cuter and shorter than I imagined.

And Morgan Fairchild. Yes! (I thought the next guest would have been someone like Susan Sontag.) I was truly surprised, because I thought Morgan Fairchild played in a lower league to the rest (although having worked on Flamingo Road and Falcon Crest is no small achievement). Jane Fonda must have noticed my surprise since afterwards she explained that she used to go on demonstrations with Morgan Fairchild, who was as feminist if not more so than herself.

Maria Barranco, Carmen Maura and Antonio Banderas in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1989)

We spent the soiree gobsmacked by the energy of the female guests and of Jack. We had many pictures taken with them and with the paintings hanging on those walls, whose author was Jane’s father, Henry Fonda.

The morning after the ceremony, I received a phone call at the hotel, a woman’s voice. She tells me, as if she were not conscious of its impact, but confident that her voice was going to have an impact on me: “Hello, it’s Madonna. I’m filming Dick Tracy and I would love to show you the set. I’m not filming today and I can dedicate the day to you.”

It could be a false Madonna, or a psychopath who was thinking of cutting me into pieces on one of those waste grounds James Ellroy describes so well in his novels.

(If you read The Black Dahlia you’ll know what I’m talking about: Ellroy’s mother was dismembered on one of those wastelands. You can also watch the film by my beloved Brian De Palma based on the book, with Scarlett Johansson and Hilary Swank, but the truth is it didn’t turn out that well. It’s not bad for quarantine, but I would recommend you many others by De Palma before that one: Sisters, Phantom of the Paradise, Carlito’s Way, Body Double – with Melanie Griffith at the peak of her powers, skinny as a rake – and above all, Scarface with Al Pacino. Don’t bother with The Black Dahlia and organise yourselves a programme with all of those films. You’ll thank me later. They are all gems, seriously accessible and really enjoyable. I will make you a list of recommendations at the end.)

Coming back to Madonna, it could always be someone who was playing a joke on me, but my self-esteem – despite not winning the Oscar – was high enough for me to have no doubt this was an authentic phone call. Madonna’s voice gave me the address for the studio where they were filming, and I turned up there, pleased as punch.

Madonna and Warren Beatty in Dick Tracy (1990)

The truth is the whole team, from Warren Beatty to Vittorio Storaro, couldn’t have been kinder to me. They treated me as if I was George Cukor. Beatty forced me to sit on the chair with his name on – the director’s chair – so I could watch the sequence they were filming. I was about to confess that when I was a child I discovered my sexuality when I saw him in Splendor in the Grass (the builder in Pain and Glory never existed), but I stopped myself from doing so, of course. They were filming a sequence where an unrecognisable Al Pacino was yacking away non-stop. He was nominated for the Oscar the following year, and the film was awarded three statuettes.

Madonna took me around all of the sets and I met someone who I deeply admired: Milena Canonero, the costume designer who by then had already won three Oscars (she’d be nominated for Dick Tracy the following year), Chariots of Fire, Barry Lyndon and The Cotton Club. I recommend all three films to cope with the quarantine. My favourite is Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon.

Milena Canonero would go on to win a fourth Oscar, I don’t remember which film. Visiting her workshop was what probably left the strongest impression on me during that visit. It would have been the only reason why I would have liked to work in Hollywood: the obsession for detail.

One of Dick Tracy’s features, the character in the comic, is his yellow hat. Milena was obsessed with getting the exact yellow you can see in the comic. She showed me around two hundred hats with only the slightest change in colour differentiating them. I completely identified with that obsession for detail. To some extent, within my abilities, I do the same when I’m filming. I don’t know how to work any other way (but I do know how to work for less money).

If Madonna calls you and gives you as much attention as she did the following day, despite not having won the Oscar, that means that the material girl has an enormous interest in yours truly. It didn’t take that long for us to meet again – the following year on the occasion of her Blond Ambition Tour.

I went out with her during the days she spent in Madrid. I organised a big flamenco party for her with La Polaca and her husband, El Polaco, in the Palace Hotel, with Loles León, Bibiana Fernández, Rossy de Palma; but she had already made it very clear to me that she was only interested in meeting one other guest, aside from myself: Antonio Banderas. I promised her that Antonio would be there, but I didn’t tell her that I couldn’t invite him without his then wife, Ana Leza, a huge fan of the singer.

She, Madonna, decided how we had to be seated (there were a number of round tables for my friends and her dancers). Naturally, she sat at the main table, with me on her right and Antonio on her left. And she sent Ana Leza to the table furthest away in that great salon.

Pedro Almodóvar and Madonna

Other than us two – and a little bit La Polaca, who was divine – Madonna did not pay attention to anybody else. A member of her team was carrying a very good quality camera to film it all – “for a keepsake”, Madonna told me. It seemed strange to me, but a good host does not ask about certain things.

I had to translate for Madonna some of the questions that she was greatly interested in with regard to Antonio. At that moment in his career, Antonio was about to take off like a rocket. Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! had just opened in the US and the critics and Hollywood (and Madonna) had fallen in love with him, but that night in 1990 he didn’t speak a word of English.

I say this because a year later the film In Bed with Madonna premiered, and a great part of it is filmed at my party at the Palace. Antonio’s harassment was one of the main storylines and she, obviously, edited in how she dispatched Ana Leza with only one sentence. At the end of the dinner, Ana dared to get close to our table and told the divine blonde sarcastically, “I see you like my husband, it doesn’t surprise me, all women like him, but I don’t mind because I am very modern.” To which Madonna replied: “Get lost.”

All this may seem frivolous, and it is, more like a chronicle written by Patty Diphusa than one written about the isolation we live in. But memory is that absurd when selecting things. I don’t mind if this seems like a settling of scores: had it been the other way round (me filming Madonna and her team and making a film with all that material which I would then premiere around the world) I would have taken such a hit in the form of a lawsuit that I’d still be recovering from it. Madonna treated us like simpletons and I had to say it one day. She didn’t ask for permission to use our images, and she even dubbed me – my English mustn’t have been so good.

Back to my story. At some point during the dinner, Madonna told me, “Ask Antonio if he likes hitting women.” (I swear it was like that.) I translated it for him. Antonio doesn’t say anything, he mumbles, and he pulls a face as if to say, “I am a Spanish gentleman and I’ll do whatever a lady asks me to do.” For me it was an eloquent silence and gesture. But Madonna wanted more. “Ask him,” she told me again, “if he likes women to hit him.” I translate it for him: ‘to hit’ and ‘women’ were two words that I was already familiar with in 1990. Antonio made the same gesture, which meant neither/nor, but that he was at the service of ladies’ desires.

Antonio Banderas and Victoria Abril in Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1989)

I say this, first of all because it was true, and the most amusing moment of the night, but she didn’t deem it appropriate to include it [in her film]. And there had to be a pandemic for the world to know what that dinner was like in reality.

On 11 January this year, I had to go to two places on the same day in Los Angeles. I had to attend two ceremonies taking place almost simultaneously where Pain and Glory was awarded Best Foreign Film. I wore a black Givenchy suit, with a Perkins collar jumper of the same colour underneath.

The first ceremony was organised by the AARP, which lobbies for the rights of people aged 50 and over. Spain doesn’t have that culture of pressure groups to push the government to approve measures to the advantage of certain collectives.

The AARP has its own prestigious awards and the ceremony is so important that it’s televised. The awards are called the Grownups Movies Awards. And they really do highlight the best of the year in cinema – that is, so to speak, nothing infantile nor childish.

This year Annette Bening got an award in recognition of her whole career, The Irishman won Best Film and Scorsese won Best Director, Renée Zellweger won for Judy and Adam Sandler for Uncut Gems. Sandler was sitting at my table and he was so elegant that he didn’t mention how bothered he was at Antonio’s nomination to the Oscars, since that nomination was supposed to be for him, wonderful in Uncut Gems, or for Robert De Niro, but the Academy went for Antonio. They also awarded Noah Baumbach for his wonderful script for Marriage Story. (I became very close to Noah and his wife Greta Gerwig and we decided to meet each time I am in New York.) And Pain and Glory was Best Foreign Film.

Before the awards were handed out Annette Bening came to my table to greet me: she was radiant next to her husband Warren Beatty, also radiant at 83. We congratulated each other and Annette told me that she had asked for the rights for Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women, and she’d been told I had them. We talked about the book – I do recommend it for this quarantine, time stops when you are reading one of Lucia Berlin’s stories – and I told her that she would definitely be the ideal option for when the character is older. I could say that because all of us winners were already past 50.

I was the first winner to be announced because the organisers knew I had another gig afterwards, the Los Angeles Critics’ Awards, whose guests were already getting drunk at the cocktails prior to the (less formal) ceremony. In my acceptance speech I mentioned Warren – it was a miracle I didn’t tell him about my sexual awakening. But I did happily mention that I finally had him in one of my films (remember the images of Natalie Wood and Beatty during Asier Etxeandia’s monologue).

Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood in Splendor in the Grass (1961)

Wearing the same suit, and with the same will to please and be pleased, I turned up at the Intercontinental Hotel, where the critics were celebrating their seriously prestigious awards and giving a lecture on what should have happened this year. Best Film for Parasite; Best Actor: Antonio Banderas; and Best International Film: Pain and Glory.

But back to the point. I went out for the first time after 17 days of absolute confinement. I didn’t want to lose the sensation I experienced, and the reason was genuine: to buy food in a sort of corner shop in my neighbourhood.

It was a strange feeling, but also one of great peacefulness, a very pleasant silence and emptiness. At that moment I wasn’t thinking of the casualties or those infected. I felt I was in the presence of an unprecedented image of Madrid and an equally extraordinary situation I still don’t know how to describe.

I’d rather not think about the victims (that’s not true – I try to help to the best of my ability). We all know the terrible figures and I have written this precisely to forget about it; it’s a form of forward-looking escapism. If I stop to face reality I think I’ll drop dead. And I don’t want to.

  • Translated by Mar Diestro-Dópido

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Originally published: 10 April 2020