THE BEST OF BARDEM

The Visual CV: Javier Bardem, the first Spanish actor ever to win an Oscar, is about to be a Bond villain. Nicholas Barber picks his best roles…

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, September/October 2012

1990 The Ages of Lulu
Javier Bardem was born into a politically active film dynasty, Spain's answer to the Redgraves, but even without his family connections he would have made quite a first impression. Debuting at 20 as a largely naked hustler in Bigas Luna's "The Ages of Lulu", he sinks his teeth into the role with the lupine ferocity which would earn him an Oscar 18 years later. He may not turn up until the last half-hour, but there's no doubting who is the film's real star.

1992 Jamon Jamon (above)
Two years on, Bardem opens another Luna film with the declaration: "I will be famous! At home! Around the world!" You'd be a fool to argue. With an Elvis quiff and a Michelangelo torso, he's a bona-fide sex symbol, but there's a charming self-mockery to his portrayal of a gauche greaser with more going on between his legs than between his ears. His opposite number, a teenage starlet named Penélope Cruz, looks a good bet for global fame, too.

2000 Before Night Falls
Despite that unmistakable Easter Island face, Bardem can submerge himself into any character of any age and in any physical condition. "Before Night Falls" proves it. Julian Schnabel's biopic of Reinaldo Arenas requires him to act in three different languages while ageing from a carefree student in Cuba—so delicate that half of his bones seem to be missing—to a suicidal, middle-aged invalid in New York. As a reward, he became the first Spanish actor to be nominated for an Oscar.

2002 The Dancer Upstairs
Bardem's chameleonism shows up again in "The Dancer Upstairs", John Malkovich's respectable but inert directorial debut, adapted from Nicholas Shakespeare's novel. Bardem, barely offscreen from beginning to end, plays an almost incorruptible police detective on the trail of a terrorist in an unnamed Latin American country. He's a courteous, stolid husband and father who could easily be a decade older than Bardem was at the time, and two decades older than he appears to be in the flashbacks in our next selection...

2004 The Sea Inside
Directors, apparently, are so affronted by Bardem's lusty machismo that they can't stop trying to dismantle it. In "Biutiful" and "Before Night Falls" he's terminally ill, in Almodóvar's "Live Flesh" he's in a wheelchair, and in Alejandro Amenábar's wry and restrained "The Sea Inside" he's a quadriplegic demanding the right to end his life. Enfeebled or not, all he has to do is tighten his jaw or widen his long-lashed eyes, and he can say more than almost any other film actor.

2007 No Country for Old Men
We tend to remember the 1970s schoolgirl bob, but you don't get an Oscar for a haircut. Even with a short back and sides, Bardem's Anton Chigurh would have been an unnerving creation, because we can never quite pin him down. When he commits the film's first murder, three minutes in, his features contort into a Hallowe'en mask of orgasmic ecstasy, but later on the business of killing strangers seems to strike him as annoying, or else offensive, or even a bit of a chore.

2008 Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Bardem's offhand seductiveness established him as a romantic lead—he would go on to be the "Love" in "Eat Pray Love"—but on a personal level this sunny Woody Allen comedy may have been more significant. The painter he played, Juan Antonio, shares a name with Bardem's late uncle, an anti-fascist film director, and Javier himself studied painting before he joined the family business. Besides, not content with bedding three of his co-stars onscreen in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona", he married one of them in real life—Penélope Cruz, now the mother of his son Leo.

2010 Biutiful
Another film, another Oscar nomination. Bardem plays a black-market go-between who endures everything from cancer to police brutality, not to mention an even worse hairstyle than he had in "No Country for Old Men". But, in the midst of all the melodrama, he's just as natural as the non-professional actors around him. Next, he plays a Bond villain in "Skyfall". Even if he announces that he's going to obliterate London with a laser cannon, you won't doubt his sincerity for a moment.

Nicholas Barber is a film critic who writes reviews for the Independent On Sunday and previews for Intelligent Life

Skyfall opens in Britain on October 26th