Here is, as Lant might argue, another example of a male creator drawing on toxic myths about female rivalry. With Feud, and to borrow a Crawford line, these women—already in some ways best recalled via snappy catchphrases like “Fasten your seat belts! It’s gonna be a bumpy ride!”—would seem to risk being solely remembered as the type of name not used in high society outside of a kennel.
Still, writers like Manuel Puig and John Rechy saw in such starlets an unrealistic performance of femininity they could tap into as a way to fight back against society’s contemptuous ideas of effeminacy and homosexuality. Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman and The Buenos Aires Affair are paeans to the power gay men drew from female stars, while Rechy’s Marilyn’s Daughter was a celebration of Monroe, the epitome of the outlaw sensibility the Chicano writer has always championed. Those oft-shamed moments of gay boys lovingly devoted to outsized divas, their work argues, have a power of their own, shattering as they do contemporary ideas of gender and orientation.
Almodóvar’s filmography rests on this same conviction. Even when creating his own female protagonists he alludes to those divas that have come before, deploying the strength they exuded onscreen. In 1988’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, for example, Carmen Maura’s character Pepa, who spends the film unsuccessfully trying to drown her sorrows in a sleeping pill-spiked gazpacho, is a voiceover actress tasked with dubbing Joan Crawford’s lines in Johnny Guitar. Penelope Cruz’s prostitute-turned-actress Lena in 2009’s Broken Embraces uses the same pseudonym as Catherine Deneuve does in the film Belle de Jour when visiting her clients. As if to further make his point, Almodóvar has Lena wear a red blazer reminiscent of Pepa’s signature look during the climactic moment when she finally leaves her wealthy and controlling husband for good.
With these cinematic references, Almodóvar’s films repeatedly return to the liberating power of performing femininity, an argument best epitomized by characters like Bad Education’s glamorous drag queen Zahara (played by Gael García Bernal) who gleefully upend gender and sexual norms. Like many of Almodóvar’s protagonists, Zahara is marked by a tempestuous past, one she’s escaped by embracing her seductiveness, directing its power against the men in power who once wronged her.
As female filmmakers continue to wrestle their narratives and representations away from the male imaginary, the efforts of gay male artists interested in women’s stories might feel, to some, like yet another example of men framing female-driven storytelling. But Almodóvar’s stories, focused as they are on mothers, sinners, sex-crazed maniacs, vengeful domestic abuse survivors, drag queens, sex workers, grieving daughters, pregnant nuns, drug-addicted actresses, and everything in between, ultimately emerge as an iconoclastic and deeply empathetic celebration of womanhood rooted in the Spanish director’s own sexuality.