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With Denis Villeneuve’s Dune premiering Sept. 3 in Venice, Javier Bardem — who plays Stilgar, leader of a community of desert- planet-dwellers — returns to the same glittery stage that made him a global star in 2000. That’s when he appeared at the festival in support of Before Night Falls, the Julian Schnabel-directed adaptation of gay Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas’ 1992 memoir.
In its review, The Hollywood Reporter praised the “Spanish heartthrob” for delivering a “superb performance” as the protagonist, a Cuban novelist who published his first book at the age of 20. Because Arenas wrote freely about gay themes, his books were banned by Fidel Castro’s government, and he eventually was thrown into prison. He came to the U.S. in 1980 as part of the Mariel boatlift, eventually landing in New York City, where he died by suicide in 1990 after suffering the debilitating effects of AIDS. Schnabel came to the material almost by happenstance. The visual artist already had completed one film — 1996’s Basquiat — and was hanging out with some Cuban friends in Miami when one of them, Esther Berkel, gave him a black-market video that featured Arenas sitting in front of a hotel in Miami saying, “I’m homosexual! I’m anticastrista! I have all the qualities of never being published. I literally don’t exist. I live in nowhere.” Schnabel was instantly transfixed by the writer and envisioned him being the subject of his next film.
Though Bardem is now a major star, he wasn’t well known outside of Spain at the time. “I thought Javier Bardem gave the best performance of his life in that film,” Schnabel told THR in March. “I mean, when we were making it, nobody ever heard of him. I had been living in Spain, and I had seen him in Bigas Luna’s work Jamon Jamon and Huevos de oro. And in Jamon Jamon, I thought this guy is exactly like who he is there, or he’s a really great actor. And I think the latter was true. I was very privileged to work with him. He’s very smart.” The performance earned Bardem Venice’s Volpi Cup for best actor (which he would win again in 2004 for The Sea Inside) and an Academy Award nomination for best actor (he lost to Russell Crowe for Gladiator).
After that, Bardem went on to become a familiar face in American cinema and would win a best supporting actor Oscar for his work as the sociopathic Anton Chigurh in 2007’s No Country for Old Men, directed by the Coen brothers.
This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter’s Sept. 1 daily issue at the Venice International Film Festival.
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