Penélope Cruz Recalls Learning to Dance by Watching John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever

Penélope Cruz first tapped into acting when she was a child playing with her friends.

“I would pretend I was someone else. A different character. Sometimes from a movie I have seen, sometimes from my own imagination.” Cruz said on Tuesday night when she was honored in New York City at the Museum of Modern Art’s annual Film Benefit gala. “I was convinced I was acting. My friends were convinced I was crazy.”

Cruz grew up in a suburb of Madrid, where she discovered her love for cinema while watching films on her father’s Betamax machine.

“I fell in love with Audrey [Hepburn] in ‘Love in the Afternoon,’ I cried as Meryl had to make the toughest decision, I was terrified of ‘Jaws,’ I cried with Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger and I learned some steps from John Travolta in ‘Saturday Night Fever,’” she said.

After watching Pedro Almodóvar’s “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” for the first time, Cruz said she went back to the Betamax store and rented every Almodóvar film they had.

“It was clear in the way he wrote incredible complex female characters how much Pedro loved and respected women,” she said. “I would not be here tonight, being honored by MoMa, if I had not had the privilege of working with brilliant directors who have inspired me, taught me, helped me grow as an artist and as a person. I want to thank them all tonight, and especially my Pedro.”

Almodóvar, who received the same accolade from MoMa a decade ago, has worked with Cruz on eight feature films. The duo’s latest collaboration, “Parallel Mothers,” follows the story of two single women who bond in a maternity ward while getting ready to give birth. The film received critical acclaim after opening at the Venice Film Festival, where Cruz took home the best actress prize.

“I continue to learn from him something new about acting, about storytelling, about the world, about human behavior and involving myself,” Cruz said.

Almodóvar thanked Cruz for her hard work and dedication in a pre-recorded message. Rebecca Hall, Rosalía and Ricky Martin were on hand to speak about Cruz.

“Penélope effortlessly exudes warmth, and that’s just as true on-screen as off,” Hall said on stage. “She is, to me, the definition of a movie star. When we watch her, there is no pause between the thoughts and the emotion. The emotion exists for all of us because Penelope feels it and the camera catches it. That’s it. There was no other perceptible work involved. She also has glamour, the real kind. The kind that just is. All the more shiny because it’s coupled with grace.”

Hall, who shared the screen Cruz in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” in 2008, called her co-star “an accomplished technician of her craft and a real actor’s actor.”

“What do I mean by that? Quite simply that she serves the story,” Hall said. “She surrenders herself to the scene and the other actors in it. When you’re in a scene with her, you feel listened to and seen, which is everything any of us actors want.”

The film benefit was presented by Chanel, the lead sponsor of film at MoMA. Chanel has supported the MoMA film exhibition program since 2009, which works to conserve a growing collection of film archives. This year’s guest list also included Anne Hathaway, Kristen Wiig, Riley Keough and Pom Klementieff.

“When talking about Penélope Cruz, she might not be a woman. She’s more goddess than woman,” Hathaway told reporters on the carpet. “I feel like her performances are aspirational, and they’re also approachable. I feel like I have a deeper understanding of what it means to be a woman because of it.”

Cruz also took the time to address the changing state of cinema, which has been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic and new distribution platforms.

“I think we’ve realized that in a world that seems hurting and scared and divided, we need all forms of art maybe more than ever,” Cruz said on stage. “We need film to see not only our own stories reflected back to us but to see everyone’s stories told. And cinema is resilient, but we need to protect it.”

Ending on an optimistic note, Cruz said that she believes that the movie theater industry will survive.

“I have felt that the experience of watching a film in the theater will survive,” she said. “I cannot imagine a world without it.”

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