No new territory for ol’ Mom

Times Staff Writer

MADRID -- When Javier Bardem was a toddler, his mother, Pilar, dragged him by the hand to the backstage doors of Spanish theaters as she searched for work. She was a young actress, trying to separate from an abusive husband at a time in Spanish history when women separated from their husbands only at death. Javier was 2.

That’s how the young Bardem came to know the world of performance art, Pilar says, adding that he scored his first role at age 5 when a production had a last-minute need for a child.

Today, of course, he’s scoring some of the most coveted, or at least most interesting, roles in Hollywood and European cinema, including his Oscar-nominated turn as psychotic killer Anton Chigurh in “No Country for Old Men.” It’s his work in the Coen brothers’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s violent, meditative novel that has earned him a raft of prizes this award season -- including critical accolades and the Screen Actors Guild prize -- and has positioned him as a front-runner in the category at Sunday night’s Academy Awards.


But as the saying goes, behind every great man is a great woman. In this case, it just so happens to be Bardem’s mother, one of Spain’s most recognizable names and sought-after talents, who will be on hand for the ceremony to support her son, just as she was when he was nominated for his first Oscar for his lead performance in 2000’s “Before Night Falls.”

The Bardems are a legendary acting dynasty, sort of the Barrymores of Spain, although actors here are not quite treated as royalty. La Bardem, as she is often called, is also a proud mom and a pistol of a woman whose well-lived life has been one of adversity, trail-blazing, politics and superstition.

“This profession, alone, gives you total space and freedom,” Pilar Bardem said in an interview at her agent’s apartment in Madrid, where she was seated on a thick, comfortable sofa among antiques from old Spain and ceramics from Morocco. “No one questions your ideology, no one criticizes your sexual orientation, married or not, you can work.”

It is freedom she values, having grown up in a Spain emerging from devastating civil war and living under the repression of a fascist dictatorship. (She was born just days before Generalissimo Francisco Franco sealed his rise to power by defeating Spanish Republican forces; her late brother, Juan Antonio Bardem, one of Spain’s most renowned filmmakers, was jailed for his anti-Franco politics.)

In person, Pilar, tall and silver-haired, is warm and electric. She wears a cavalcade of silver jewelry, with one or two rings on every finger. She laughs readily and creates personable familiarity with those around her, quickly telling an interviewer, for example, to address her with the informal “tu.”

Walk down the streets of Madrid with her, and people point.

Now 68, she was a feminist before anyone in macho Spain knew what that was; for years, she fought for labor rights for actors, civil rights for women, a more liberal Catholic Church.


“Why can’t women be priests?” she demands to know. “Why should they only wash the clothes and make the food?”

In 2003, her demonstrations against the American-led war in Iraq, which Spain’s then-government supported, got her tossed out of the spectators’ gallery in parliament where she and other actors had shown up in “no-to-war” T-shirts.

She is a cancer survivor two times over and raised, alone, three children (Javier is the youngest) to become very successful adults.

All the while, she pursued a busy acting career: She has appeared in nearly 100 movies, including Pedro Almodovar’s “Live Flesh” with Javier, and several television series. She also works on stage.

“The theater is like going to a convent,” she told the Spanish daily El Pais. “You enter two hours before it starts, to meditate; you have to repeat the same litany over and over; you have to get along well with your companions because, if you don’t, everything is a living hell.”

Speaking to The Times, she added that she likes the stage especially because all is erased with each performance. “There is not a constancy,” she said. “You return the next day and see something different, depending on the moods of the people involved and the connections you make with the audience.”

In addition to her late brother, her parents were stage actors who traveled all over Spain to perform. Her eldest son, Carlos, is an actor and writer, and her daughter, Monica, was an actress who now owns a popular restaurant, where the dishes are named after the family’s movies. (Croquetas “Jamon Jamon” is especially popular.)

“I am proud of all of my children,” Pilar says.

Pilar was named after a sister who died of meningitis a couple of years before she was born.

In a curious twist, Pilar’s third child, Javier, died soon after his birth, from a condition that prevented him from digesting food; she had a fourth, whom she also named Javier.

There is “a need . . . to replace the irreplaceable, to fill the fierce hole left by the death of a child, with another child,” Pilar wrote in her 2005 memoirs.

To this day, she does not really like to talk about her late husband, Carlos. When she wrote the memoirs, she first sought permission from her children; despite everything, she wanted them to continue to love their father.

In one passage, she tells somewhat humorously of an incident after she had left her husband. (Divorce was illegal in Franco’s Spain, and separation didn’t exist.) He shows up at her house in the middle of the night to try to take the children. He begins trying to shoot down the front door. She frantically calls the police but they refuse to come. She insists (“Can’t you hear the shots,” she screams into the phone) and still they refuse.

Finally she starts cursing “Franco and his whore mother” challenging them to come and arrest her as “a red.” (They still refused.)

Though she can remember those days with humor, it was a long struggle, requiring her to work many jobs at once to make ends meet and raise her children.

“Like me, there were hundreds and hundreds of women, I was just one of so many,” she said. “I was beginning from zero.”

Pilar Bardem is currently starring in a Spanish production of John Patrick Shanley’s award-winning play “Doubt,” called here “La Sospecha” (The Suspicion). It is a story of alleged abuse of a youth by a priest at a New York school, and Bardem plays a crusading nun (Meryl Streep will assume the role in an upcoming movie version.)

Her director has agreed to cancel Sunday’s performance so that she can travel to Los Angeles to be at Javier’s side at the Oscar ceremony.

She plans to finish Saturday’s show, board a plane to Los Angeles at 5 a.m., a gown and shoes in her carry-on, and if the gods of immigration and airport transit smile on her, she will reach Los Angeles just in time.