Penelope Cruz is Poised for Breakout with Two New Films

NEW YORK — Ay dios mio!

Hot on the heels of her first best-actress Oscar nomination, Spain's Penelope Cruz is basking in some very sweet reviews for playing a stormy artist in Woody Allen's dramedy "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" and a composed college student involved with her ambivalent professor in the drama "Elegy."

And yet, she can't sit through a single interview or stroll down a red carpet without the same question cropping up: What was it like kissing her "Vicky Cristina" co-star Scarlett Johansson?

"Always," Cruz says with a sigh, raising her eyebrows, of inquiries about a quick yet potent scene that's pivotal to the film. "Maybe if I was a journalist I would ask about it, too. But Scarlett and I have run out of things to say about it. We get asked 50 times a day."

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Right now, Cruz, 34, lacks the energy to whip up any pithy fabrications about their on-screen smooch in Allen's tale of two New Yorkers (Johansson and Rebecca Hall) who spend a summer in Spain and become entangled with a local painter (real-life boyfriend Javier Bardem) and his unstable ex-wife (Cruz).

The film opens Friday and goes up against Cruz's other project," Elegy", an intimate adaptation of Philip Roth's novella "The Dying Animal". Cruz is Consuela, a Cuban student who falls in love with her much older and very conflicted professor (Ben Kingsley).

Cruz has been doing publicity non-stop for both movies on both coasts. She just wrapped the thriller "Los Abrazos rotos (Broken Hugs)", her fourth film with her frequent collaborator Pedro Almodóvar.

"That's why I'm tired. I don't even know what my name is anymore," she says, dipping into a bowl of miso soup.

A busy year

Still, she's not complaining, she's quick to point out. It has been a rich year for the actress, long a superstar at home in Spain and hailed for her work in Spanish-language films but frequently relegated to being eye candy in English-speaking movies.

Hollywood didn't seem to know quite what to do with her, and for years she was more famous for her boyfriends (like Tom Cruise) than her performances. That's finally changing.

"The only thing standing in her way was that she didn't know the language well, but years have passed, and she has developed the language much better," Allen says. "She's going to be a perennial. She's a great actress, like Sophia Loren. She's very earthy, full of feeling, full of passion.

"If she chooses her parts wisely, she'll be a great actress, and with her kind of looks, the kind of looks that age very well, she'll be beautiful at 50 and 60."

Thanks to her dual dramatic turns, "this is the first time people are taking her really seriously," says Elegy director Isabel Coixet.

In "Vicky Cristina", Cruz sizzles in both languages, berating Bardem in her native tongue while sparring with Johansson in English. In Elegy, she's delicate and defiant as Kingsley's paramour.

It's a potent one-two punch for Cruz, even critics agree.

"Cruz has never done anything like this: with her downturned mouth and wild black hair, she looks witchy and unbeautiful," writes the "New Yorker's" David Denby of her turn in "Vicky Cristina". "New York" magazine's David Edelstein praises her "hilarious turn as a hellcat."

"EW's" Owen Gleiberman calls her "brilliant" in "Elegy," and Variety's Leslie Felperin says Cruz has "never been better in English."

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