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Her Funny Nervous Breakdown Finally Gives Spain's Carmen Maura a Leg Up to the Top of the World

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Oh, she’s a little flakey around the edges, maybe, but rest assured: Carmen Maura is nowhere near the brink of a total flip-out. She is, after all, only role-playing as one of the Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown in Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar’s much-raved-about new movie farce. Onscreen she plays a woman whose life is a mess: a woefully wronged film dubber who just can’t seem to get revenge on the Lothario who jilted her. In real life, things for Carmen Maura couldn’t be rosier.

Despite being Spain’s most sparkling movie star, Maura is also that rarest of creatures: an approachable celebrity. Strolling the streets of her native Madrid, she is figuratively and literally embraced by nuns, taxi drivers, housewives, street sweepers and punksters, all exuberantly proud of and yet unintimidated by her. And now, after 12 years with Almodóvar in a half dozen of his films, she is finally being hailed in the U.S. press as the best foreign actress to hit the States since Anna Magnani or Jeanne Moreau. The recognition, says Maura, 43, comes as a complete surprise. “And at this stage in my life,” she trills, “I love surprises.”

In fact, the course of her life suggests she always has. As the prim daughter of a Madrid ophthalmologist, Carmen at one time seemed destined for the straight and narrow. She was married at 20 to a fellow student who was also director of the University of Madrid’s theater, and she soon was the mother of two children. But four years later the walls closed in. Her “very Catholic” husband was by then an attorney, and Carmen was the successful proprietor of a small art gallery. Suddenly, she concluded it was time for a change, and she brought off the metamorphosis in startling style. “I made my decision to become an actress in the 20-minute cab ride from the center of Madrid to my home,” she says. “All the great decisions in my life have been made in less than half an hour. And when I make up my mind to do something, I stick to it.”

What followed was a wrenching split from her comfortable home, respectable past (a great-uncle was Antonio Maura, one of Spain’s pre-Civil War prime ministers) and her young daughter and son. She was forced to relinquish custody of the children but saw them frequently until her former spouse moved to the Canary Islands. She firmly refuses to discuss her ex-husband. “There was no divorce in Spain at that time, and our marriage was annulled. It’s as if it never happened.” Then she relents, slightly. “I went through hell for almost three years,” she says. “Beware of ‘liberal’ men. They’re often the ones who are the most macho in the crunch.”

Newly incarnate as an actress, Maura had precious little experience to fall back on. In school plays, she’d always been “plump and dark, and the best parts always went to the girls with blond hair and blue eyes.” For years she could not afford acting classes, which she later financed by everything from small roles in classical drama to “dreadful roles in terrible plays. Some of those early parts were so unconvincing that I had to pretend to myself that the writer had really written a good part.” She even resorted to “working in cabarets in pick-up bars,” she says, adding quickly, “but I never had to mix with the customers.”

In 1976 Maura hooked up with the then-unknown Almodóvar. Their collaboration turned her into a living legend and led to a yearlong stint hosting Spain’s version of The Tonight Show. Her Almodóvar roles—a tormented wife, a freewheeling nun—also helped to make film Maura’s favorite medium, above even the stage. “I love everything about the theater,” she says. “If only there were no audience to spoil it all.”

One corner of Maura’s airy penthouse—she lives alone but has a longtime boyfriend—has been fitted with mirror and barre as a dance studio. She’s making plans for a country estate on land she recently bought outside Madrid, hoping to build a dream house and press her own wine and olive oil. “I have my dogs and my trees, and it’s all mine,” she says. “You should see me when I’m there. My whole body changes.”

So, geographically at least, Carmen seems rooted. “I consider myself a truly Spanish actress,” she says. “I love Madrid and I’m proud of being a Madrileña. Everyone looks surprised when I say I don’t particularly want to make movies in the States. But I’m not going to leave my lovely garret.”

Professionally, she has just made another departure. She has diverged from Almodóvar, in a move she refers to as “a rest from each other.” Her latest film, The Happy Woman, is with an obscure director, Pepe Ganga. “He had never made a [full-length] movie before, but he asked me, and I liked him and I liked the part, so I took it,” she says. “Do you know, it is the first time I have played a woman who enjoys normal sexual relations? I seem to have played so many characters with problems.” She is also toying with a new idea for a celebrity TV talk show: “I’d do or say something completely unexpected, throw a glass of water at them, lie down on the floor, or ask some politician to dance with me on-camera.”

The lady clearly does love the spontaneous, and she especially loves “to communicate with people.” That’s one reason she is taking intensive foreign-language lessons, but not the only one. “If I do win an Oscar,” she says with a proud smile, “I’m bound and determined to accept it in English.”

—Susan Schindehette, and Jane Walker in Madrid