Unforgettables: Cinematic Milestones #28 – All About My Mother (1999)

by - May 30th, 2024 - Features


Almodóvar’s cathartic melodrama of gender, sexuality, and family still strikes a universal chord after 25 years

NOTE: This feature originally appeared in the April 19, 2024 edition of the Seattle Gay News.

I remember a cold late-winter day in 1992 when my mother made a seemingly innocuous, off-the-cuff remark that unfortunately cast a giant shadow on my life. I’d recently turned 18 and was home from school sick. In truthfulness, I wasn’t that ill. I was having a semirough time and needed a day off. I was still recovering from surgery to reconstruct some bones in my thumb (a football injury) and had lost my entire senior year of basketball because of it. I was also struggling with some personal issues that led to my developing an ulcer.

All About My Mother (1999) | PHOTO: Sony Pictures Classics

I’m pretty sure my mom knew something other than the flu was going on. But instead of making a big deal out of it, she just empathetically let things be. I’ve always loved that about her.

Anyhow, I was laying on the couch underneath a massive blanket, stereotypically sipping chicken noodle soup and channel-surfing from one inane daytime program to the next. This was before the days of streaming, and I was far too lazy to put on one of the many VHS tapes I owned. Instead, it was local news this, game show that, PBS pledge drive breaks here, and soap opera after soap opera there. Finally, I stumbled onto The Sally Jessy Raphael Show, and goodness knows, there’s a gigantic part of me that wonders what my life would have been like had I never done so.

It was an episode revolving around Tandi Andrews, a model and performer who appeared on several talk shows in the 1990s. This was the whole “you’ll never believe this used to be a guy!” sort of thing that all these programs seemed to take great joy in presenting, and as exploitive as they were, whenever I ran across one of these episodes, I couldn’t have pulled my eyes away from the screen even if a spaceship had landed in our front yard or a twister had ripped off our roof.

I was transfixed, and it was obvious. Mom walked into the room and wondered what the heck it was I was watching. I mumbled some sort of blasé response to try and conceal how interested I was, and I think I made the excuse that I wasn’t really watching and only had it on for noise. My mother shrugged her shoulders, turned around, and half-jokingly said on her way out of the room, “Well, at least you’re not like one of those freaks. Don’t ever do something like that.”

What’s weird is that I knew she didn’t mean it. Mom had no idea the secrets I was concealing. I’d done an almost perfect job of making sure of that. I also knew my mother was — and still is — one of the most open-minded and selflessly accepting people on the face of the planet. If she had known, if I’d ever left any clues, she’d never have said such a thing. It was an attempt to be funny, nothing more, but the impact it had upon me was still massive, to say the least.

“Don’t ever do something like that.”

Fast-forward to 1999. I’d been noticeably laboring at the University of Washington. I’d already been put on academic probation once, taking myself out of classes for a couple of years before they could expel me. Now I’d returned and was not doing a heck of a lot better. I was a psychological mess, and I’d only recently gone into therapy to discuss my struggles with gender identity with someone who could hopefully help me figure stuff out.

That’s when I saw Pedro Almodóvar’s colorfully intoxicating All About My Mother. A great motion picture, yes, but I fell instantaneously in love with it for other reasons. I knew going in that Almodóvar was once again toying with gender taboos. What I did not anticipate was how much of myself and my own complicated relationship with my mom I’d see up on the screen. It was like the acclaimed Spanish auteur had dug inside my brain and pulled out so many of my fears, dreams, anxieties, and aspirations and splashed them there for the entire world to take a nakedly raw look at.

Considering how much its tone and structure owes to titans like Douglas Sirk and especially Tennessee Williams, it’s only fitting that the film opens with its main character, Manuela (Cecilia Roth), exiting a Madrid performance of A Streetcar Named Desire with her teenage son Esteban (Eloy Azorin). An unfathomable tragedy takes his life, and this leads a grief-stricken Manuela on a cross-country trek to inform the boy’s father, who never even knew about Esteban.

Like all Almodóvar endeavors, this is only a jumping-off point for all sorts of hyperemotional madness. A variety of memorable characters get involved with Manuela, not the least of whom is Esteban’s favorite actress, Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes), Transgender sex worker Agrado (Antonia San Juan), and kindhearted Sister Rosa (Penélope Cruz). They all play an integral part in helping the inconsolable mother heal, and all of them have their own demons that, if they cannot be overcome, at least must be reconciled if the women are going to make the most out of life.

It’s fantastic stuff. San Juan has moments that are as hysterical as they are heartbreaking, while Cruz makes the most of her small part (at least by the standards set by her vaunted partnership with Almodóvar) in the proceedings. Roth and Paredes unsurprisingly dominate, the former delivering a performance of such graceful exactitude that its full scope and breadth is beyond astonishing.

What All About Your Mother made me realize, though, was how much stock I put in a throwaway statement from years prior. I already knew I had more in common with Agrado than I was ready to reveal to my friends and family, but what I didn’t quite understand was how I’d been letting societal perception and internalized fear rule so much of my life. “Don’t ever do something like that” wasn’t just a simple statement from a loved one, it was a giant blinking neon sign ordering me to keep telling the world a lie.

All About My Mother (1999) | PHOTO: Sony Pictures Classics

When I came out to my parents a couple years later, their only anger was that I’d spent so much wasted time concealing this truth from them. They didn’t completely understand what I was going through — no shock there — but that didn’t keep them from embracing me with acceptance and love, no questions asked. It’s been a journey, sure, but we’ve gone on it together. I was never a freak to either of them, and both my parents recognize I’m far happier, self-confident, and outgoing now than I ever was as a kid or young adult.

Did All About My Mother change my life? Probably not, as I’m sure I would have come to all of these revelations in my own time whether or not I’d watched Almodóvar’s Academy Award–winning classic when I did. But it certainly didn’t hurt, and, if anything, the director’s spellbinding melodrama has only become more thought-provoking and essential over the past quarter century. It still feels ahead of its time, and the director’s thoughts on gender, identity, sexuality, and family strike a universal chord.

Celebrating its 25th anniversary, All About My Mother is available on DVD and Blu-ray, and can be purchased digitally on multiple platforms.

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