It's not every day that a furious food fight with flying mangoes and melons, splattering salsas and a Spanish superstar intrudes on the sunny afternoon languor of the Palace of Fine Arts lagoon.
As cameras rolled last week, a crowd gathered on the sloping lawn to gawk at the scene, wondering what all the fuss was about. The camera crew was shooting "Woman on Top," an $8 million Fox Searchlight comedy feature starring Penelope Cruz, who is on a roll these days in the glamour sweepstakes of Hollywood.
"Woman on Top" has been filming in various San Francisco locations for more than two weeks, after arriving from Bahia, Brazil, where part of the film's "magical realist" story is set.
Cruz, who plays a strong-willed TV cooking-show hostess who suffers from motion sickness, was working with an American, French, Brazilian and Spanish crew. The 25-year-old actress was the focus of attention among passers-by during two days of shooting at Fort Point and the Palace of Fine Arts.
"Who's that?" was the murmured inquiry.
QUIET ON THE SET
|Chronicle photo Liz Hafalia|
|Penelope Cruz on the set of "Woman on Top." The popular Spanish actress is starting to make a name for herself in American films.|
But the curious hardly had time to find out as crew members barked "quiet" and "rolling," and cameras whirred at the action taking place on a colorful set piled high with fruits, vegetables and other food, and decorated to look like a TV cooking show in progress.
The lagoon shimmered in the backdrop, and birds streaked through the sky as if on cue.
Moviegoers may be noticing that Cruz is suddenly a very popular figure. She's pictured on the latest cover of Gear magazine in red underwear. The headline reads "Cruz Missile Hits Hollywood," which seems a bit awkward as a descrip tion of a pretty woman, but it gets the message across.
Although she has attained superstar status in Spain with films like "The Girl of Your Dreams" (for which she won a Goya Award for best actress), "Jamon, Jamon," "Belle Epoque" and Pedro Almodovar's latest film, "All About My Mother," she has only recently surfaced in American productions.
|Chronicle photo Liz Hafalia|
|A film crew set up at the Palace of Fine Arts last week for "Woman on Top," the Fox Searchlight comedy that has been shooting around San Francisco.|
After playing Billy Crudup's girlfriend in Stephen Frears' "The Hi-Lo Country," Cruz was cast opposite Matt Damon for the forthcoming adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel "All the Pretty Horses," directed by Billy Bob Thornton. It's another fiery part, and Cruz shows seems eager to run with the image.
"I've been very lucky," the Madrid actress with a knockout smile said between takes of "Woman on Top."
"This is my first time in San Francisco, and I love it." She surveyed the crowd that had gathered to watch the filming as word spread that she was a famous Spanish movie star.
America, she said, is filled with "so many possibilities for an actress."
BREAKING INTO U.S. FILM
"I've been working in my country for 11 years, and I want to keep working there, but I want to do good movies here, too," she said. "I feel good about the opportunities I've had so far."
Cruz is a former ballet dancer and the daughter of a car-mechanic father and hairdresser mother who is her business manager. Cruz said she has no immediate plans to leave Madrid, where she is so famous that she stops traffic. But she is considering "looking for a small place to rent in New York, maybe next year."
"Woman on Top," a spring release, is being directed by Fina Torres ("Oriana," "Celestial Clockwork"), a Venezuelan who lives in Paris. On the set, the director spoke four languages, including Spanish, French and Portuguese, but was trying to use English as much as possible, she said.
"This is my first time working here (in the United States), and I'm feeling quite at home. The Americans on our crew amaze me with how fast and efficient they are. They just seem to know exactly what I'm looking for," Torres said. She then turned to a camera operator and spoke in French about setting up the next shot. To her star, Cruz, she spoke mostly in Spanish.
Cruz's character is Isabella, a gifted cook who is cursed with motion sickness. The malady turns her into a control freak she has to drive rather than ride as a passenger in a car, she has to be "on top" in lovemaking. In Bahia, after finding her husband (played by Brazilian TV star Murilo Benecio) in bed with another woman, she runs away to San Francisco to stay with a friend, a transsexual named Monica, played by Harold Perrineau Jr. of HBO's "Oz."
"Woman on Top" producer Alan Poul, who produced the films of Armistead Maupin's "Tales of the City," said that 18 months ago when he first talked to Fox Searchlight about casting Cruz in a lead, studio executives had barely heard of her.
"By now her star has risen so much, they're acting like they've got the next Audrey Hepburn," he said.
©1999 San Francisco Chronicle