In describing Penelope Cruz, the word "breathtaking" somehow seems inadequate. The first time I beheld her smoldering dark beauty in Almodovar's "Open Your Eyes"  (1997), like countless other red-blooded males I went weak in the knees. Then, watching her performance, I realized that this was much more than an uncommonly pretty face and figure: her fiery spirit and keen intelligence shone through like a beacon.

Born in Madrid in 1974, Penelope's first love was dancing. After years of study, she entered a talent contest on a whim, and — no surprise — she won. Soon Penelope found herself performing, first in music videos, then films.

She stood out as one of four lovely sisters in 1992's "Belle Epoque," and three years later got her chance to work with the brilliant Spanish director Pedro Almodovar. As fine as she was in "Open Your Eyes," it was her role in Almodovar's masterpiece "All About My Mother" (1999) that made her an international star.

Linked over the years to Matthew McConaughey, Matt Damon and Tom Cruise, she finally settled down and married her countryman and fellow actor Javier Bardem, after the two were reunited in Woody Allen's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" (2008). They had first met on a Spanish film set in 1992, but had not connected since.

"Vicky" not only brought Cruz the love of her life, it also won her an Academy Award. She deserved it; along with her then husband-to-be, she stole the film. In doing so, Cruz became the second Spanish star to win an acting Oscar. Who was first? None other than Javier, just two years prior, for his chilling turn in "No Country For Old Men."

Here's our photographic tribute to a lady who may just be the finest Spanish export since sangria. Viva Penelope!


Young Penelope, with that come-hither stare.


Those eyes!


Even unadorned, she's exquisite.


Comfortable in her own skin.


Black and white brings out her dark, dramatic beauty.



Yellow suits her. So does any other color.

Riding bareback.


Two sex symbols connect. With Sophia Loren.


I'll clap along to this.


I need to hold on to something too.


With spouse Javier Bardem. Fate decreed they'd re-connect.


...

Penelope in high-fashion mode: a study in scarlet and pink.


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