Penelope Cruz wins first Oscar for Spanish actress

LOS ANGELES Sun Feb 22, 2009 10:35pm EST

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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Penelope Cruz became the first Spanish-born actress to win an Oscar by taking the best supporting actress award on Sunday for her role as tempestuous artist Maria Elena in Woody Allen's romantic comedy "Vicky Cristina Barcelona."

Cruz, 34, thanked both Allen and Spanish film director Pedro Almodovar for their roles in shaping her career and dedicated the gold statuette to the actors from her country.

"Thank you Woody for trusting me with this beautiful character. Thank you for having written over all these years some of the greatest characters for women," she said.

With her Oscar win, Cruz, joins fellow actresses Dianne Wiest and Mira Sorvino in scoring best supporting-actress Oscars for their performances in Woody Allen films.

"I grew up in a place called Alcobendas, where this was not a very realistic dream," said Cruz.

Dressed in a 60-year-old ivory Pierre Balmain vintage gown and fighting back tears, Cruz asked anyone had ever fainted while accepting an Oscar. "I might be the first one."

Born in Madrid to a hairdresser and an auto mechanic, Cruz got her big break in the Spanish film industry in 1992 with "Jamon Jamon."

She captured the attention of the Oscar-winning Almodovar, who cast her in various movies including the 2006 film "Volver," which earned her a best actress Oscar nomination for her turn as a woman who kills her abusive husband.

That nod made Cruz the first Spanish woman to be nominated for a best actress Academy Award for a non-English speaking role.

Cruz thanked Almodovar for "having made me part of so many of his adventures."

Cruz's Oscar win on Sunday follows a British BAFTA award and other U.S. critics awards this season for her performance in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" as the fiery ex-wife to a bohemian artist portrayed by Javier Bardem who has wooed a pair of young American women vacationing Spain.

Cruz struggled for years to convince English-speaking movie audiences to take her seriously after critics panned her earlier performances in films like "Woman on Top," and was sometimes better-known for high-profile romances with stars like Tom Cruise and Matthew McConaughey.

'CLIMBING MOUNTAINS'

Backstage on Sunday, Cruz said she is grateful that she was not discouraged by those earlier "invalidations."

"You have to keep climbing mountains. It's better not to listen or to engage in those debates," she said, adding that she is encouraged by how more open the entertainment industry is to people with accents.

"It has been changing. We are all mixed together and that has to be reflected in cinema. I'm happy that finally that door seems to be more open and not just to me and three other people, but to a much bigger group," she said.

(Reporting by Sue Zeidler; Editing by Mary Milliken and Cynthia Osterman)

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