THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA (1954)

  • Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
  • Writer: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
  • Starring: Ava Gardner, Humphrey Bogart, Edmond O’Brien, Marius Goring, Valentina Cortese, Rossano Brazzi, Elizabeth Sellars, and Warren Stevens
  • Accolades: 2008 Cahiers du Cinema Top 100 list (#31), 1 Oscar (Best Supporting Actor – Edmond O’Brien), 1 additional Oscar nomination (Best Screenplay)
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming (with ads) on Tubi, buy or rent on Amazon Video or YouTube

Hollywood notoriously loves movies about movies, including ostensibly those that set out to satirize the excesses and foibles of the film business. In the early-1950s alone, there was a Hollywood-based remake of A Star Is Born with Judy Garland and Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful. But at worst those stories portray the bad parts of Hollywood as the result of a few, solely greed-driven bad apples. But The Barefoot Contessa shows it as a business where the barrel has been spoiled. Everyone in this movie, with the possible exception of the two leads, is an absolutely terrible person. When I say that this is as unremitting a look as you’d get in 1954 at a movie business that was (I use the past-tense here solely in the sense of this movie) mostly about rich and powerful men ruthlessly exploiting women, what I mean is that it actually goes much further than you might expect giving the age of the movie. This is a straight up #MeToo movie released decades before hashtags worked that way.

The Barefoot Contessa was conceived by writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz as a showcase for Ava Gardner. One of the great female stars of her era, Gardner lived one of those completely insane 20th Century lives that hardly seems possible to us today. She was born the youngest of seven children of poor tobacco sharecroppers in rural North Carolina. Visiting her sister in New York City at age 18, she had her portrait taken by a photographer who happened to be dating her sister. The portrait got hung up on his studio wall, where an MGM talent scout ended up seeing it. In addition to becoming a massive movie star, Gardner dated Howard Hughes, married Frank Sinatra, and became close friends with Ernest Hemingway. The story goes that she went swimming naked in Hemingway’s pool at his Cuban villa, after which he told his servants, “The water is not to be emptied.” She also had an Oscar nomination (for Mogambo) and a long and successful career.

The Barefoot Contessa is one of those stories where it is rumored to be based on all of the famous actresses of its day, but likely takes various details from various true stories. It follows the career of the fictional Maria Vargas (Gardner), a Spanish flamenco dancer who a Hollywood director (Humphrey Bogart) lifts from obscurity even though he knows that fame will certainly destroy her. Her brief, meteoric career, eventual marriage to an Italian Count (Rossano Brazzi), and subsequent death (I’m not listing this as a spoiler, since the movie’s first scene is literally her funeral) are recounted regretfully by Bogart, sweaty publicist Edmond O’Brien (who won a Supporting Actor Oscar), and the Count himself, in a series of dueling but somehow non-contradictory narrations. Gardner is never seen in the movie when alone, it’s always from the point of view of someone else.

I’m not sure why the movie makes that choice, or why the screenplay has to feel like a house of cards being constructed on the fly rather than a straightforward story. Nor did I find myself fully grabbed by the unrelenting exploitation of Vargas by a series of Hollywood types, most prominently humorless, weirdly Christian millionaire producer Kirk Edwards (Warren Stevens). All the best scenes in the movie are between Bogart and Gardner, where he tells her not to let people exploit her and she basically insists that she doesn’t have any choice, then occasionally takes off her shoes (not sure what this symbolizes, but it sure as heck symbolizes something). Yet the movie is very insistent that they can’t actually get together romantically (he has a wife who’s in like two scenes, played by Elizabeth Sellers), though that would solve most of their respective problems I’d think.

There could just be some obscure Production Code reason for that, or it could just be that the movie Mankiewicz is making doesn’t have a happy ending. It can’t. The mastermind of the wildly successful All About Eve four years earlier, Mankiewicz seems to set out to repeat that success with another movie skewering the treatment of women in showbiz, only this time with even more acerbic narration, an even more complicated structure, and even more characters. There’s one scene in a Monaco casino where the narrator (in this case O’Brien) spends what feels like several minutes introducing various characters that will be in that scene and only that scene, and whose only purpose in the plot is to provide Maria with an audience to be embarrassed in front of. From a structural perspective, it’s a movie full of bizarre decisions.

Yet it has survived to today more than many of its contemporaries, and even showed up on that Cahiers du Cinema greatest movies list I quote from sometimes. Why? Well, for one, Ava Gardner is a major Hollywood star whose fame has survived longer than most of her roles in actual movies. This is as good a representative of her oeuvre as any, I suppose. Further, it does feel somehow out of its time. This is a movie from 1954 that not only allows most of its characters to be unremittingly terrible, it makes a major plot point out of (spoilers incoming) the idea that the Count can’t have sex because his dick got blown off while he was in the army (in Benghazi, the movie makes sure we know, which as a 21st century American made me chortle). Now, he doesn’t say, “My dick got blown off,” he says, “The only part of me undestroyed was my heart,” but I mean, that’s pretty much a super dramatic way of saying, “My dick got blown off.”

Also, I haven’t really talked about it much, but Humphrey Bogart is walking around through much of this movie just kind of looking super put upon and sad. Most of the movie was shot in Italy, during the “Hollywood on the Tiber” period we’ve talked about before. Bogart was in the phase of his career where he seemed to be taking roles more because they seemed like they’d be a nice vacation than because particularly cared about the part, and I don’t really blame him. He did have it in is contract that he had to appear on the poster of every movie he appeared in, but he liked the version of the poster he was shown that just had a stylized Gardner and Brazzi embracing. So a somewhat perfunctory line drawing of Bogart’s face looking up at them was added to the poster in order to fulfill the contract.

I’m glad I watched The Barefoot Contessa, even though I do think that (certainly compared to, say, All About Eve), it’s a complete mess. It’s very classic Hollywood, all in luscious technicolor, Gardner is great in it, and there’s lots of fun snark, some of which lands and some of which doesn’t. So I’d recommend it, even though I could spend much longer talking about all the weird issues I have with it. Ava Gardner, for her part, went on to a long afterlife where she would be played in various media by a bunch of different actresses, including Marcia Gay Harden and Kate Beckinsale, while the movie itself would give its name to a series of cookbooks and cooking shows that is now the first thing that comes up when you Google the title, ahead of the actual film.

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