An enigmatic beauty finds fame but not happiness in Hollywood in Mankiewicz’ slightly muddled mix of satire, romance and tragedy
Director: Joseph L Mankiewicz
Cast: Humphrey Bogart (Harry Dawes), Ava Gardner (Maria Vargas), Edmond O’Brien (Oscar Muldoon), Marius Goring (Alberto Bravano), Valentina Cortese (Eleanora Torlato-Favrini), Rossano Brazzi (Count Vincenzo Torlato-Favrini), Elizabeth Sellers (Jerry Dawes), Warren Stevens (Kirk Edwards), Franco Interlenghi (Pedro Vargas)
Rain hammers down on a funeral in the Italian Rivera. A group of (mostly) men gather to pay their respects to deceased film star Maria Vargas (Ava Gardner). In flashback, two of the men who discovered her as an exotic dancer in a Madrid nightclub, remember her. Harry Dawes (Humphrey Bogart) is the world-weary writer-director and her friend and mentor, Oscar Muldoon (Edmond O’Brien) a publicist to power-mad producers and self-satisfied millionaires who wanted to use Maria for their own ends. Maria’s success goes with a growing loneliness and ennui: marriage to Count Vincenzo Torlato-Favrini (Rossano Brazzi) feels like a fresh start but leads only to further tragedy.
Mankiewicz’s The Barefoot Contessa was an attempt to do for Hollywood what he so superbly did for theatre in All About Eve. What’s fascinating is that it’s clear Mankiewicz loved the theatre – for all its bitchy acidness – but clearly didn’t like Hollywood that much. The Barefoot Contessa is a cold, cynical film where Hollywood is a shallow, selfish place with no loyalty and where people are only commodities.
The only exceptions are Dawes and Maria. Dawes – an obvious Mankiewicz stand-in (and who hasn’t wished they could be Humphrey Bogart?) – is an artist, with an abashed guilt about wasting his talents on shallow films. Played with a quiet, observational languor by Bogart (so ashen faced at times, he seems almost grey), Dawes narrates with a dry distance, seeing but avoiding involvement, an arched eyebrow for every event. He’s also got a level of principle and integrity largely missing from the other Hollywood figures.
What we see of them is often hard to like – could Mankiewicz already be so bitter about his profession, just a few years after dominating the Oscars? Maria’s first producer, Warren Stevens, is a spoilt millionaire (inspired by Howard Hughes), played with a stroppy greed by Kirk Edwards. Stevens humiliates underlings in restaurants, treats Dawes like a bellboy, demands total devotion from Maria (sulkily ordering her to stay away from a potential rival at a dinner party) and has not a shred of interest in art. Under his control, Dawes directs films which sound formulaic (Black Dawn!) and which he clearly despises. A screen-test for Maria is gate-crashed by a series of European producers who gossip about money, stars, finance and never art.
Maria rises above all this as a true romantic ideal, her tendency to go barefoot part of her defining characteristic as a natural free-spirit in touch with the Mother Nature (“I feel safe with my feet in the dirt”). Ava Gardner is perfectly cast as this romantic but enigmatic figure, an idealised figure we never quite understand. Introduced as curiously indifferent about auditioning for Hollywood (partly due to her instinctive dislike for Stevens), Maria almost drifts into stardom but finds little contentment. She lives the ultimate Cinderella story (as she comments on with Dawes) but never find a satisfying fairy tale ending after her rags-to-riches story.
The Barefoot Contessa starts as a Hollywood expose, but becomes an ill-focused study of this almost unknowable glamour figure. Gardner is, of course, nothing like what a Madrid dancer from the slums would look or act like, but she is perfectly cast as the idealised figure Mankiewicz wants for his Maugham-ish exploration of ennui and shallowness among the jet-set of Europe. They’re not that different from Hollywood producers: obsessed with status and class, and uninterested in truth and art. Marius Goring’s Italian millionaire turns out (for all his Euro-charm) to be as much a stroppy ass as Stevens (humiliatingly blaming Maria for his gambling losses). Her husband, the Count, seems to be her salvation, but turns out to be as much a deceptive empty-suit as anyone else.
I suppose it’s part of the point that we never get to hear Maria’s own voice, only the perceptions of the men around her. You could say the same about All About Eve’s Eve and Margo, but they were such rich characters our understanding of them was always clear. But Maria is never quite compelling enough and Mankiewicz never escapes from making her feel a variation on a fantasy figure (between sex bomb and earth mother). Mankiewicz was forced to compromise on his central conceit (rather than gay, her husband is cursed with ludicrous war-wound induced impotency) of Maria marrying the man least suited to giving her the family-life purpose she seeks.
The Barefoot Contessa – strangely for a film from a director whose best work was with women – eventually becomes a film about men, fascinated with a woman they can never really understand. Dawes gets the closest, the only man free of sexual desire for her, but to the others she is often seen as an unobtainable sexual figure (on a yacht, she defiantly confronts the lecherous stares of the men on board). When we finally see her dance, she has a freedom and naturalness you feel has been crushed by the circles she now moves in.
It feels like two films pushed together: one a Hollywood expose about a newly-grown star (that film is a broader, farcical one where Edmond O’Brien’s hammy Oscar-winning turn as a wild-eyed, famously sweaty publicist seems to fit); the other a novelistic musing on ennui in the moneyed jet-set classes, where an unobtainable woman is at last obtained by a man who can do nothing with her.
Mankiewicz’s weakness is not pulling these two narratives together into a coherent thematic whole. He himself was later critical of the films structure. It’s beautifully written of course – Mankiewicz is a master of theatrical pose – and Jack Cardiff’s technicolour beauty is outstanding. The Barefoot Contessa sits in the shadow, both of In a Lonely Place (Bogart’s vicious 1950 Hollywood expose) and films that loosely followed in its ennui-exploring footsteps, like La Dolce Vita. But it’s as if Mankiewicz got a bit lost (like Dawes) about what his intentions were in the first place.