Bucket List Movie #455: The Barefoot Contessa (1954)
Funny how accidentally relevant my posts seem to be. Yesterday, on the 13th anniversary of 9/11, I posted my review of The Killing Fields, which was about what happens when terrorists succeed. Now, amidst the scandal involving the nude photos of actresses being hacked, I happened to view today's BLM, 1954's The Barefoot Contessa, which is about the dark side of celebrity, and how that life attracts troubles that don't affect ordinary people like you and me.
The Barefoot Contessa's director, Joseph Mankiewicz, was no stranger to covering this particular topic. Four years earlier, he wrote and directed the massively successful All About Eve, which showed how fame seems to attract the nastiest, most parasitic people this side of the average reality show. Hey, do you think, say, a bank teller has a young acolyte scheming to take his or her place? Mankiewicz, one of the most unapologetically erudite people in Hollywood, dared to write stories that seemed to be about people just talking… and got away with it. Think about it: All About Eve's most interesting events happen offscreen, and are discussed after the fact. The titular letter in A Letter to Three Wives is one of the most unlikely MacGuffins ever, and gives way to much contemplation and introspection from our main leads. Suddenly, Last Summer is so salacious and tawdry, you forget that it consists entirely of characters either giving exposition, or telling anecdotes. Watching Guys and Dolls, I enjoyed it (in spite of Marlon Brando's "singing"), but was amazed at how chatty it was, to the point where the musical numbers felt like an odd distraction. This might come off as ponderous to some, but I personally admire that Mankiewicz dares to let his characters talk and bare their souls. You truly get to know them that way, and it's a bonus that what they talk about is interesting.
But back to The Barefoot Contessa. Since even the greatest writers tend to repeat themselves, Mankiewicz takes his framing device from All About Eve and uses it in today's film: that is, our supporting characters take turns narrating the events that have lead to where our heroine is today.
WARNING! SPOILERS AHEAD!
And just what has happened to our heroine that has lead everyone here? Her death.
It is the funeral of Maria Vargas (Ava Gardner), international movie star and the wife of an Italian count. Gathered in the rain are the people who knew her best (sadly, it isn't much of a crowd): Harry Dawes (Humphrey Bogart), a cynical writer, director, and avatar for Mankiewicz; Oscar Muldoon (Edmond O'Brien), an insufferably unctuous publicist with a nasty sweating problem, and Kirk Edwards (Warren Stevens), a business man whose morals and character could easily fit under someone's fingernail. One by one, each man (namely Harry and Oscar) relates to how they got here.
Just three years earlier, in a trip to Spain, Kirk is desperate to see acclaimed local dancer, Maria Vargas, even though she has a strict policy about not mingling with customers. Desperate to talk her into going to Hollywood, Kirk follows her into her dressing room. When when that tactic predictably fails, Harry gives it a shot. Once he chases away a random guy Maria was necking with, he talks business with Maria in frank terms. Maria appreciates Harry's respect and lack of bullshit, and it helps she's a long time fan of his work. After dragging her heels for a while, she decides to leave her unhappy home life (her harridan mother makes everyone miserable) and take a chance on Hollywood.
Maria is an instant star, winning everyone over with her beauty, talent, charisma, and free spirit (she doesn't wear shoes if she can help it, hence the title). She makes three films, each one a smash. When her father kills her mother in a heated argument, Maria flies to Spain to defend him. Oscar is petrified this will destroy her career, but instead her passion and candor make her more beloved than before. But it's lonely at the top, and Maria doesn't feel satisfied throwing parties at her rented house with guests she couldn't care less about. It doesn't help that Kirk tries to run her life at every turn. When she meets wealthy playboy Alberto Bravano (Marius Goring), she decides to run off with him just to stick it to Kirk. He whisks her off to Europe, where she mingles with the international elite, but Alberto is becoming more and more controlling and abusive. When he tries to rough her up in public, Count Vincenzo Torlato-Favrini (everyone's favorite Italian silver fox, Rossano Brazzi), gives him a well-deserved slap. It is love at first sight for Maria and Vincenzo, and a fairy tale romance is born.
Tiresome Trivia of the Day: Marius Goring also played an unworthy also-ran in love in The Red Shoes, in which our lovely heroine (Moira Shearer) inexplicably falls in love with Goring's Julian, who is the poster boy for Nice Guy Syndrome.
Just when you think the Cinderella parallels (unfortunately, the heavy-handed comparisons to fairy tales are among the movie's biggest flaws) couldn't be more apparent, Maria marries Vincenzo in a glorious wedding that almost predicts the union of Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier, with Maria's dress even resembling Kelly's (The Barefoot Contessa is actually based on Rita Hayworth and Prince Aly Khan's marriage). Harry wishes her the best, but warns her to keep her feet on the ground, since her new husband is only human.
Vincenzo is indeed only human… and a rather crappy one, at that. Here's where this otherwise decent film falters. You see, Vincenzo and his sister are the last in their family, and the family dynasty is doomed to extinction if one of them doesn't produce an heir. Vincenzo insists that he loves Maria, but he also wants her to produce an heir, which is a big reason why he married her. However, he chooses their wedding night to tell Maria, in typical, 1950s purple prose, that he's impotent (no, he doesn't use the "i" word, he just has this long, mincing speech about a "war injury").
Whoa, whoa, whoa, there, buddy! You're impotent, but you expect your new wife to give you a kid? How?! You don't assemble them from a kit or pluck them from a tree! And, further taking a turn for the Douglas Sirk-ian, Maria confides to Harry that she's cheating on Vincenzo, and she's now pregnant. She thinks Vincenzo will be thrilled by this, but Harry tells her he won't be. Harry knows of what he speaks, because Vincenzo finds out about Maria's infidelity, and shoots her dead, along with her lover. He attends her funeral and allows himself to be escorted by the police, because he's a murderous, hypocritical, half-witted douchebag. Harry, in his rain-soaked trench coat (so Bogie!), sadly walks away from the statue of Maria, the barefoot contessa.
The overwrought ending really spoils the movie for me, which is a shame, because there is a lot going for it. For God's sake, Humphrey Bogart and Ava Gardner in the same movie? That's supernova star power right there! I also appreciate how there isn't a romance between them, but a warm, affectionate friendship (though if they'd played a couple in another movie, I wouldn't complain). Gardner is magnificently cast, the embodiment of charisma, which leads me to another gripe about this movie. In All About Eve, we at least get to see a little of Eve in action, and we get to gradually see her true nature emerge. Mankiewicz shows and tells, but we don't get enough of that in The Barefoot Contessa. We see Maria from the point of view of the men who knew her, but we never get to know her half as well as they do. Maybe that was the point, but it left me unsatisfied. Edmond O'Brien won the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award, which just baffles me, because his performance is among the least interesting, certainly to me. I looked up the nominees for 1954, because I figured that maybe it was a slow year, and he was up against Rod Steiger, Lee J. Cobb, and Karl Malden for On the Waterfront, and Tom Tully for The Caine Mutiny. So two actors I love, Rod Steiger and good ol' Karl Malden, who were both in one of the hottest films of 1954, got passed over for O'Brien, whose biggest contribution to his part was daring to look sweaty? The hell, I say.
Tiresome, Shallow Fashion Rant of the Day: The Barefoot Contessa is admired greatly for its aesthetic, in subdued but no less gorgeous Technicolor, and OMG, those gowns are so friggin' gorgeous, I want 'em, I want 'em, I want 'em so bad!! Ava Gardner's gowns, created by Fontana (who never worked on another film), could elicit swoons and drooling, they are so amazing. They almost upstage the movie! Just as Bogie was born to wear trench coats and fedoras, Gardner was born to wear strapless dresses and blinding jewels.
So this isn't the best film Mankiewicz ever made, but it's far from his worst (I haven't seen Cleopatra yet, so I can't judge). It's a flawed diversion, and will probably best appreciated by diehard fans of Bogie or Gardner.
Did you notice I didn't once make a cheap joke in reference to Ina "The Barefoot Contessa" Garten? Aren't you proud of me?