While it shares elements with the earlier Pandora and The Flying Dutchman in both its techniques and the mystique projected around Ava Gardner, The Barefoot Contessa ultimately evolves and settles into the narrative rhythms one might expect from its creative partners.
Jack Cardiff returns to give Ava Gardner phenomenal lighting and color — flattering her complexion — beams bursting with radiance and vibrant pigmentation. The extraordinary tones of the cinematography are married with Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s penchant for substantial but well-wrought dialogue and a kind of suave dinner repartee dating back to the days of All About Eve. Likewise, the spine of the story is derived from a very conspicuous novelistic device — starting at the end to illuminate the beginning.
Because someone has died. There is a funeral in the gloom of a rainy day in Spain. Although rain falls mainly on the plain, that is no concern of ours. Instead, we meet the onlookers from many walks of life, all sheltered (for the most part) under their respective umbrellas.
Humphrey Bogart is Harry Dawes a veteran movie director and screenwriter halfway around the world from Hollywood & Vine, attending the funeral of one of the industry’s incandescent starlets who burned out far too quickly.
As is commonplace with many of these self-reflexive industry portraits popular specifically during the 1950s, you begin to suspect where stories gleaned their inspirations by weaving fact and fiction together into a new amalgam of the Hollywood dream factory.
This tale of a nightclub singer in Madrid rising to the heights of Hollywood is hardly a far cry from other real-life origin stories. Rita Hayworth was reborn as a screen goddess and eventually married a prince. Lana Turner was discovered at a drug store counter or the likes of Linda Darnell and Ava Gardner herself had Hollywood contracts thrust upon them at such an early age. In other words, this wasn’t just another wishful Hollywood story. There are obvious antecedents floating around the industry.
The world is instantly placeable. Flamenco guitar. The unmistakable Enzo Staiola from the Bicycle Thief as a busboy (in Spain no less). What sets Maria Vargas apart is her startling frankness, hardly enamored with the movie industry.
She makes a startling first impression as much for what she won’t do as for what she does. Because she’s a very hard girl to see — not easily swayed by Hollywood glitz — and terribly grounded when it comes to what she wants for her career.
The wheeling-dealing P.R. man Oscar Muldoon (Edmond O’Brien) talks up what she has to look forward to, continually dabbing his forehead with his hanky from his exuberant bouts of hyperventilation. Meanwhile, the tense and controlling financier, Kirk Edwards (Warren Stevens), sits by expecting everyone to cave to his will.
He’s no Hollywood wunderkind, but he has money to finance the industry’s next big hit. His money speaks and so Dawes and Muldoon follow his lead. He makes the world turn. Maria Vargas knows no such convention. She is the master and perfecter of her own destiny.
Harry’s the first person she feels akin to; he’s a real person without throwing around the pretense of his purported fame. Meanwhile, she’s not completely ignorant of the movie industry, throwing around the names of Lombard and Harlow, Lubitsch, Van Dyke, and La Cava from the golden days.
Even as the lovely dancer sets her sights on Hollywood, she carves out an individual path. She began as an untouchable with no interest in the enticements of men or romance promised by the industry around her.
Because she knows who she is and her grounded roots are signified by her affinity for having her feet in the dirt. You can’t easily change someone to the core of their being. Though she’s not Spanish nor does she exude the qualities of a girl from humble means (looks can be deceiving), Garnder makes the most of it.
There are men jockeying for her affections (or at least ownership of her career) among them Kirk and a frivolous Latin American gigolo, Alberto Bravano (Marius Goring). He is little better, enslaved by his own excesses be it gambling or drink. The man who admires her from a distance and subsequently takes her away from the place is Count Vincenzo Torlato-Favrini (Rossano Brazzi), the closest thing to a decent man she’s ever had in her life thus far.
Harry remains a steadfast friend and a protector of Maria when the world seems full of ravenous wolves and superficial opportunists. He knows Maria better than most; she owns an acute Cinderella complex, looking for her Prince Charming, even if the glass slippers were never meant for her. The Count seems to be the man. Alas, in life midnight often strikes and there’s no way to reclaim the time. Her fairy tale ends in tragedy.
No fault of her own, I never felt the weight or magnitude of Maria and the loss of her life. The way the story continually circles “the round” of funeral guests somehow hinders us even though the myriad of perspectives are meant to help us comprehend her better.
I found myself wanting more Bogart or at least more O’Brien, who gives an impeccable showbiz send-up, but when topics turned to the other men in Maria’s life, the story grows turgid and uninteresting — partially alienating the audience. They were never established in the same way nor do I have the kind of instant rapport with Goring or Brazzi that I instantly feel for Bogart.
Most regrettably, Gardner’s performance is never truly allowed to cast a spell of enchantment aside from a few intermittent scenes. Yes, once again, she’s remarkably beautiful and Jack Cardiff’s camera does wonders to ignite her God-given features in an extraordinary light. When she dances with gypsies or wanders through grand estates in luxuriant gowns, she has powers to entrance the audience.
However, her actual performance — going beyond her casting as a Spaniard — never seems to play to her true strengths. If I may be so bold, I never consider her much of an actress, but she’s at her most sublime playing shades of who she really was or at least what her reputation made her out to be.
I look at Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, even in its heightened state of reality, or Mogambo and The Night of The Iguana, and I feel like I know and understand Gardner a bit more intimately in and through her performances. Perhaps this is precisely the point, but in The Barefoot Contessa, we only know her due to the recollections of others.
For me, she is merely another portrait of inevitable rising and falling human tragedy. Unfortunately Hollywood has engendered many of those storylines. She feels more like the postscript to other people’s stories than the definitive protagonist of her own biography.
Because a Barefoot Contessa is such a stirring image, both dissonant and complex, well-worth eulogizing about. Sadly, it never harnesses all its assets, and when the credits roll it feels inconsequential at best and at worst disrespectful.
Such a woman deserved a better remembrance. If nothing else, it’s a sad commentary suggesting a woman’s legacy is made by the men who helped shape her and are consequently the ones who live to tell her story. The Pygmalions might live in regret, but it is their creations who are buried in the dirt. “Che Sara Sara” feels like too pat an answer for this tragic Cinderella story.
But, after all, this is Hollywood we’re talking about where it’s tempting to mold everyone into easily digestible, one-dimensional media icons ready for immediate consumption. For all their glamour and tabloid-worthy headlines, Rita, Lana, Linda, and Ava (as well as any other Hollywood casualty) were human beings too.