Ava Gardner is easy to like. She projects a natural warmth and earthy humility, making her equally appealing to both women and men. Further, she is one of the great beauties of the 20th century. While most movie stars are beautiful, Gardner’s onscreen visage generates a kind of shock and awe: How anyone’s face can be so sensual, so exquisite ?
(Witness this scene from Showboat). According to William J. Mann (How To Be A Movie Star), even Liz Taylor deferred, believing Ava was the more ravishing of the two. Further, her personal life is the stuff of legend, including a reportedly vigorous appetite for pleasure and vice, an explosively romantic marriage to Frank Sinatra, and tortured love affairs with famous bullfighters in Spain.
But she was never a great actress. The majority of her film performances lack appreciable dimension and nuance. Though clearly a character in her off-screen life, Gardner infrequently managed to project this onscreen. There are exceptions. Gardner brings real pathos and vigor to Showboat, Seven Days in May, Night of the Iguana. But there aren’t enough of these. Her performances are too often flat, diffident, and disappointingly tame.
With it’s European Setting and it’s lurid, romantic story, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s The Barefoot Contessa (1954) should be a perfect vehicle for Gardner. But her performance is just too distant and stiff for a character that’s supposed to be earthy and passionate. I don’t want to malign Ava too much. She’s a likeable presence with a mythic biography; her lackluster performance (and feeble Spanish accent) don’t ruin this strange and memorable film. Despite a less than forceful performance, Gardner’s presence makes a real impression: the resonances between the in-movie legend of “Maria Vargas” and the real-world legend of Ava Gardner enhance the movie’s glamour. And few actresses, even those with far more acting craft, are lovely enough to make you believe in this kind of hypnotic and aureate figure. But Ava’s face is the kind that launches fleets, pure mythic knock-out. So you believe.
While Gardner’s detached performance gives the melodrama a dream-like quality, Bogart as Harry Dawes grounds the film. He is jaded, gentle, witty, worried. It’s surprising how perfectly fatherly Bogart can be. Like Fred Macmurray with a giant helping of Hollywood cool. This was the only film that paired Bogart and Gardner, but they’re a likable pair, their scenes together oddly touching and tinged with apparent mutual regard.
Like many mid-century Tinseltown movies about Tinseltown (The Bad and The Beautiful, Jeanne Eagels, Two Weeks in Another Town, Sunset Boulevard), The Barefoot Contessa is a grandiose mixture of the jaded and the romantic. Dark films all, but also mesmerizing celebrations of movie-makers and movie culture, gothic mash notes from the Cimmerian love affair Hollywood once had with itself.
Mankiewicz’s film is full-bore Hollywood self-mythologizing. He opens with a lonely goddess’s mysterious funeral, followed immediately by a torrid introduction to the living woman. With enamored reaction shots of a flamenco bar’s patrons, Mankiewicz establishes Maria’s sexual dynamism long before the camera actually shows her. Instead of Maria dancing, the camera shows us bewitched and lusty men, jealous or admiring women. Mankiewicz takes his time with these reaction shots, wholly establishing that Maria is no ordinary performer, imbuing her with the power of the white-hot movie star before she’s even shown onscreen.
On the hunt for a new face, a Hollywood scouting troup enters the bar too late to see Maria’s spellbinding dance. The show is over and Maria is backstage. Imperious boss-man Kirk Edwards (Warren Stevens) demands that the bar owner send the dancer back to join their table. The bar owner says that Maria does not sit with the patrons. Undeterred, Edwards sends his sweaty publicist (Edmond O’Brien) to fetch the dancer from her dressing room. But to no avail. Increasingly despotic, Edwards orders writer-director Harry Dawes (Humphrey Bogart) to fetch her. Dawes resists being the errand boy, but he’s down on his luck and when Edwards threatens him with a career-ending blacklist, he goes. Upon finding out who Dawes is, the recalcitrant Maria becomes enthusiastic. She speaks reverentially of Dawes’ movies, then Lubitsch’s and Von Sternberg’s. Turns out, like the rest of the world, she’s a starstruck movie fan.
The rest of the movie unfurls as a glitterati fever dream. Maria makes a screen-test and the camera loves her. She becomes a world famous movie-star, a jet-setting playgirl, and, eventually, an Italian countess. She has sensational problems. Her father kills her mother and she’s embroiled in scandal, but because of her fearless authenticity, the world admires her even more than before. Maria is a mass of 1950’s contradictions: glamorous but earthy, honest but defiant, promiscuous but deeply romantic, universally beloved but deeply alone.
On the whole, Barefoot Contessa is hard to process as a rational, human story. The situations are exotic and extreme; the script is grandiose and cryptic; the acting is a mix of the naturalistic, the overzealous, and the listless. The whole thing verges on the surreal. But it’s not a failure. Instead it resembles certain religious stories, irrational and florid, but absolutely appropriate to the nature of their subject.