The Barefoot Contessa (1954)

Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Cinematography Jack Cardiff

At Maria Vargas’ funeral, several people recall who she was and the impact she had on them. Harry Dawes was a not very successful writer/director when he and movie producer Kirk Edwards scouted her at a shabby nightclub where she worked as a flamenco dancer. He convinces her to take a chance on acting and her first film is a huge hit. PR man Oscar Muldoon remembers when Maria was in court supporting her father who was accused of murdering her mother. It was Maria’s testimony that got him off and she was a bigger star than ever.

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According to Turner Classic Movies, Mankiewicz based the film’s central character of Maria Vargas on American movie star and dancer Rita Hayworth, who had been married to Prince Aly Khan. According to the audio commentary on the 1931 film Tabu, she was based on Anne Chevalier, an actress in that film.

Although The Barefoot Contessa is considered one of Mankiewicz’s most glamorous “Hollywood” films, and one of the most glamorous of Golden Hollywood,  The Barefoot Contessa was shot at the Cinecittà Studios in Rome, Italy. Exterior scenes were shot at Tivoli (the olive grove), Sanremo, and Portofino. However, Bogart wasn’t on location at Sanremo. The studio was about to release the film’s poster with no image of Bogart, a contractual violation. Bogart had the matter rectified with the addition of a large line drawing of his face.

The film’s Italian production was part of the “Hollywood on the Tiber” phenomenon.

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The film was praised by many critics for its extravagance, which earned the director many new admirers. Saturday Review called Ava Gardner “one of the most breathtaking creatures on earth”.Some critics disapproved of the film; the book Feature Cinema in the 20th Century: Volume One: 1913–1950: a Comprehensive Guide called the film “dreadful”, remarking that Mankiewicz’s “intelligence and ambitious aims too often collide with an astonishing lack of subtlety and aesthetic judgment”. Bosley Crowther called it a “grotesque barren film” about the “glittering and graceless behavior of the Hollywood-international set.

However, Francois Truffaut wrote, “…what is beyond doubt is its total sincerity, novelty, daring, and fascination … I myself accept and value it for its freshness, intelligence, and beauty … A subtle and intelligent film, beautifully directed and acted.  It currently holds a 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on eight reviews.

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Anthony Quinn, Ava Gardner and Edmond O’Brien on the set of The Barefoot Contessa  (Below)

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What exactly was Rossano Brazzi’s sexual problem? How does an uneducated peasant woman speak as if she were an English professor?

13 November 2010 | by mauricebarringer (United States) – See all my reviews

(I want to preface my review by stating that I have posted many reviews and am a positive and fair minded critic. This is by far the most negative one I have ever written.)

(I also thoroughly appreciated the excellent commentary by John Holder on page 1 of “hated it.” I have seen 2400 films in my 64 years and this is one of the top 10 worse big budget so-called A level films I have ever seen.)

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This is the second time Ava Gardner has appeared in a film where her husband or lover has somehow lost his penis or else lost its use. This was the problem in the Hemmingway classic novel “The Sun Also Rises” that was made into a film in 1958 when Jake Barnes (played by Tyrone Power) either had Mr. Johnson shot off in WWI or else had it so damaged that he could not use it.

I did not understand what happened to Ava Gardner’s husband (Rossano Brazzi) in “The Barefoot Contessa.” Was his penis shot off? Did he have PTSD(shell shock in those days)? Did it get damaged and cause him to become impotent? Was he gay? Was he a latent homosexual who found out that Ava could not satisfy him? Talk about a hard luck dame (1950s language).

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No writer has mentioned that Ava’s character was an uneducated peasant woman who did not even have an elementary school education yet she spoke as if she were a college English professor. Talk about stilted language, this takes the cake.

The scene where Warren Stevens (Kirk Edwards) and Marcus Goring (the rich playboy) had their verbal confrontation was so silly that I spit up the burrito I was eating. They stood at opposite ends of the lavish mansion and in an excessively theatrical manner started hurling insults at each other. I expected them to challenge each other to a duel.

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Edmund O’Brien, a fine actor, seemed to have overloaded on caffeine or worse. Rossano Brazzi seemed stupefied as to what motivated his ridiculous character. Humphrey Bogart spent the 1950s attempting to stretch his roles. This was a stretch that Wilt Chamberlain in his prime could not reach.

Ava Gardner was being portrayed as an innocent in the woods yet in 1950s style movie subtlety she was sleeping with her “cousin,” her chauffeur, the deck hand on her husband’s yacht and the gypsy to whom she threw her gambling casino winnings.

Joseph Mankiewitz won back to back double Academy Awards in 1949 and 1950 for writing and directing “A Letter to Three Wives” and “All About Eve.” He was a fine writer for almost 20 years before becoming a director. This was his Waterloo.

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Bittersweet tale of success leading to tragedy

8/10
Author: BuddyBoy1961 from Los Angeles, California
4 March 2000

Scouting talent for an upcoming film to be shot in Italy, a trio from Hollywood (writer/director Bogart, producer Stevens and publicist O’Brien) travel to Spain to scope renowned local dancing sensation Maria Vargas (Gardner). Immediately, they are struck by her beauty and presence. In fact, Gardner has a profound effect on every man she meets…though the effect is as unique as each man she encounters. Stevens sees a talent to be exploited for all it’s worth and O’Brien sees only huge marquees and dollar signs. But Bogart, after a couple of brief but revealing conversations with Maria, sees so much more. Expecting a naive Spanish peasant eager to grab at the brass ring, he finds instead a woman as smart as she is beautiful, whose main motivation is to enjoy the challenge and escape that a Hollywood career might offer a woman who will nevertheless always value the simpler things in life. Even with her inate beauty and uncommon savvy, to Maria’s detriment she does not have eyes in the back of her head. Told in flashback the viewer experiences her success in Hollywood and her quest to find the true love of a man (Brazzi) that has always eluded her.

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In the hands of Joseph Mankiewicz, “The Barefoot Contessa” frequently bristles with crackling dialogue (would you have expected less?). Unique to this contribution from Mankiewicz is the portent that hangs over the film. As the details of Maria’s life are expounded, empathy for her fate increases accordingly. Impeccably well-cast, this is actually an ensemble film. Gardner is luminous as Maria, though she is not solely dependent on her looks to carry the film–she gives a real performance. Bogart is stalwart and sympathetic as Maria’s protector. And O’Brien, in an Academy Award-winning turn, is sly and oily as the single-minded publicist who changes allegiances as often as his sweat-soaked shirts. Lensed by the great Jack Cardiff and shot largely in Italy, the European ambiance, as well as the snappy dialogue, push the credibility of the premise a notch or two above so many other so-called exposés of Hollywood excess and pretense.

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Just couldn’t care about the story or characters.

6/10
Author: Boba_Fett1138 from Groningen, The Netherlands
20 February 2010

This movie sounded like a good idea. It’s about the rise and fall of a female movie star and focuses on the upper-class society and the world of Hollywood but in truth and honesty the movie is just too much of a drag, due to the fact that the story just never seems to take off and the characters are not very compelling ones.

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It probably foremost is the pace that makes this movie its story come across as slow and dull. It seemed like an interesting idea to tel the story of this actress from the viewpoint of several male characters she met throughout the entire movie. However this way of storytelling instead causes the story to feel like a messy one. I also just don’t see how this movie is a good one as an inside-Hollywood movie or social commentary perhaps. The movie to me just seemed pretty pointless and it wasn’t going anywhere. It all still could had worked out had the characters been better ones.

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You can’t really blame the actors for not letting the characters work out well enough for the movie. I mean when you have actors like Humphrey Bogart, Ava Gardner and Edmond O’Brien involved, you can hardly blame the acting can you?

The movie is just too much talking and not enough drama or romance involved. I didn’t very much liked watching this movie and didn’t feel involved with it enough but nevertheless I also couldn’t hate it. After all, it certainly ain’t no bad movie but it still is one that comes across as being uninteresting and pretty pointless overall.

6/10

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