The Barefoot Contessa (1954)


(director/writer: Joseph L. Mankiewicz; screenwriter: ; cinematographer: Jack Cardiff; editor: William W. Hornbeck; music: Mario Nascimbene; cast: Humphrey Bogart (Harry Dawes), Ava Gardner (Maria Vargas/Maria D’Amata), Edmond O’Brien (Oscar Muldoon), Warren Stevens (Kirk Edwards), Marius Goring (Alberto Bravano), Valentina Cortese (Eleanora Torlato-Favrini), Rossano Brazzi (Count Vincenzo Torlato-Favrini), Elizabeth Sellars (Jerry), Mari Aldon (Myrna); Runtime: 128; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Joseph L. Mankiewicz; United Artists; 1954)

“Brilliantly witty but trashy showbiz melodrama.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Joseph L. Mankiewicz (“All About Eve”/”Cleopatra”/”Julius Caesar”) is the gifted writer-director-producer of this brilliantly witty but trashy showbiz melodrama. It was filmed on the Italian and French Riviera, but its story is a no holds barred acerbic look at Hollywood types. The heroine, played by the then 31-year-old Ava Gardner, is supposedly modeled after Rita Hayworth and her relationship with international playboy Prince Aga Khan. The cynical film is similar in theme to Vincente Minnelli’s 1952 “The Bad and the Beautiful.” Edmond O’Brien won an Oscar for Best Actor playing a character named Oscar.

It starts with the funeral of the heroine who liked walking around barefooted, the peasant Spanish-born film star Maria Vargas but known in films as Maria D’Amata (Ava Gardner), on the Italian Riviera town of Rapallo, Italy, where six months ago her rise from poverty reached full circle when she became the Countess Torlato-Favrini. Attending the funeral is Harry Dawes (Humphrey Bogart), the American writer-director of the only three films she made in her short career. As the film goes into flashback the cynical Harry, a reformed drunk who has gone on the wagon to save his dying career, narrates Maria’s story from the point where he was in the employment of ruthless Wall Street tycoon Kirk Edwards (Warren Stevens), a Howard Hughes type (Gardner had an affair with the billionaire Hughes to jump start her film career) who was making his first film and wanted to promote a new face. Kirk brings along Harry, his female traveling companion Myrna (Mari Aldon) and sweaty loudmouth press agent Oscar Muldoon (Edmond O’Brien) to a dumpy Madrid cabaret to invite flamenco dancer Maria for a screen test in Rome. Maria refuses to go along with the producer’s offer until she recognizes Harry from his films, and agrees if the director she admires will teach her how to act. The screen test is successful and she becomes a big star, and even bigger when she defends her father at a trial for killing his shrewish wife. The press agent then tells his impressions of the Countess, how after three films she walked out of the personal contract she had with Kirk and went off with South American playboy millionaire Alberto Bravano (Marius Goring) to become part of the “International Set” on the French Riviera. But Maria leaves him when Bravano accuses her of causing him to have a losing streak at the casino and a wealthy count from an old, Italian family, Vincenzo Torlato-Favrini (Rossano Brazzi), plays the gentleman and slaps the playboy’s face and then invites Maria to his villa. The Count marries the actress, but on their wedding night confesses to being impotent from a war injury. Realizing the Count wants a child to carry on the line, Maria gets pregnant by an unnamed father but never gets a chance to tell this to the Count. In a fit of jealousy, the Count kills both his chauffeur and wife when he sees them together and assumes they are having an affair. After the funeral the Count is led away by the police and the mourners depart.

It works very well as an insider’s look at Hollywood. The characters are all sharply drawn; the dialogue is spicy; the locations are sumptuous; and it captures the sycophantic nature and the seamy side of showbiz. There are other disguised celebratory figures of the day that are caricutured such as playboy King Farouk and the Duke of Windsor, for those who like to sniff out such dirt.