The Naked Maja (1958)


(director: Henry Koster; screenwriters: Norman Corwin/Giorgio Prosperi/based on a story by Oscar Saul & Talbot Jennings; cinematographer: Giuseppe Rotunno; editor: Mario Serandrei; music: Angelo Francesco Lavagnino; cast: Ava Gardner (Duchess of Alba), Anthony Franciosa (Francisco Goya), Amedeo Nazzari (Prime Minister Manuel Godoy), Gino Cervi (King Carlos IV), Lea Padovani (Queen Maria Luisa), Massimo Serato (Sanchez), Carlo Rizzo (Juanito), Carlo Giustini (José); Runtime: 111; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Goffredo Lombardo/Silvio Clementelli; MGM; 1958-Italy/USA-in English)
“It has as much going for it in depth as a kindergarten drawing.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A wretched romantic biopic on the uproarious life of the 18th century Spanish peasant painter Francisco Goya (1746 -1828). It has as much going for it in depth as a kindergarten drawing; it also lacks the strong points of a child’s painting, such as a child’s innocence, natural charm and good intentions. This is one bad pic. Director Henry Koster (“The Robe”/”My Man Godfrey”/”Harvey”) keeps it tedious and heavy-handed. Ava Gardner is richly costumed and radiant looking (nothing to fret about her face being damaged by a bullfighting accident before the shoot, as no facial scars could be seen). This is important, as the film hangs all its hopes on her beauty hiding all the warts in the storytelling. This was Ava’s last film for MGM, as she moved to Spain and was no longer married to that Sinatra guy and wanted to be far away from the Hollywood scene. New York Method actor Anthony Franciosa, married at the time to Shelley Winters, in an unconvincing performance, is just no help in playing Goya as if he were a schoolboy rowdy playing artsy-fartsy with the elite. There was no chemistry on the screen between the lovers, and Ava later fessed up in her book the stars hated each other and had no respect for their opposing acting styles. Ava’s was all instinctual. It was filmed in brilliant Technicolor at a Rome studio and they used the area around Rome for its location shots, and also it had a predominantly Italian cast that only spoke a marginal English. The public had the good sense to avoid seeing this film and it bombed at the box-office.

This poorly paced, empty and uninvolving melodrama has the hot-tempered peasant painter Goya (Anthony Franciosa) and the beautiful freethinking Dutchess of Alba (Ava Gardner), his aristocratic paramour, locked into on-again off-again love affair. According to this film, the epic spiritual struggle of Goya takes second fiddle to Goya’s fling with the only woman he truly loved in his lifetime. The title comes from a Goya painting of a brunette beauty reclining nude with her hands behind her head that’s revealed in the pic.

It’s set against the turbulent background of the Inquisition and Spain’s war with France, but it makes light of Goya’s rep as being the spiritual icon of the revolutionary times in which he lived and reduces everything to a cliché and a perfunctory attempt at telling his story through Hollywood pageantry. When there are no court scenes or spectacles to present or those almost risible aching love scenes between the artist and the aristocrat (the most damning is to endure watching the climax where a spurned Goya returns to the Dutchess’s deathbed after he now knows the truth that she rejected him to save him from his political enemies; the dying Ava whispers to him “Spain will live through Goya,” and Franciosa retorts “And Goya lives through Alba”), then we have a boiling over with rage Goya having a go at the time’s decadence and evil. We get to see the artist briefly in jail and then see him inspired as he “paints the truth” in defiance of tradition and according to nature.

The film manages to be so absurd, that it does a disservice to both the actual historical events and the fictionalized romance it tried to get over with to prop up the pic (in reality, during the period depicted Goya went deaf and would have been too seriously ill to be having such a hot affair). I found the performances, the directing and the screenplay brutal, but if I was pressed to find something good to say about the film I would point to its excellent production values.