Monday 10 March 2014

Movie Review: The Barefoot Contessa (1954)

A rags to riches to misery tragedy, The Barefoot Contessa is an epic story of a life that starts in earthy poverty and ends in rich desperation.

On a miserable rainy day in Italy, Hollywood director Harry Dawes (Humphrey Bogart) attends the funeral of Maria Vargas (Ava Gardner), and starts narrating her story in flashback. Maria is a Spanish dancer plucked by Harry from the obscurity of a glum household to star as a fresh face in films for novice but rich producer Kirk Edwards (Warren Stevens). Harry directs Maria in three films, and the marketing machine orchestrated by publicist Oscar Muldoon (Edmond O'Brien) turns her into a star.

Harry slips into the role of Maria's mentor and confidant. While he finds happiness with script girl Jerry (Elizabeth Sellars), Maria is always looking for true love, and finds Edwards too cold and the world of film stardom too fake. She turns her back on the industry and goes back to Europe with rich South American Alberto Bravano (Marius Goring). When Bravano reveals the depth of his shallowness Maria flees into the arms of Count Vincenzo Torlato-Favrini (Rossano Brazzi), who is desperately looking for a life companion. But just when Maria comes close to finding the happiness she has always craved, fate reveals more unwelcome surprises.

A frothy story, The Barefoot Contessa is Hollywood at its glamorous best, filled with the conceited rich finding ways to fritter away their money while pretending they have problems. The film is an uncomplimentary look at Hollywood types and the international set, particularly functionally useless tanned men who drink, smoke, gamble, sail, and seek women for entertainment or added wealth.

Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz wrote and produced The Barefoot Contessa, lovingly creating a profound tragedy built on human insensitivity and focussing on transformations in the shadow of life's main events as promises are made and broken and spirits soar only to be shattered.

Time and again Mankiewicz focuses his cameras not on what is happening but the reaction to it. The film opens with Maria's dance at a nondescript club; only the dance is not on film. Instead the behaviour of the audience members speaks volumes about Maria and her impact on men. The same is applied to Maria's screen test, her star-making films, her affairs, the trial of her father, her honeymoon, and her death - they all occur off-screen or in summary form, as Mankiewicz captures the outward motion of the waves that propagate from each crucial milestone.

There is a surprising amount of heart-to-heart dialogue, particularly in long scenes between Maria and Harry, as Mankiewicz announces early he will invest the time to delve into vulnerable emotions, the operatic pursuit of fairytale-like hopes and dreams, and the passionate quest for true destinies.

The Barefoot Contessa is lavishly filmed in plush colours, the dresses, hair, make-up, set design, cars, and scenery all competing for extravagance. Jack Cardiff's cinematography celebrates Europe as a playground for the rich and famous, avoiding the tourist traps where the riff raff congregate and instead finding the casinos, yachts and mansions the elite call home.

At the height of her stardom, Gardner is the picture of glamour. Her acting is never stellar, but she finds plenty of quiet range to create in Maria a tragic heroine, emotionally wounded, independent, stubborn and tied to a fate written by her spirit. Bogart, less than three years away from death, gives one of his deepest and calmest performances. The relationship between Harry and Maria is a touching embrace, a rare example of a naturally forming mentorship thriving on mutual respect and admiration. In support, Edmond O'Brien won the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his turn as the sweaty, fast-talking Oscar Muldoon.

The Barefoot Contessa starts and ends with death, and in between leaves deep footprints in the rich soil of Hollywood's sumptuous dramas.

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