Revisiting “The Barefoot Contessa”: An Insider’s View of Hollywood Stardom and Its Painful Price


Humphrey Bogart is known for enjoying powerful guys, criminals, and quick operators on the margins of society, however he was at his greatest taking part in what he was—an artist. That’s simply what he did in his two biggest movies, which, not coincidentally, are additionally among the many biggest of all inside-Hollywood motion pictures: “In a Lonely Place” (1950), by which he performs a screenwriter, and “The Barefoot Contessa” (1954), which is operating by means of August fifth as half of the ultimate week of Film Forum’s Humphrey Bogart collection. (It can be extensively out there streaming, together with on Amazon.) “The Barefoot Contessa”—which was each written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (he additionally produced the movie, uncredited, by means of his personal impartial manufacturing firm, known as Figaro, Inc.) presents a deeply insightful view of Hollywood filmmaking, but it surely doesn’t happen in Hollywood. It’s set principally in Europe—Spain, France, and Italy—and exhibits up in California for just one sequence, a home celebration. It takes a very summary, psychologically astute view of the conjoined miracles by which the important Hollywood alchemy takes place—by which a star is born. Those two miracles are the inherent expertise of the incipient actor and the director’s discernment about how you can foster and deploy that expertise, which Bogart’s character, the author and director Harry Dawes, calls his “sixth sense.”

The new star in query, Maria D’Amata, is performed by Ava Gardner, in a task of huge however tautly contained fury. She is first seen at an evening membership in Madrid, the place she dances below her start title of Maria Vargas. Harry and the brash, slick P.R. man Oscar Muldoon (Edmond O’Brien) are introduced there by their employer, the very wealthy and very crudely imperious inheritor Kirk Edwards (Warren Stevens). Having gotten wind of Maria’s status because the native star, Kirk there to place her below contract in order that he could make a giant splash in Hollywood as an impartial producer making his first movie, which Harry—who’s attempting to rebuild the illustrious profession that he’d trashed by means of alcoholism and associated dangerous habits—will write and direct. Cannily, Mankiewicz doesn’t introduce Maria by displaying her dancing; he exhibits the hypnotic, devastating impact that her efficiency has on the patrons of the considerably louche venue the place she works. Rather, he introduces her offstage, behind the scenes on the membership the place Harry is shipped to get her—as a result of, in Mankiewicz’s incisive view, that, and not onstage, is the place the artwork of the star is revealed.

Maria Vargas is an individual of character and temperament who lives with a fiercely principled, willful freedom that she embraces with an aura of headlong, tragic future. In a manner, that future is scripted by Hollywood’s personal slim ethical codes, bringing punishment to a lady who presumes to train sexual freedom, as Maria does, from the beginning—when Harry finds her backstage, in her dressing room, behind a curtain, she’s entwined with a person whom she sardonically calls her cousin, and he’s not the one so-called cousin with whom she has sexual relations within the course of the drama. Lured not by Kirk’s cash however by Harry’s gruff heat, worldly knowledge, inventive perception, and honest friendship, she takes the plunge into the film world and, certainly, is shortly vaulted to stardom. Oscar, the P.R. man, ultimately calls her “the world’s number one symbol of desirability, on display all over the world’s number one showroom.” By that point, Maria has already sloughed off the advances of two mightily rich males, not simply Kirk but in addition the South American mogul Alberto Bravano (Marius Goring), on whose yacht she, Oscar, and some hangers-on are voyaging. Maria has no illusions; she has confided to Harry about enduring the crude advances of “evil men” since she was a younger woman: “to a girl with nothing, a man with hundreds is just as rich as a man with millions.” As for Bravano’s yacht, “Just because it is big and white and a yacht, is it not still dirt?”

The punishment, nonetheless, is in-built from the beginning. “The Barefoot Contessa” is probably essentially the most elaborately structured Hollywood movie since “Citizen Kane.” Like Orson Welles’s story, which begins with the loss of life of the titular mogul, the story of Maria is informed as a collection of flashbacks—from her funeral—and it’s narrated, in voice-over and from the dramatic level of view of three mourners: Harry, Oscar, and Vincenzo Count Torlato-Favrini (Rossano Brazzi), her husband. (Mankiewicz even, daringly, exhibits the identical essential sequence from the completely different narrative—and visible—views of completely different males.) Mankiewicz was, after Welles, Hollywood’s most literature-mad filmmaker; in such movies as “A Letter to Three Wives,” “All About Eve,” and “People Will Talk,” he wrote floridly caustic dialogue for advanced characters going through intimate conflicts. He additionally developed a mode, much less flamboyant and much less comprehensively imaginative than Welles’s however extra modestly lyrical, that appears to stay near the dialogue, setting it for the actors to ship with a stylized, heightened aptitude. Here, Mankiewicz, working for the primary time in colour—in a palette on the sting of the alluring and the acidulous—depends on a determinedly transferring digicam to convey the passage of time and evoke the drama’s elegiac mode. (The sense of future at work is hinted at within the Torlato-Favrini household motto—“che sara sara.” When the songwriter Jay Livingston saw the movie, he was impressed to compose the track of that title that later ended up in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” sung by Doris Day.)

Mankiewicz was a consummate movie-studio insider, having began as a screenwriter atin 1930 (and getting an Oscar nomination the next yr, at the age of twenty-two). He turned a producer in 1936, and he noticed sufficient crack-ups and tragedies to know that Hollywood and happiness didn’t rhyme. In “The Barefoot Contessa,” he exhibits the sordidness of the money-driven, ego-fuelled, ruthless machinations which are each central to the enterprise of Hollywood and always threaten to derail it. And he contemplates with a lofty, rueful view (that owed nothing to the Hays Code) the cruelly unjust worth that girls in Hollywood paid for his or her sexual and private freedom, the tragic conflicts that they endured for his or her resolute independence. He additionally holds the mirror as much as a star behind the scenes to point out how her ardour on display is merely a magnification of her ardour in life. Maria Vargas, dancer in an evening membership, has by no means been anybody however herself, and evinces little curiosity in imitation or impersonation; like all the good stars, she doesn’t develop into her characters—she not solely stays herself however makes them into herself. The elegant grandeur of her bearing and the dramatic aptitude of her breathlessly impulsive, sublimely audacious actions—by which she wrests dignity from indignant circumstances—are the type of performing that transcends the taking part in of a task.

Gardner was exactly such a star. So was Bogart, who, right here, in taking part in a author and director, has a double function. He is the movie’s central consciousness, whose perspective on Maria, in each his voice-over recollections and his dramatic scenes, gives the prime, and most discerning, account of her rise to fame and her devastating finish. He additionally performs the prime mover in Maria’s movie profession, in her launch to the film screens of the world. Harry Dawes is the agent of future, the dwelling drive of modernity that exalts the spectacular character of Maria and additionally extracts it for revenue. He brings her wealth and fame and energy. He additionally thrusts her ever larger aloft into ever extra fabulous milieu to stay out ever extra excessive passions. Harry resides out his future, too, in Maria’s, bearing the auteur’s burden, one which Mankiewicz understood intimately, of being the catalyst for the dramas of others, who take the most important dangers. In “Barefoot Contessa,” Bogart conveys that ambiguous burden with grizzled, worldly grace.



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