The Barefoot Contessa

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Hollywood sex goddess is knocked off her pedestal

Image of The Barefoot Contessa

Joseph L. Mankiewicz / USA Italy / 1954 / 128 mins

On Dual-Format Blu-ray/DVD from Mon 12 Mar 2018

This is a story copy-and-pasted from the gossip columns of its day. It recalls Porfirio Rubirosa, Howard Hughes, Rita Hayworth and Prince Aly Khan and tells how Hollywood can lift you up and destroy you. The heroine encounters some spectacularly nasty men who treat her abominably – some things never change. It’s an apt reminder that the issues that sparked #MeToo and #TimesUp are nothing new.

Maria Vargas (Ava Gardner) is an emerald-eyed flamenco dancer from the Spanish slums until she is plucked from obscurity by the talent-scouting film producer, a la Weinstein, (Warren Stevens), world-weary screenwriter/director (Humphrey Bogart) and a lumbering PR man (Edmond O’Brien). Maria is made into a star but she longs for the dirt between her toes (hence the title) and the arms of rough trade, but settles for an Italian prince (Rossano Brazzi) with less than happy results. The opening scene in a nightclub sees Maria dance off-screen, the reactions of her audience say everything. The men stare lustfully, the women ignore her or look on in envy.

It was filmed mostly at Cinecitta, at the height of the Hollywood on the Tiber era and the studio-bound sets often lend a claustrophobic surrealist quality. There is some attractive location photography too, thanks to Jack Cardiff the cinematographer. The film is notable for being one of Bogart’s last roles before his death from cancer and for Ava Gardner, billed on the poster as “the world’s most beautiful animal”, dressed in a succession of exquisite Fontana gowns.

Although the story is pure pulp it does look wonderful. The playing is good and the director keeps a large cast well-differentiated. It is told Rashomon-style – the same story of Vargas’s rise and fall recalled by the writer (the bottom of the Hollywood food chain), the PRO and the aristo in withering voiceover – with the different parts of her story making a satisfying whole. If it was told today we’d hear far more from Maria’s perspective. Here her inner-thoughts are hardly revealed. The movie hugely impressed François Truffaut and the French New Wave and it was the inspiration for Fellini’s groundbreaking crossover La Dolce Vita of 1960.

Maybe the movie takes itself a little too seriously, and maybe the motivations of the characters are a tad shallow – there are a lot of clichés here – and maybe the emotions lack nuance but the writing (Mankiewicz) is snappy and the story has a tragic inevitability that’s the stuff of Hollywood Babylon. Vargas is seen as a commodity. The studio’s golden goose and if she is “difficult” it’s only because she’s as mad as hell about being pushed around by men who see her as an object rather than an artist or even a living, breathing thing.

The Barefoot Contessa has long been available on a scratchy DVD, and this HD transfer brings out the saturated Technicolor palette – from the black umbrellas slicked with rain in the cemetery, Maria’s blazing pink gown in the casino, and the aristos’ terrace overlooking the Mediterranean.