For many, the high point of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s quite legendary Hollywood career is 1950’s All About Eve, a picture which has lingered in cinematic history for its caustic wit, cold glamour and harsh performances. The Barefoot Contessa is, and in some ways isn’t, a lighter affair than Mankiewicz’s previous effort. Filmed in colour rather than black and white, often beautifully shot thanks to the redoubtable talents of great cinematographer Jack Cardiff, The Barefoot Contessa continues to explore Mankiewicz’s obsession with women and fame, the abusive power of privileged white men in the Hollywood system, his own conflicted feelings about it. Though where All About Eve was a spiky satire, The Barefoot Contessa is a Cinderella-fantasy.
The well known fable is mentioned in dialogue several times by Humphrey Bogart’s writer-director and frequent narrator Harry Dawes, underscoring how Mankiewicz saw Ava Gardner’s Spanish-startlet Maria Vargas as the Cinderella-figure and Bogart, essentially, as the Fairy Godfather who, if he was being completely honest, fell in love with a woman he ended up trying to save from a destructive corporate movie-making machine.
Many have suggested Bogart’s Dawes was a proxy for the director himself, while Gardner’s character was heavily influenced by fellow starlet Rita Hayworth, and it perhaps adds to the blurring of reality and fiction across the entire picture; Dawes often compares what he’s experiencing, in voice-over, to what he would write in a script, and there’s a sense Mankiewicz is finding the process of this story cathartic.
Perhaps that’s part of the reason why, in all honesty, The Barefoot Contessa is a mixed bag of a picture. Lacking the dark humour and wit of All About Eve, it gives us protracted, dialogue-heavy scenes which, while well performed in most cases, lack a levity and brevity the story perhaps needed, and at times come across as laboured and more than a little purple. Mankiewicz wants us to know this is a fairytale story, of the peasant girl performer in the backward country (here Spain, which might as well be in the 16th century for how modern it seems) who is discovered by Hollywood, by America, and brought to find fame, fortune and the love of her life. In the old Hollywood studio system, none of these things were mutually exclusive. You only have the look at the colourful off-screen lives of Bogart & Gardner to understand that.
The fairytale, however, doesn’t seem to be one the director truly believes in. There is a mordant foreboding across the entire movie, given we begin with the funeral of Maria. The fact she is destined to die long before her time adds a pensive tragedy to Mankiewicz’s script, and it’s often reflected in Mario Nascimbene’s elegant but oddly mournful score. The movie isn’t in any way post-modern but it is surprisingly dark, and that’s because it isn’t a typical Hollywood romance. Bogart in any other film would be Gardner’s love interest (despite the age gap), but here he’s much more of a mentor; indeed at one point, Dawes admits he’s never known quite *what* he is to Maria, and that could reflect the entire movie. Mankiewicz’s picture is a romantic concoction of all kinds of elements.
One fact does stand out: Mankiewicz still doesn’t trust or believe entirely in the Hollywood system on which he made his name. Dawes often finds himself torn between his role in the pictures and standing up for the treatment of the little people, particularly by egomaniacal millionaire studio head Kirk Edwards (played with callous zeal by Warren Stevens).
All About Eve’s layer of distrust in Broadway and the power games played to reach stardom seeps into The Barefoot Contessa but it’s not nearly as potent, and rather more confused. Mankiewicz’s camera is far more in love with Gardner than it was with Bette Davis or Anne Baxter in All About Eve, perhaps because she’s such a naive, tragic figure imbued with destiny, but the message ultimately is far less clear – given it’s not Hollywood that destroys her.
What is surprising from such a distance of time is quite how Mankiewicz got away with making pictures like this in which men, and the male gaze, are so heavily criticised. Kirk and his forced masculinity (hiding maternal issues) is unquestionably the villain, and Maria moves from one abusive or self-destructive man to the other, with only Dawes as her rock. The constant question is whether Maria can be an actress, a star or a woman, all or any of these things, and her final choices revolve around motherhood and whether she can be accepted, in a new privileged role, as more than just a star. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Mankiewicz’s answer is enormously bleak.
The Barefoot Contessa, then, is a curate’s egg of a picture which doesn’t always work on its own merits but is filled with theme, subtext and fascinating conceptual ideas about men, women, stardom, Hollywood and beyond, which allow Bogart—in one of his final roles before an untimely death from lung cancer—the chance to play a hangdog, put upon man brilliantly, and Gardner to smoulder on screen in a way few other actresses could do with such natural ease; you can believe anyone and everyone would fall madly in love with her.
Released on BluRay by Eureka Entertainment, The Barefoot Contessa now benefits from a shiny, glimmering transition to disc in 1080p, and is replete with extras including a rarely seen interview with Mankiewicz, a rare collector’s booklet, and an excellent audio commentary with film historians David Del Valle & Julie Kirgo which provides a fantastic array of depth into the movie, its stars and the broader context of Hollywood at the time. You’ll learn all kinds of things about a film which operates in a unique position in film history, and deserves to be re-appreciated by cinema enthusiasts new and old.