Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Best Movies I've Never Seen Before: The Barefoot Contessa (1954)

The Barefoot Contessa (1954) *** ½
Directed by: Joseph L. Mankiewicz.
Written by: Joseph L. Mankiewicz.
Starring: Humphrey Bogart (Harry Dawes), Ava Gardner (Maria Vargas), Edmond O'Brien (Oscar Muldoon), Marius Goring (Alberto Bravano), Valentina Cortese (Eleanora Torlato-Favrini), Rossano Brazzi (Count Vincenzo Torlato-Favrini), Elizabeth Sellars (Jerry), Warren Stevens (Kirk Edwards), Franco Interlenghi (Pedro Vargas), Mari Aldon (Myrna).

There are certain writers that you can identify by their dialogue. Recent examples include the casual conversations loaded with hidden meaning of Quentin Tarantino, the rapid fire dialogue of Aaron Sorkin, or the profane beauty of David Mamet. As soon as you hear their characters speak, you know who wrote the screenplay without having to be told. An earlier example of this was Joseph L. Mankiewicz, whose dialogue was dripping with cynicism. His best film is undoubtedly All About Eve (1950), his sublime backstage drama about an aging actress (Bette Davis) and the young upstart who usurps her (Anne Baxter). Made four year after that film was The Barefoot Contessa, another showbiz drama that is positively full of cynicism.

The film stars Humphrey Bogart as Harry Dawes, a washed out, alcoholic filmmaker who is now back on the wagon, and given a chance to direct again by the “Wizard of Wall Street”, Kirk Edwards (Warren Stevens), whose ego has decided he should produce movies. Along with Edwards’ boot licking PR man Oscar Muldoon (Edmond O’Brien), the three men go to see a nightclub dancer, Maria Vargas (Ava Gardner) is Spain. They discover a movie star that night, although Maria doesn’t like Oscar and doesn’t trust Edwards, she does believe in Dawes. They turn her into a overnight success – the biggest, sexiest female star in the world. But from the beginning of the movie, we know things will not end well for Maria – the movie opens, and continues to flashback to her funeral, as first Harry, and later Oscar, will tell us what happened to lead Maria to an early grave. It has to do with the men in her life – all of whom want to possess her, but cannot. There is her “cousin” who always seems to be around, and at one point Maria actually will fall in love – with an Italian Count – and get married. But even he cannot keep her happy, for reasons I will not explain here.

In Humphrey Bogart, Mankiewicz found the perfect actor to play Dawes. Bogart didn’t play happy or optimistic people very well, but cynicism fit him like a glove. Here, because he is one of only two men who don’t want to possess Maria (Oscar being the other one), he has the advantage of distance to be able to see just where everyone else screwed up. He plays a man who has already lost everything once, so if he loses it all again, it doesn’t really matter to him. He delivers Mankiewicz’s dialogue with a cool, calm yet venomous delivery – he certainly holds the rest of the characters, except for Maria, in contempt, and he really doesn’t care who knows it. Edmond O’Brien won an Oscar for his role as the PR man (although one suspects that the fact that Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden and Rod Steiger were all nominated in the same category for On the Waterfront probably helped him to win), and its fairly easy to see why. Hollywood knows PR men like Oscar well – people who are your best friend when you’re on top, but will drop you the second a better offer comes along. Unlike Dawes, who doesn’t want to possess Maria because he’s love with someone else, Oscar doesn’t want to possess her simply because it would get in his way. He is too self involved to spare a thought to anyone else.

If there is a flaw in The Barefoot Contessa it is Gardner herself. She was one of the most beautiful women in the world when she made this film, and yet, I never quite understood why so many men were so drawn to her – so obsessed with her, as she seems somewhat cold, distant and aloof. But then again, perhaps that’s the point. Although this is her story, it is not told from her point of view – but mainly from Dawes, until late when Oscar has to take over because Dawes wasn’t around. In a very real way, neither Dawes nor Oscar truly understand her either. Perhaps even Mankiewicz couldn’t answer the question as to why men were so drawn to her – and that’s why he covers up this inability to explain with his narrative structure.

Overall, The Barefoot Contessa is an entertaining, cynical, well written and well acted Hollywood drama. Mankiewicz was always a better writer than he was a director, but here, he serves his excellent screenplay well. This is a wonderful, old school Hollywood gem.

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