In 1954 director and screen-writer Joseph L Mankiewicz followed up his 1950 All About Eve biting satire of Broadway with a biting and bitter-sweet satire of Hollywood, The Barefoot Contessa. The cast for All about Eve included Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, George Sanders, Celeste Holm and Marilyn Monroe in an early role and received 14 Academy Award nominations, winning six, including Best Director and Best Writing Screenplay for Mankiewicz and Best Picture for the film. The Barefoot Contessa included Humphrey Bogart and Ava Gardner in leading roles, and Edmund O’Brien, who picked up an Oscar and a Golden Globe for his supporting role.
The Barefoot Contessa is Ava Gardner, who seriously sizzles playing the lovely and charismatic barefoot flamenco dancer Maria Vargas and who is discovered dancing in a bar in Madrid. Her funeral, after a short and ultimately tragic Hollywood career, starts the movie, which moves along in flashbacks and features a narration from a wonderfully world-weary and avuncular Bogart, playing down-on his-luck director with a heart Harry Dawes who directs her three films. Playing the nasty, rich and abusive producer Kirk Edwards, who is only interested in her earning potential is a convincing Warren Stevens, and complementing him as his sweaty, charmless, publicist Oscar Muldoon is the excellent and Oscar-winning Edmund O’Brien.
Mostly down to her trust in Dawes Maria moves to Hollywood sporting the new name of Maria D’Amata and quickly becomes the beautiful toast of Tinseltown, forging relationships with a number of unsuitable men, culminating in a marriage to a Count who tells her, on their wedding night, that he seriously loves her with all his heart, but that there are good reasons for a purely platonic relationship.
Clocking up more than two hours some critics found the film over-long by around 30 minutes but we found the snappy and cynical dialogue, the fabulous photography of Jack Cardiff and the acting qualities held our attention and made us resolve to watch it again. Certainly it’s a satisfying piece of Hollywood history we’ll not see the likes of again as Mankiewicz died aged 83 in 1993, Bogart aged 57 in 1957, O’Brien aged 69 in 1985, Stevens aged 92 in 2012, all died in America. Ava Gardner died aged 67 in 1990, at her London home for the last 22 years of her life, in 34 Ennismore Gardens, SW7, marked today by an English Heritage blue plaque.
The Barefoot Contessa is being released in a Dual Format Blu-ray and DVD edition on March 12 by Eureka Entertainment as part of their Masters of Cinema Series, and included in the pack is a rarely-seen interview with director Mankiewicz and an audio commentary with film historians Julie Kirgo and David Del Valle