“Life, every now and then, behaves as if it had seen too many bad movies.” So notes Harry Dawes (Humphrey Bogart) in the opening voice-over of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s The Barefoot Contessa (now streaming on Amazon Prime), and he should know; as a screenwriter and filmmaker of a certain age, he’s seen plenty of life, and plenty of bad movies.
Contessa is, in many ways, a natural continuation of Mankiewicz’s celebrated All About Eve – another poison-penned valentine to popular entertainment, filled with quotable dialogue, memorable characters, and winking nudges to real people. But Contessa is comparatively forgotten (aside from the convoluted imprint made by celebrity chef Ina Garten), and that’s a shame; if anything, it’s even more of an inside job than All About Eve, as Mankiewicz was a filmmaker first. Bogart’s Harry Dawes is clearly intended as the writer/director’s stand-in – there were, keep in mind, comparatively few writer/directors at the time – so he understandably serves as something of a hero in the film, helping to make the title character, Maria Vargas (Ava Gardner) a movie star and sex symbol, while acting as her sounding board, confidante, and armchair psychiatrist.
He’s not the only unambiguous avatar. The story’s inciting action finds Dawes accompanying Kirk Edwards (Warren Stevens) to a nightclub to recruit Maria – as a leading lady, as a lover, or as both. Edwards is clearly inspired by Howard Hughes: an independent producer, (mostly inherited) millionaire, playboy, and SOB, as established in that scene, when he smacks a starlet in public. The buzz on The Barefoot Contessa, from its production forward, was that it was inspired by the exploits of Rita Hayworth, who not only ascended from Mexican dancer to movie star, but who had engaged in a brief marriage to a prince. But “that was crap,” Gardner insisted, according to Karina Longworth’s excellent book Seduction. “There was too much sh*t in the script about my affair with Howard… It could have been called Howard and Ava, it was so f*cking obvious.”
These sequences ring with crystal clear authenticity – they’re written and played by people who have observed the ease with which men like Hughes get those around them to eagerly ask, ‘How high?’ Bogie’s Dawes can barely contain his contempt for Edwards, though Oscar, his sweaty PR guy, has no such trouble. (Edmond O’Brien won an Oscar for his performance, and earned it.) But Mankiewicz, to his credit, sees through these users; when Edwards sends Dawes to fetch Maria and convince her to screen test for him, Mankiewicz pauses the narrative for a long scene of conversation and connection between these two strangers. It sets up the relationship that propels the picture, but there’s more than that – it shows Dawes (and by extension, Mankiewicz) seeing this woman as a person, rather than a commodity.
He’s about the only one. Oscar describes her as “this bundle of passion, this hot flame that burned from the screen,” in a voice-over that signals the film switching perspectives, a strategy that marks The Barefoot Contessa as Mankiewicz’s closest approximation of his brother Herman’s Oscar-winning script for Citizen Kane. As with that screenplay, this one begins at the end, with its focal character dead, and the witnesses to their lives piecing together who they were – though those notions are often contradictory. The Barefoot Contessa even retells key scenes from different perspectives, an ingenious directorial flourish that matches the showiness of the script.
Mankiewicz was truly one of the finest screenwriters of his era, and the genuine poetry of his dialogue is striking here. (His direction is also noteworthy; the frames are cleverly blocked, and Jack Cardiff’s lush color photography spotlights the beauty of both the international locations and the luminous leading lady.) Though the script is somewhat mired in the era’s attitudes about what, exactly, a woman can do and be, he gives the character a noteworthy and welcome complexity; she’s a bit of a player and user herself, we discover, and Gardner is so charismatic, it doesn’t render the character any less sympathetic.
It’s also hard to overstate the value of the film as, if nothing else, an insider’s snapshot of How It All Works, from a pre-Entertainment Tonight, pre-Entertainment Weekly, pre-TMZ period. The only real “behind the scenes” information of that Hollywood, besides the trades, was found in the fan magazines – carefully planted and unquestionably controlled by the studios. Mankiewicz supplies a more complicated picture of the Dream Factory, grimly dramatizing the essential emptiness of celebrity, as well as how much of the industry serves at the pleasure of a handful of egos.
But most of all, The Barefoot Contessa is a fascinating exploration of the friction between fantasy and reality – and not just in terms of the industry where its characters attempt to bridge that gap. It’s a film about fairy tale roles, not just movie stars, but millionaires and royalty. No matter the dream life they aspire to, it seems, once the role is filled and played, it becomes a trap. Some escapes are more painful than others.