Thursday, February 10, 2011

My Quest To See the 1000 Greatest: The Barefoot Contessa (1954)

The Barefoot Contessa is #578 in  
My Quest to watch the 1000 Greatest Films

Screened 11/03/10 on DVD at Midtown Cinema

Ranked #556 on

*this is one in a series of catch-up reviews in my aforementioned quest (which should explain the rather old screening date above).
I watched this film just a few days after visiting the wonderful Ava Gardner Museum in Smithfield N.C. (my lovely wife and I running across it by complete accident on the way home from Myrtle Beach) with little to no prior Ava Gardner viewing in my cinematic databanks (her breakthrough performance as the femme fatale in Robert Siodmak's 1946 The Killers being my only look at the lovely Ms. Gardner before this day).  Sure, I of course knew about her and her romances with Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw and (of course) Frank Sinatra, but lo and behold, the naive, yet strong-willed and determined girl from Nowheresville North Carolina (sorry to all those fine folks of Smithfield and its surrounding environs - Gardner was actually born in nearby Grabtown - for I was born in Nowheresville PA myself) who would eventually spurn Hollywood (in a combination of frustration and loneliness) had somehow slipped through my cinematic radar until the aforementioned accidental museum visit.  I suppose it is about time to remedy such a slight (I will move on to fellow contemporary slights Joan Fontaine and Lana Turner soon after), but for now, let us concentrate on the movie at hand.

The Barefoot Contessa, directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, a director not really known for any certain auteuristic style, is the story of a Maria Vargas, a poor Spanish singer/dancer who is swept up into the Hollywood scene (with the aid of uncomfortable, but enthralled father figure-cum-Hollywood director Harry Dawes, played by Humphrey Bogart), only to spurn it's decadent lifestyle to marry a count - to inevitably tragic circumstances.  Just like Gardner herself, who would go around barefoot all the time, Maria would (metaphorically-speaking) keep herself grounded by having her feet still in the so-called soil of her homeland.  Though full of small moments from Gardner's own life (her relationship with controlling billionaire Kirk Edwards mirrors Gardner's own affair with Howard Hughes), Mankiewicz admits to having based the character on Rita Hayworth, who was really of Latin extraction and who incidentally would also, temporarily at least, spurn Hollywood to marry a prince.

Many consider this to be Gardner's signature role (even though Mogambo, the year before would be the only film to ever garner this underrated actress an Academy Award nomination) probably since it is, Hayworth aside, somewhat autobiographical.  The fact is, Gardner does a superb job in the demanding role (in a film that has its good and bad moments both) as she had done the year before in Mogambo (I did finally catch up on some other Gardner films since my trip to her namesake museum - and this Clark Gable, Grace Kelly, Ava Gardner triangulated African romance is one of them).  As I stated above, Gardner was indeed an overlooked actress, remembered mainly for her great beauty (considered one of the most beautiful women in motion pictures at her height of stardom) and not for her raw, fearless acting prowess that should have been very evident in each and every one of her performances - even those in the bad movies the actress did.

Gardner would eventually succumb to the emptiness her life had become filled with inside the stifling studio system of the time (according to her, the studio forced her into two abortions during her marriage with Sinatra which finally fell apart in 1957) and leave not only Hollywood and L.A., but the US altogether.  She lived in Spain for a while, befriending Ernest Hemingway and becoming lovers with one of his bullfighting comrades, before eventually settling in London, where she would die of pneumonia in 1990, at the age of 67.  There are stories of a devastated Sinatra, the man Gardner called the love of her life, and who had remained her close friend until the very end (according to an anecdote learned at the aforementioned  museum - a great place one should visit if ever in the area - a wreath was left at the funeral that simply said "Love Francis").  And like her Maria Vargas character in The Barefoot Contessa, she will be idolized by some, remembered lovingly by others, and forgotten by many.  Now onto more Ava Gardner movies... 
In case you missed the link above, check out the wonderful (and wonderfully informative) Ava Gardner Museum on line - or visit it when in or around Smithfield, North Carolina.

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