Wednesday 22 August 2012

1,001 Films: "The Barefoot Contessa" (1954)

Joseph Mankiewicz's behind-the-scenes-at-the-movies drama The Barefoot Contessa mixes up elements of Pygmalion and the Faust legend with a streak of merciless self-analysis, pouring out a long, tall, highly bilious cocktail. Washed-up writer-director Harry Dawes (Humphrey Bogart) is sent on a fool's errand: to bring Spanish spitfire Maria Vargas (Ava Gardner) back to star in his latest production. Vargas agrees to go along with him on the grounds he once directed Jean Harlow and Carole Lombard, and becomes Hollywood royalty as Maria D'Amato, losing the accent and generally proving uncontrollable - to the chagrin of her gum-chewing, philistine studio boss (Warren Stevens) and every other man whose heart she comes to steal. 

Narrated by these men in flashback from the day of Maria's funeral, the film is understandable as an attempt to do for - or, perhaps better, to - the film business and its hangers-on what this director's previous All About Eve did for/to the theatre. A series of hard-nosed, hard-hearted, hard-to-much-care-for players clack repeatedly up against one another like ball bearings on an executive desk toy, and Mank's trademark dollopy dialogue gets thrown back and forth across Jack Cardiff-illuminated frames. There are problems with it: the acute self-consciousness robs us of any real sense of tragedy; Gardner only truly gets to express herself once, in a dance sequence ninety minutes in; and it's so heavy-going it often feels as though even the party scenes are taking place in a mausoleum. 

Yet that finality, the idea that someone or something is being laid to rest here, isn't entirely inappropriate. The film now plays like one of the more prescient Fifties productions, foreseeing the end of the studio era, its megalomaniac bosses and the days when a star like Maria D'Amato could be made overnight. For all its considerable flaws as entertainment, The Barefoot Contessa comes in only just behind Sunset Blvd. and The Bad and the Beautiful in taking a scalpel to constructed notions of glamour, and laying bare Hollywood as the studios' PR men wouldn't want you to see it: as a place absurd, rotten and finally rather callous.

The Barefoot Contessa is available on DVD through Twentieth Century Fox.

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