Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on May 29, 2014
Ava Gardner in a publicity shot for THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA (1954)
Ava Gardner makes one of my favorite film entrances of all time in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA (1954), which airs on TCM June 1st. If you want to kick off the new month with a bang I highly recommend making time for this verbose Technicolor-noir that critiques Hollywood excess and the powerful studio system that frequently exploited its stars. Mankiewicz’s film is a heady brew of CITIZEN KANE (1941), LAURA (1944), SUNSET BLVD. (1950) and the director’s own ALL ABOUT EVE (1950) shot with abundant style by master cinematographer Jack Cardiff. It dramatically depicts the rise and fall of Maria Vargas aka “The World’s Most Beautiful Animal” (Ava Gardner), a seductive Latin dancer and renowned beauty who is discovered in a Madrid nightclub and carted off to Hollywood where stardom awaits. Her fascinating story is told in flashbacks by the men who knew her and begins in a rain soaked cemetery where our chief narrator, veteran director and recovering alcoholic Harry Dawes (Humphrey Bogart), is attending Maria’s funeral.
Surrounded by monuments to the dead Bogart’s character tells us, “Life, every now and then, behaves as if it had seen too many bad movies when everything fits too well; the beginning, the middle and the end. From fade in to fade out. And where I faded in the Contessa was not a Contessa. She was not even a movie star named Maria D’Amato. Where I faded in her name was Maria Vargas and she danced in a nightclub in Madrid, Spain.”
Harry’s words lead viewers into a lively club where Maria is dancing barefoot for a large crowd of men and women. If you don’t blink you can catch a blurry glimpse of her elegant hands as she unleashes an intoxicating rhythm with her palmas (handclaps) before the camera begins scanning the extraordinary assortment of faces in the audience. Men of all ages look on in awe clearly captivated by Maria’s hot-blooded dance and extraordinary beauty while the women’s reactions are much more complex and diverse. Some women in the room are clearly jealous and upset by the men’s obsession with this exotic dancer while other ladies feign boredom or eventually lose themselves in her passionate performance. The stimulating show that we never get to witness with our own eyes finally ends with Maria vanishing behind a beaded curtain.
Into this scene walks the world weary Harry Dawes with a couple of Hollywood bigwigs (Warren Stevens & Edmond O’Brien) and one of their boozy blond girlfriends dripping with diamonds (Mari Aldon). They demand to meet the barefoot dancer but the nightclub proprietor explains that she never mingles with the guests. Naturally this doesn’t go over well with men who are used to getting what they want whenever they want it and Bogart’s character eventually decides to go backstage in a halfhearted attempt to convince Maria to join them.
It’s worth pointing out that over 14 minutes have passed since the film’s opening credits and we still haven’t been introduced to the elusive ‘Barefoot Contessa.’ Only Harry Dawes’ deadpan narration, a gaudy gravestone and the eager eyes of the men and women who watched her dance have given us any indication of the woman we’re eventually going to meet. When Bogart’s character finally enters her dressing room her bare feet greet us first while Maria hides behind a curtain hoping the pushy Hollywood players will get bored with her childlike game of hide-and-seek. Dowes finally tells Maria that her feet are visible and with a sudden and forceful motion she pushes back the curtain to reveal a wild mane of black hair and a face so ferociously beautiful that it makes you gasp for air. Thousands of beautiful women have found work in Hollywood but very few of them can take your breath away as effortlessly as Ava Gardner.
Of course not everyone agrees with me. THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA has received plenty of negative criticism over the years from folks who aren’t impressed with “The World’s Most Beautiful Animal” and find Mankiewicz’s film too talky, melodramatic, slow-moving and derivative. I can’t follow that logic at all and share a common admiration of the film with director Francois Truffaut who wrote “…either one rejects it or accepts it whole. I myself accept it and value it for its freshness, intelligence and beauty.” Truffaut also thought Ava Gardner was “Hollywood’s most exquisitely beautiful actress” and I can’t argue with that conclusion either. Gardner was an untamable force of nature on screen and off. Absolutely gorgeous, as well as brassy, vivacious and vibrant. Unfortunately she wasn’t offered many parts that allowed her to really show off her acting chops, which has led to some shortsighted assessments of her talent but she’s one of my favorite performers and I never get tired of watching her. And you can see Ava Gardner at her soul-searing best in THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA.
*Note: The animated gif was borrowed from The Mirror Room blog
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