Barefoot Contessa, The (1954): Joseph L. Mankiewicz Oscar-Nominated Hollywood Satire, Starring Bogart, Ava Gardner, Edmond O’Brien in Oscar-Winning Performance

The Barefoot Contessa, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s bittersweet satire of Hollywood, is a companion piece to his own 1950 All About Eve, and a feature that makes references to Minnelli’s 1952 inside-Hollywood melodrama, The Bad and the Beautiful.

Grade: B+

The Barefoot Contessa
Barefoot Contessa.jpg

Theatrical film poster

Even so, the three central performers, Humphrey Bogart, Ava Gardner, and Edmond O’Brien, who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, elevate the satire and make it more poignant and enjoyable.

The tale begins at the funeral of a former Spanish peasant, cabaret dancer and movie star named Maria Vargas (Ava Gardner, at her most gorgeous), who at the time of her death was a Contessa.

As was the norm in the early 1950s, her comedic-tragic, bitter-sweet life story unfolds in flashback recollections, this time around from her mourners.

Prime among them is Harry Dawes (Bogart, in top form), the movie director, who recalls how his very own career was saved when he discovered Gardner on behalf of Howard R. Hughes-like mogul Warren Stevens.

Press agent Oscar Muldoon (Edmond O’Brien, excellent) remembers how Ava was wooed and then abandoned by various beaus, such as millionaire Marius Goring (Alberto Bravano).

Italian count Vincenzo Torlato-Favrin (played by the Italian heartthrob Rosanno Brazzi) reflects on how he was able to wed the tempestuous femme, only to watch his world shattered after revealing on their wedding night that he was “only half a man.”

Mankiewicz claimed that to have based his Oscar-nominated scenario on the gorgeous and tempestuous Rita Hayworth, Columbia’s reigning star in the 1940s and 1950s.

But it doesn’t matter, as Gardner is equally beautiful and her own real life and career paralleled many aspects of the woman she played on screen.

Life imitates art: In 1957, having divorced Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner moved to Madrid, where she spent most of the rest of her life.

Narrative Structure: Flashbacks and Narration

Bogart is well cast as down on his luck, washed-up movie director and writer Harry Dawes. Harry is now reduced to working for abusive, emotionally stunted business tycoon Kirk Edwards, who has decided that he wants to produce a film to boost his monumental ego. Looking for a glamorous leading lady, they go to a Madrid night club to see a dancer named Maria Vargas, about whom Kirk had already been told.

Maria, a blithe but proud spirit who goes barefoot, and suffers from troubled home life. Maria immediately likes Harry, whose work she knows, but takes an instant dislike to Kirk.

Although she flees during their meeting, Harry tracks her down to her family home and convinces her to fly away with them to the United States to make her first film. Thanks to his expertise and the help of sweaty, insincere publicist Oscar Muldoon, her film debut is a sensation. With two subsequent films by this team, Maria becomes a respected actress, Harry’s career is resurrected, and they become friends.

During a party at Maria’s house, Kirk and wealthy Latin American playboy Alberto Bravano engage in argument over Maria. Alberto had conspicuously admired Maria during the evening. When Alberto invites her to join him on his yacht in the Riviera, Kirk orders her to stay away from him. Offended by Kirk’s attempted domineering, she accepts Alberto’s invitation. Also seeing an opportunity, Oscar, tired of being Kirk’s lackey, switches his allegiance to Alberto.

Bogart as director Harry Dawes

Maria is now a great star, but she is not happy or satisfied. She envies the happiness her friend Harry has found with his wife Jerry. Alberto is too frivolous and shallow for her. One evening at a casino, while Alberto is gambling, Maria takes some of his chips and cashes them, throwing the money to her gypsy lover from a window.

When Alberto goes on a losing streak, he berates Maria in public for ruining his luck. He is slapped in the face by Count Vincenzo Torlato-Favrini, who escorts Maria from the casino.

Maria stays with Vincenzo and his widowed sister, Eleanora, at the count’s palazzo. She has found the great love of her life, and they wed in a lavish ceremony, in which Harry gives away the bride.

Problem is, the count and his sister are the last of the Torlato-Favrinis; without offspring, the noble line will die out. The count has a secret. Due to a war injury, he is impotent, which he conceals from Maria until their wedding night.

On a rainy night, months later, while Harry is in Italy, Maria arrives at his hotel room, confessing about her husband’s impotence and that she is pregnant. She believes Vincenzo will want this child in order to perpetuate the family lineage. Harry warns her that Vincenzo is too proud, but Maria and plans to tell him that night.

After Maria leaves his hotel room, Harry notices Vincenzo’s car trailing hers. Back at the palazzo, Vincenzo shoots Maria and her lover before she can tell him about the child. Harry arrives just as the shots are fired, and he does not tell Vincenzo about the pregnancy.

The story ends, as it began, with flashbacks at her funeral. Afterward, and Vincenzo taken away by the police.

Oscar Nominations: 2

Supporting Actor: Edmond O’Brien

Story and Screenplay:  Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Oscar Awards: 1

Supporting Actor

Oscar Context:

The winner of the Story and Screenplay Oscar was Budd Schulberg for Kazan’s “On the Waterfront,” which swept most of the Oscars that year.

Mankiewicz is one of the few filmmakers in the Academy’s history to win two consecutive Directing Oscars, for “A Letter to Three Women” in 1949 and “All About Eve” in 1950.

Humphrey Bogart as Harry Dawes
Ava Gardner as Maria Vargas
Edmond O’Brien as Oscar Muldoon
Marius Goring as Alberto Bravano
Valentina Cortese (billed Cortesa) as Eleanora Torlato-Favrini
Rossano Brazzi as Count Vincenzo Torlato-Favrini
Elizabeth Sellars as Jerry Dawes
Warren Stevens as Kirk Edwards
Franco Interlenghi as Pedro Vargas
Mari Aldon as Myrna
Alberto Rabagliati as Nightclub proprietor
Enzo Staiola as Busboy
Maria Zanoli as Maria’s Mother
Renato Chiantoni as Maria’s Father
Bill Fraser as J. Montague Brown
John Parrish as Mr. Black
Jim Gerald as Mr. Blue
Diana Decker as Drunken Blonde
Riccardo Rioli as Gypsy Dancer
Tonio Selwart as The Pretender
Margaret Anderson as The Pretender’s Wife
Gertrude Flynn as Lulu McGee
John Horne as Hector Eubanks
Bessie Love as Mrs. Eubanks
Bob Christopher as Eddie Blake
Anna Maria Paduan as Chambermaid
Carlo Dale as Chauffeur

Produced, directed, written by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Cinematography Jack Cardiff (Color process Technicolor)

Edited by William Hornbeck
Music by Mario Nascimbene
Production company: Figaro

Distributed by United Artists

Release date: September 29, 1954

Running time: 130 minutes
Box office $3.3 million (US rentals)