Film: The Barefoot Contessa
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.
When people talk about movies about the movies, one that rarely gets mentioned, at least within earshot of me, is The Barefoot Contessa. Having watched the film, I think this may be simply because people haven’t seen it, not because it doesn’t rank with films like 8 ½ or The Player. It’s one hell of a film, and it’s one hell of a meta-film. There’s quite a bit more here than just a story.
Movies about movies require a particular level of self-awareness, and this film has that in spades. We start at the end, at the funeral of the eponymous Contessa. The bulk of the film is told from the point of view of Harry Dawes (Humphrey Bogart), a screenwriter and director hitting difficult and desperate times. At the start of the story he tells, Dawes is starting to claw his way back in Hollywood as much as he can. To get there, he’s hooked up with Kirk Edwards (Warren Stevens), a man far too wealthy for his own good with a yen to stroke his own ego by making a movie. To do this, he wants a new face, and has gone to Madrid with Harry, his publicist Oscar Muldoon (Edmond O’Brien), and a fading drunk actress named Myrna (Mari Aldon).
They meet a dancer named Maria Vargas (Ava Gardner), and despite her immediate dislike of Kirk Edwards, she agrees to a screen test. In part, this is because she trusts Harry. In part, this is because her terrible, hateful mother wishes her not to. And then, well, then the film becomes something very different than one might expect. It goes in directions different and unusual for a film that is at least in part a skewering of the Hollywood system and the movie industry. Fortunately, this makes it a better film, because it makes it a less predictable film.
In truth, the plot here isn’t particularly difficult to explain or understand, but it is staggering, and worth discovering on one’s own without having it much spoiled. There’s a lot here I’d much rather talk about than a plot summary, anyway, because this is a film with a number of levels, and it clicks on all of them.
Bogart plays his role with a degree of world weariness that seems to suit him. He looks world weary. His face was made for black-and-white photography, and in color, as in this film, he looks old and worn, but has lost none of his power as an actor. Bogart plays this role as it should be played—a man who has been beaten down and defeated by life, but who has emerged on the other side of it with a measure of happiness and self-respect. Having given up the bottle and (one imagines) any number of other vices, he is content with his scripts, the films he directs, and the love of Jerry (Elizabeth Sellars), a script girl who loves him back just as intensely. O’Brien’s Oscar Muldoon is the quintessential Hollywood press agent; he’s sleazy and dirty, and would feel right at home in a film like Sweet Smell of Success, but like Bogart, has a certain world-weariness to him that suits both his own hangdog expression and the role. Oscar has seen everything, covered everything up, and made amends on someone else’s behalf for anything imaginable, and he’s acquired the 1000-yard stare to go with it. And he still does it, but he’s also wised up to exactly what he’s doing and why he’s doing it.
There are three men in the film who vie for Maria’s romantic attention, and all three have some particular similarities. The trio is made up of fabulously wealthy men who all have a particular vulnerability. Kirk Edwards is the first, although he truly never has a shot with Maria. He’s far too controlling, a little boy in a man’s body, demanding his own way and using both his money and threats to force others into compliance. When, halfway through the film he is essentially rendered impotent, he reacts in the only way he knows how. Second is Alberto Bravano (Marius Goring) has all of the foibles of Edwards without the self-righteousness but with a disturbing shamelessness that makes him particularly unappealing. Third is Count Vincenzo Torlato-Favrini (Rossano Brazzi), who eventually wins her and marries her, but is physically impotent, which for Maria may be the biggest crime.
And then there is Maria, around whom the entire film revolves. It is, after all, her funeral that we start at and her funeral that we return to at the end of the film. I’ve never been a big fan of Ava Gardner, but that may only be because I didn’t like the first several of her films that I saw. Had this been my first exposure to her, I’d have been a fan from the start. She inhabits this role perfectly, as if born to play it. Maria Vargas is a poor girl made good, and a poor girl unable to live in that world. I don't know if that's true of Ava Gardner, but she makes it work here.
I watched this one on a whim tonight, just scrolling through what was available streaming and what still needed to be seen from the list. It was one hell of a good choice, because this one is one hell of a great film. This one I will watch again.
Why to watch The Barefoot Contessa: It’s a better film than you think for a film you probably haven’t heard of.
Why not to watch: Looking for this film is likely to turn up a bunch of cookbooks and cooking shows. Bite me, Ina Garten!