Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Hooray for (Hating) Hollywood: The Barefoot Contessa

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Hooray for (Hating) Hollywood: The Barefoot Contessa

[Hooray for (Hating) Hollywood is a series revisiting those classics of the early 1950s which turned a withering gaze on the American film industry. Whether due to the blacklist, the decline of Hollywood's Golden Age, or America's more generalized postwar anxiety, Hollywood's screenwriters and directors were suddenly driven to lift the curtain from the dream factory and take a closer look at what went on behind the silver screen. Be warned: these reviews will contain spoilers.]

Joseph Mankiewicz's 1954 The Barefoot Contessa bookends the series with Nicholas Ray's 1950 In a Lonely Place. Unlike that film, it's in color - shot by master DP Jack Cardiff in the kind of rich shadows usually found in black-and-white. The results, especially in the background of the frame, often pop like a slide photo on a light table (which is bound to remind my generation of those "3-D" viewfinders from the 80s). In a Lonely Place carries over the postwar noir style, while The Barefoot Contessa - like A Star is Born, also released in '54, opens up into that colorful mid-50s palette (Star goes even further, by embracing widescreen).


Also unlike In a Lonely Place (and like A Star is Born) The Barefoot Contessa is focused on a star (and also a director, producer, and publicist) rather than a screenwriter. Hence, its action unfolds over a glamorous panorama - Spanish nightclub, Hollywood hills, French Rivieria. Most of the scenes take place inside, but these are increasingly glamorous locations, and even the early, slightly shabby nightclub and home (from which Ava Gardner's Maria Vargas rises to a rented Hollywood mansion, then a Riviera casino, and finally the palace of a declining aristocratic family) have a certain romantic charm to them. And yet The Barefoot Contessa ultimately glamorizes and celebrates Hollywood even less than In a Lonely Place.

Of course, the earlier and the later movie have some aspects in common too. Barefoot and Lonely both star Humphrey Bogart, though here he's somewhat stately and mournful as compared to the raw performance he turned in for Nicholas Ray. Nonetheless, Bogart's persona has a certain overarching presence in every movie he's in, and his appearance lends both films a weary detachment from Hollywood glamor and excitement. Thematically there are also similarities: both movies relegate Hollywood to the periphery of their story, though in different ways. Lonely unfolds completely within the bounds of L.A., yet focuses its attention on a murder mystery and a budding romance. The Barefoot Contessa hops the globe but keeps its focus on one woman's rise to fame through stardom and on up even higher, until she is eventually a contessa. Most importantly, both Lonely and Barefoot (there's a good title for a movie, eh - Lonely and Barefoot?) offer up tragic views of not just Hollywood, but life, and the desire for happiness.

It could be argued that The Barefoot Contessa is less tragic than the earlier film, and hence belongs earlier on the spectrum from relative optimism to cynicism (which started by Singin' in the Rain and will end on Sunset Boulevard). But Lonely's Dixon Steele lives on at picture's end, perhaps doomed to continual failure but also living up to the film's motto and epitaph: "I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me." Contrast this with the barefoot contessa of the title, born and raised Maria Vargas amid the bombs of the Spanish Civil War, hounded by an abusive mother, and drawn into an illicit relationship with her cousin (a plot device I found underdeveloped); she never really achieves the happiness she seeks. The only time she comes close is when she's dancing.

The first time she does so, the camera only shows us the audience watching her, but later we'll finally get a look, in the French countryside, accompanied by a troupe of gypsies. The dance is indeed seductive and liberating, and almost the only genuine, unguarded moment that Maria has all film - we can see how much more at home she feels doing this than holding court at some movie premiere or boring industry party. Speaking of which, the movie gives no nod at all to the filmmaking process (except for one scene in a screening room), focusing instead of publicity, the glamor of being a star without the work. Only the middle section even takes place in Hollywood, and it's limited to the aforementioned screening room and a house party which leads Maria out of town and ultimately into the hands of her count, who sees her dancing in France and asks her to marry him.

But Hollywood's sense of royal aspirations and its fairy tale dreams (very shortly thereafter fulfilled in reality by Princess Grace) suffuse the movie. And it ultimately shows up these dreams as unfeasible, inevitably disappointing, and sometimes fatal. The count has a secret up his sleeve and when Maria tries to improvise, creating a new plot twist as if writing a romantic movie, it has disastrous consequences. The movie opens on her funeral and unfolds in flashbacks which, as in The Bad and the Beautiful, are related by different characters and hence set different tones for the picture.

Both Bogart's Harry Dawes, a director and recovering alcoholic, and Edmond O'Brien's Oscar Muldoon (a sweaty, sycophantic, amoral press agent) paint a cynical picture of Hollywood and especially the Wall Street businessman turned movie mogul Kirk Edwards (Warren Stevens). An odd creation as a human character, he makes more sense as a contradictory and facile image of Hollywood's power and influence itself: vulgar, exploitative, cloaked in power with absolutely no sense of creativity, insecure, ultimately ineffectual, and hypocritically pious and sanctimonious (he slaps a girlfriend for "blaspheming" and scolds her for drinking, yet continues to use her for sexual favors). One reason The Barefoot Contessa belongs on the more cynical end of the spectrum is that it is the most vitriolic about Hollywood, and the first to climb to the height of power and point a condemning, unforgiving finger at the moneymen who pull the strings.

Most of the final flashbacks are related by the Count Vincenzo Torlato-Favrini, wounded in war, the last of his line, mired in a hollow cynicism (and possibly engaged in an incestuous relationship with his sister). From the outside, he appears to offer exactly the kind of aristocratic panache which can lift Maria out of the dirt once and for all, completing her Cinderella story. Yet he too is a disappointment, and the movie does not limit its condemnation of false fronts and manipulation to Hollywood. However, it does use the industry as a mere stepping stone in this condemnation and that in itself is enough of an insult to a business that takes itself so seriously!

Writer/director Joseph Mankiewicz had a reputation as a cynic, earned in conjunction with his brother - the alcoholic co-author of Citizen Kane - and on display in his most celebrated work, All About Eve. But Mankiewicz's cynicism, black as it may be at times, also has a tone of moral outrage. The movie does offer us one image of happiness: Dawes and his wife, a script girl who he married after a lifelong torrent of affairs. They don't aspire to power, glamor, even noble tragedy, the way Maria and Kirk Edwards and Oscar (at least the power part) all do, and in their simplicity they find an elusive comfort. Regarding the titular statue atop Maria's grave, Mankiewicz seems to feel sorry for her; there's little of the sense conveyed in A Star is Born that stardom is worth all the pain and tragedy, that it somehow justifies and perpetuates itself. Maria just seems naive in her Cinderella dreams, a foolish bumpkin - barefoot - and an empty image of grace - the contessa - at the same time, but an unhappy woman in the end.

Mankiewicz has a reputation for overwriting and indeed the characters in the movie talk a little too much - explicating every motivation, analysis, and desire that comes into their heads. But most of this occurs in sparkling, artfully composed dialogue; and at times, Mankiewicz does let an image speak for itself. That unforgettable sequence in which Maria dances and momentarily looses the chains that bind her. The moon on her face when she's still a simple girl, a local star but unknown on the big screen ("you use the moon as a key light," Dawes tells her). The count standing on his balcony, a silhouette against the gorgeous sunset - he's a cipher surrounded by great beauty and grandeur. And there's that statue which we see in the mournful funeral at picture's beginning and end, the ultimate image of Hollywood and its aspirations - beautiful and glamorous but barefoot at its base.

All of these images are mini-narratives, composed by the characters as if to create personal movies which will go off-track before they're over. In Mankiewicz's world, Hollywood values are corrosive and the people who buy into these dreams end up with a dozen mourners gathered round their grave - exalted perhaps, but no less dead for their troubles.

Previous: In a Lonely Place
Next: Sunset Boulevard

Hooray for (Hating) Hollywood starts here.

7 comments:

Tony D'Ambra said...

I found this movie boring in the extreme. The characterisations are empty and Bogart looks lost. There is no wit or self-awareness, and who really cares about the hidden travails of Hollywood anyway...

MovieMan0283 said...

The first time I saw this movie, I thoroughly enjoyed it, the second time I found it far more talky than I would have liked. There are also some weak plot points - the aforementioned cousin romance especially. However, Gardner looks great, as does Jack Cardiff's photography, and Mankiewicz could write bon mots with the best of them, even on an off-day. But Bogart doesn't really register here - when you really look at it, it's a supporting role, pretty unusual for him at the time. He doesn't even get to narrate the whole thing!

I've always had a soft spot for Mankiewicz though. Sometimes his overwriting makes me cringe, but I generally find his stories very entertaining.

"who really cares about the hidden travails of Hollywood anyway..."

Don't we all, secretly?

Anonymous said...

I wish somebody who loves great films would post Ava Gardner's graceful, spellbinding gipsy dance from the "Barefoot Contessa" on You-Tube.

Ava Gardner was a superb dancer and this delicately sensuous sequence makes it entirely believable that the lonely Count would, in this first magical moment of seeing the unrecognized film star as her true self, --a solitary and free spirit-- spontaneously decide to marry and make her his own .

The choreography of this outdoor dance scene to the haunting theme music has an exquisite, innocent voluptuousness that is far sexier than predictable nudity in contemporary films.

MovieMan0283 said...

I will keep your request in mind for future consideration...it's a riveting scene, maybe the best in the movie (I love Joseph Mankiewicz's writing but sometimes he just needs to shut up and let the movie move...)

humnabab hai said...

watched this movie last night not knowing what to expect. I briefly read the premise and thought I'd take a chance and watch it. In a word, I was not disappointed. I'd recommend this to anyone who enjoys just a good, simple, plain vanilla romantic movie. If you're not into that, then you wouldn't appreciate this movie.
Barefoot Watch Hollywood movie

danyulengelke said...

Great review!

We're linking to your article for Academy Monday at SeminalCinemaOutfit.com

Keep up the good work!

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks, Dan. Glad you enjoyed it.