The Dazzling Tragedy of THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA

Experience the continuing power of one of the greatest classic films ever made.

The Barefoot Contessa is the most classic example of the star vehicle at a time when star vehicles were at their most potent and entertaining. Seeing matinee idols on the screen living out fantasies, both dark and light, took audiences on trips filled with the purest of magic and escape. Therefore it is with irony and a slight wink when in an early scene the film’s leading lady (so very clearly a bright shining figure in her own right) looks at her leading man and sincerely asks, “Mr. Dawes, do you really think I could be a star?” Like most star vehicles of the era, The Barefoot Contessa comes with an interesting look, which is beyond dreamlike from the opening scenes taking place in the rainy outdoors. As lavish and grand as the film comes off, the opening scene also sets the stage for the anguish, dread, and heartbreak that is to come.

In The Barefoot Contessa, a washed-up Hollywood movie director named Harry Dawes (Humphrey Bogart) finds himself in Spain and is tasked by hard-edged financier Kirk Edwards (Warren Stevens) to sign up singer/dancer Maria Vargas (Ava Gardner). Beautiful, but feisty, Maria resists at first but eventually relents, and before she knows it becomes a top movie star, leading to and eye-opening journey with devastating results.

One of the main reasons The Barefoot Contessa is considered such a classic today (and also the reason for its perfect score on Rotten Tomatoes) is the sparkling script from legendary writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz. The Barefoot Contessa is loaded with a bevy of great dialogue which is shared with every character within it. While Bogart handles the wit: “I have a sixth sense that any witch in the world would give her left broomstick to have,” Gardner delivers the philosophical: “To a girl with nothing a man with hundreds is just as rich as a man with millions.” But the strength of the film’s script takes things further through its real world portrayals. The stark portrait of Hollywood in the opening scene as a world full of despair was bold for such a high-profile studio film, while Harry and Maria’s conversation about finding her light both on a sound stage and in life is full of true wisdom. Best of all is the relationship between the two main characters, which was an excellent portrait of platonic male/female relationships not often seen during the period and rarely since. The relationship between Harry and Maria is one full of respect, friendship, kinship, honesty and admiration that is mutual and never wavers.

In some ways it’s moreso the character, rather than the actress playing her, who is the true star of The Barefoot Contessa. The character of Maria is so luminous that the film actually gives her two introductions, both of which are amazing! The first is seen through the eyes of the audience watching her dance, with the camera focusing on just the club’s audience, noting how everyone who sees Maria is affected by her. The second shows Harry pulling back the curtain she is hiding behind, with the camera registering both her beauty and her fire from the instant her face hits the screen. Maria is such a mythologized character, and the script goes to the greatest lengths to show this, from other characters referring to her as “untouchable” to the scene where she literally saves her father from going to prison by emotionally baring her heart to the court. Maria proves herself to be someone so adored and idealized, yet none of it means anything to her when she realizes all of it fails to feed her soul. It it the age old mystery of loving someone who appears to have so much, and the inevitable tragedy of them actually having nothing…at least nothing that means something.

Bogart and Gardner are as magnetic as ever in their roles, with each not only re-affirming and cementing their statuses as dazzling movie stars, but also proving to be accomplished actors in the way they get to the heart of their characters and their struggles. Apart from the two of them, it’s Edmond O’Brien who proves the Oscar he won for the film was well-deserved as he manages to go beyond of the stereotype of the people-pleasing Hollywood producer and uncover the hidden soul within.

The ultimate question to ponder during and after The Barefoot Contessa is the following: is the film is a cautionary tale or a classic Hollywood tragedy? There are certainly strong enough arguments for both to be found here with the various A Star is Born-like qualities that manage to go far deeper, containing a different sort of poetry altogether. In the end, the answer is more or less unimportant as the film proves to be a portrait of a soul who was simply too ethereal to have existed. Everyone wanted to know Maria, but no one, not even Harry, ever could, because no one was ever meant to. It was the inevitable flaw of being human that was Maria’s downfall, shattering the illusion and waking everyone up from the spell she inadvertently put on those she met.

The Barefoot Contessa is now available on Blu-ray from Twilight Time.

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