Barefoot and Bravura
Among the great female screen stars, Ava Gardner seemed to experience personal highs and lows in juxtaposition. Her two signature 1951 movie roles – that of Julie LaVerne in Show Boat and Pandora Reynolds in Pandora and the Flying Dutchman – hit screens within a month of each other. Though glamorously showcased in both, she would always feel the hurt of her singing voice being dubbed in the former (after exhaustively working with vocal coaches) and the turmoil during filming of the latter when a self-described one-night fling with bullfighter Mario Cabré ignited tensions in her ongoing relationship with the jealous, hot-blooded Frank Sinatra while she was trying to embody an ethereal goddess before the cameras during the day. Gardner and Sinatra wed soon after Pandora’s opening, and both would uncertainly soldier on to career highs in 1953, when each would be nominated for Academy Awards®, she for Mogambo (which Audrey Hepburn would receive) and he for From Here to Eternity (which he would triumphantly claim). But as both movies were reaping critical acclaim and vigorous box office, the marriage was already in pieces, Sinatra was despondent, even suicidal, and the stormy union headed on a winding path to a final divorce decree in 1957. In this environment of outward resurgence and hidden desperation, the free-spirited Gardner would take on her most iconic and in many ways most challenging beauty part as the earthy, self-possessed peasant-turned-movie star Maria Vargas in writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s urbane and adult The Barefoot Contessa (1954). She was nervously optimistic and had “gone into it with such high hopes,” she recalled for biographer Peter Evans, who chronicled their phone exchanges about her life in Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations, published a year after the author himself died in 2012. “I told Mankiewicz going in that I wasn’t much of an actress. But I understood Maria Vargas (the contessa of the title). She was a lot like me. That was an understatement! If he’d help me, I said, I thought I could deliver a performance we could both live with.” However, her star wattage blazed higher at the time and she commanded a higher salary than that of co-star Humphrey Bogart, whose resentment was reflected in the way he treated her. “He knew that it was my film, not his. He wasn’t happy that I got the part. A lot of better actresses than me were up for it. Bogie didn’t approve of me….He never tried to hide it.” On the plus side, she was again gorgeously photographed by Pandora and the Flying Dutchman’s Jack Cardiff, and she considered her other co-star Edmond O’Brien (who had worked with her before in The Killers (1946) and afterward in Seven Days in May (1964) and would win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar® for his work in The Barefoot Contessa playing press agent Oscar Muldoon) “the only good thing on that picture. He was a wonderful actor, and knew I was struggling. He would say little things, like: ‘Don’t be in a hurry to say that line. Wait a beat. It’s a good line, it’s important.’ Eddie knew more about Maria Vargas than Mankiewicz did – and Mankiewicz created her!” But Mankiewicz, on this first foray into independent production, brought his abundant gifts for sharply observant dialogue and stinging wit about the film business he simultaneously loved and scorned, and combined with Gardner’s irresistible glamour, this rueful yet hypnotic show-business drama triumphantly overcomes any regrets and backstage backbiting, particularly those of Gardner, who shines more indelibly than she gave herself credit for. Rossano Brazzi, Valentina Cortese, Marius Goring, Warren Stevens and Elizabeth Sellars round out the memorable cast. Making its home video debut for the first time in its original widescreen format, The Barefoot Contessa will be accompanied by an in-depth commentary by film historians Julie Kirgo and David Del Valle, an extensive Stills Gallery from the Del Valle Archives and an Isolated Audio Track of Mario Nascimbene’s powerful score when it arrives on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray December 13. Preorders open November 30.