Overabundance on Offer
When it held its gala New York world premiere 63 years ago this week, there was already too much muchness about writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s glamorous The Barefoot Contessa (1954) to admire and to digest. In fact, the dramatic story of the fashioning of a movie star (Ava Gardner) from humble origins competed the same day for attention with a similarly lavish send-off on the West Coast: the Hollywood unveiling of the Judy Garland-headlined A Star Is Born (1954), telecast live nationwide. Both Mankiewicz’s tale and the George Cukor-directed musical benefitted from the kind of studio-machinery marketing (a term not in use then) which both movies depicted on screen. Lee Server writes in his 2006 Ava Gardner: “Love Is Nothing:” “United Artists promoted the release of The Barefoot Contessa as a major cultural event. The publicity campaign had already stirred up great interest, with the memorable posters and advertisements with their sketched rendering of an ecstatic Ava and the printed declaration: ‘The World’s Most Beautiful Animal.’ It was the delirious worldwide hype more than the film itself that confirmed the movie star’s divine ascension. For a moment in time, however brief, no other performer held such a grip on the planet’s imagination. At the world premiere in New York, Ava arrived looking glorious in a Fontana creation….The premiere screening would be her first view of the film; in Rome she had seen only scattered rushes and those edited scenes she had viewed for the purpose of postdubbing some dialogue. The film played well at the beginning, the audience responding favorably to the dramatic opening and the witty lines, to the glorious painterly style of cinematographer [Jack] Cardiff, eventually to the arrival of the star in all her sumptuous beauty. Long dialogue exchanges and monologues, some more like spoken essays, began to lessen the film’s initial spell….The film, as suspected by many who attended the premiere, did not become the roadshow sensation as planned. Mankiewicz’s Shavian dissections of the worlds of moviemaking and high society was judged too talky and dull by the carriage trade, and too rich for the blood – and too talky – by the common man. It was either too sophisticated or not sophisticated enough….It was, to be sure, a flawed and decidedly verbose film, but one that contained much that was impossible to forget. Visually, the film was a remarkable, glowing object of beauty…."
Server continued: "Ava Gardner’s physical presence, her visual impact on the screen, was stunning. Her performance, however, appeared inhibited, remote, evidencing her difficulties with the role and the lack of rapport with Mankiewicz; though, to be optimistic, the ultimate enigmatic quality of Ava’s Maria [Vargas] could be judged as at least partly intrinsic to Mankiewicz’s conception, a case study observed, reflected upon, not an intimate portrait. As with [Gardner’s] Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, the film [later] found its most fervent admirers among the cinephiles of France. ‘Brilliant, intelligent and elegant,’ wrote François Truffaut. ‘One of the most beautiful portraits of woman ever filmed, in the person of Ava Gardner, Hollywood’s most exquisitely beautiful actress.’ The Barefoot Contessa was equally adored by Jean-Luc Godard; Mankiewcz’s film, with its erudite dialogue, philosophical discourse, its glamorous Italian setting and aestheticized visuals, would be the template for Godard’s 1963 masterpiece, Le Mépris (Contempt).” As for the “overwritten” dialogue, sharp, caustically observant and undoubtedly overextended, it was considerably helped by having top-caliber co-stars like Humphrey Bogart, Marius Goring, Warren Stevens, Valentina Cortese, Elizabeth Sellars and Best Supporting Actor Academy Award® winner Edmond O’Brien deliver it. Ironically, Mankiewicz’s first choice to play the noble but troubled Italian count who would lay claim to but ultimately destroy the unattainable goddess the machine created – Gardner’s Pandora co-star James Mason – was unavailable because he opted for another, more indelible destruction-bent role in A Star Is Born. He went with Rossano Brazzi instead, with more tentative results. Bogart and Mason would be Best Actor Oscar® contenders that year for their respective turns in The Caine Mutiny and A Star Is Born, so no complaints there, even if On the Waterfront’s Marlon Brando claimed the trophy. (Mankiewicz would also be Oscar®-nominated for Best Original Screenplay.) Like The Barefoot Contessa, A Star Is Born would prove less of a crowd-pleasing sensation than its backers had hoped when launched that same night on opposite coasts. Now, both movies’ starmaking-saga excesses of wit, exoticism, production design and high-wire talent are more fondly treasured. Twilight Time’s ravishing hi-def Blu-ray of The Barefoot Contessa delivers all its aching beauty and dense discourses for all they’re worth, and the goods on offer may confound…or might just be priceless.