Ava Gardner ‘The Barefoot Contessa’ star turn: Memorable blend of glamour + talent
One of the flashiest film celebrities of the mid-20th century, Ava Gardner – The Barefoot Contessa, Mogambo, and The Killers are three of her best-remembered efforts – is Turner Classic Movies’ “Summer Under the Stars” honoree on Aug. 8.
At Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer since 1941, when she began landing a series of bit parts (H.M. Pulham Esq., Hitler’s Madman, etc.), Ava Gardner (born on Christmas Eve, 1922, in Grabtown, North Carolina) became known as a sex symbol following a couple of vixenish performances in, while on loan to Universal, Robert Siodmak’s film noir The Killers (1946) and, back at MGM, Jack Conway’s socio-psychological drama The Hucksters (1947).
But it didn’t take long for – at least some – critics and moviegoers to realize that there was more to the dark-haired beauty than just a sultry voice, an exquisite face, and a fantastic figure. In fact, anyone paying attention could easily have noticed that Gardner’s seductresses in The Killers and The Hucksters were much more nuanced than Hollywood’s usual one-dimensional vamps.
So it should have come as no surprise when, in the early 1950s, Ava Gardner began landing – and shining in – more demanding roles such as the ethereal Pandora Reynolds in Albert Lewin’s British-produced romantic fantasy Pandora and the Flying Dutchman and, especially, the tragic “mulatto” Julie LaVerne in George Sidney’s MGM musical blockbuster Show Boat.
Both 1951 releases – and The Killers – are part of the TCM lineup, and so is the most memorable Ava Gardner showcase, The Barefoot Contessa.
Filmed in color at Rome’s Cinecittà Studios and at several picturesque Italian locations, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s independently made, United Artists-distributed The Barefoot Contessa (1954) is set in that rarefied realm where jet-setters, show biz personalities, and the decaying European nobility congregate.
Billed as “the world’s most beautiful animal,” Ava Gardner stars as the title character: Maria Vargas, who, following a similar trajectory to that of Rita Hayworth (born Margarita Carmen Cansino), goes from Madrid nightclub performer to international film star to titled noblewoman to dead and buried.
Of course, one key difference between Vargas and Hayworth is that the latter was very much alive in the mid-1950s, having resumed her Hollywood career after splitting up from Prince Aly Khan earlier in the decade. In fact, Hayworth, a masterful dancer and by then a first-rate actress, would have been perfect as her fictionalized Spanish self.
But Ava Gardner it was – and that’s no detriment to either the character or the film itself. To the contrary: under Mankiewicz’s guidance, Gardner, the personification of mid-20th-century Hollywood glamour, capably conveys Maria’s inelegant vulnerability underneath a façade of glittering self-confidence.
‘Kane’ & ‘Eve’ flashbacks + Howard Hughes ‘threat’?
Told in flashbacks from different perspectives – along the lines of Citizen Kane and Mankiewicz’s own All About Eve (and, for that matter, Rashomon) – The Barefoot Contessa mostly takes place inside the heads of three middle-aged men as they remember the dearly departed Maria Vargas at her funeral: Humphrey Bogart as a Hollywood director and Maria’s former mentor; Rossano Brazzi as Maria’s widower, a dashingly handsome but impotent (instead of, as originally planned, gay) Italian count; and Gardner’s The Killers co-star and eventual Best Supporting Actor Academy Award winner Edmond O’Brien as a greasy publicist based on Howard Hughes’ press agent Johnny Meyer.
Hughes himself is depicted in the person of Warren Stevens’ Wall Street financier turned movie producer Kirk Edwards. It should be noted that although the real-life megalomaniacal billionaire did enjoy a well-publicized liaison with Rita Hayworth, the Maria & Kirk plot developments seen in The Barefoot Contessa appear to have been inspired by his combative personal/professional relationships with Gina Lollobrigida and Ava Gardner herself.
Irrespective of the lovers involved, Hughes wasn’t pleased. In Pictures Will Talk: The Life and Films of Joseph L. Mankiewicz, author Kenneth L. Geist writes that after an implicit lawsuit threat from Hughes’ attorney Greg Bautzer, Mankiewicz had editor William Hornbeck cut out/dub over the offending bits of dialogue. That’s supposed to explain how, for instance, the Texas tycoon of early script drafts was transmogrified into the Wall Street type.
A radically different version of the story is told by screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz (Diamonds Are Forever, Live and Let Die), son of the Barefoot Contessa filmmaker. In My Life as a Mankiewicz: An Insider’s Journey Through Hollywood (co-written with Robert Crane), he recalls that before shooting began, Hughes contacted his father to suggest changes to the screenplay. If the younger Mankiewicz’s recollections are accurate – he was a pre-teen at the time – Joseph L. “never changed a word of the [apparently already revised] script and never heard from Hughes again.”
‘Nothing to work with’
Besides Howard Hughes, also displeased with a particular element in The Barefoot Contessa was the film’s top-billed star.
According to Humphrey Bogart biographer Joe Hyams, the Best Actor Oscar winner (The African Queen, 1951) didn’t care for his leading lady and “made no attempt to conceal it. He complained that as an actress she gave him nothing to work with. Consequently, when he felt a scene between them was going poorly he’d deliberately muff his lines in order to get a retake.”
If true, it’s unclear why Bogart would have felt the need to oversee Gardner’s performance when at the helm of The Barefoot Contessa was the man whose All About Eve had received five Oscar nominations in the acting categories (including eventual Best Supporting Actor winner George Sanders), and who had elicited top-notch characterizations from disparate talent, ranging from Gene Tierney in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and Edward G. Robinson in House of Strangers to Cary Grant, Jeanne Crain, and Finlay Currie in People Will Talk.
As found in Peter Evans’ Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations, which is supposed to consist of transcripts from taped recordings of phone chats between the author and the actress, in Gardner’s view, Bogart didn’t like her “probably because he knew that it was my film, not his.” She adds, “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 had no respect for me at all. He never tried to hide it.”
Ava Gardner ‘The Barefoot Contessa’ Oscar ‘snub’
Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Actors Branch members evidently disagreed with Humphrey Bogart, as the same year The Barefoot Contessa came out Ava Gardner found herself in the running for the Best Actress Oscar for her exuberant star turn in John Ford’s Mogambo.
Yet when the 1954 Oscar nominations were announced early the following year, Ava Gardner’s name was nowhere to be found on the shortlist. Never mind that her performance in Mankiewicz’s drama is far more compelling than those of some of that year’s nominees – Jane Wyman (Magnificent Obsession), Audrey Hepburn (Sabrina), eventual winner Grace Kelly (The Country Girl).
Surely not helping Gardner’s chances was the fact that The Barefoot Contessa hadn’t been warmly embraced upon its release, with the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther, for one, expressing his disgust:
In The Barefoot Contessa … Joseph L. Mankiewicz has fashioned a caustic and cynical report on the glittering and graceless behavior of the Hollywood-international set. And, in doing so, he has turned up a group of assorted characters so bitter and disagreeable that they put the teeth on edge.
This vivid and withering illustration of a set and a general atmosphere is the chief fascination of this picture, morbid and bootless though it be. And the barefaced corruption of its people is the nub of its sharp wit and surprise. For the story that’s told against this background is a curiously empty tabloid tale, and the title performer, Ava Gardner, fails to give it plausibility or appeal.
‘Best bad movie’
Despite its first-rate production values – Jack Cardiff’s lush color cinematography, Mario Nascimbene’s moody score, William Hornbeck’s film editing, Arrigo Equini’s sets, gowns by Fontana – aside from Edmond O’Brien’s Best Supporting Actor nod/win, The Barefoot Contessa was shortlisted in only one other Oscar category, Best Story and Screenplay. (It lost to On the Waterfront.)
And to think that Jean Negulesco’s inconsequential but hugely successful travelogue Three Coins in the Fountain – coincidentally, another Hollywood movie shot in Italy – managed to land a Best Picture nomination that same year.
As per Tom Mankiewicz, his father would refer to The Barefoot Contessa as his “best bad movie.” About his female star, the older Mankiewicz says in Pictures Will Talk:
“I don’t think I was as much help to [Ava Gardner] as I would have liked. … It was almost unforgivably stupid of me not to recognize how really nervous and sensitive she was. She was aware that this was a tremendously difficult part, and she was terribly insecure about her ability to do it. I think I failed her, in one respect, because I didn’t give her enough security.”
Notwithstanding its Oscar “snub” and reservations from critics and its own makers, The Barefoot Contessa – and its “terribly insecure” lead – offer some of the most indelible big-screen moments of the 1950s.
Ava Gardner ‘The Barefoot Contessa’ competitors + Howard Hughes tales
 Rita Hayworth is supposed to have turned down The Barefoot Contessa, though there’s no mention of her being offered the role of Maria Vargas in Pictures Will Talk, which provides detailed information on the making of the film.
As per various – several of which unverified – online and literary references, among those who were either offered or wanted to play Maria were: Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s former lover Linda Darnell, Elizabeth Taylor, Jennifer Jones, Paulette Goddard, Yvonne De Carlo, and the then little-known Bella Darvi, Joan Collins, and Rossana Podesta.
 If Ava Gardner’s recollections are to be trusted – and the transcripts of her conversations are accurate - she claims in Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations that Joseph L. Mankiewicz was forced to spend time and money reworking The Barefoot Contessa so it would meet Howard Hughes’ demands.
Valentina Cortese & Elizabeth Sellars + Vittorio De Sica’s boy actors & early Oscar ‘nominee’
- Marius Goring (The Red Shoes) plays a South American playboy along the lines of Brazilian Francisco Pignatari. Behind the scenes, while Bogart didn’t care for Gardner, Goring didn’t care for Bogart. “There’s nothing more boring than a man who uses ‘fucking’ in every sentence,” the British actor is quoted as saying in Pictures Will Talk.
- As Rossano Brazzi’s sister, future Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee Valentina Cortese (Day for Night, 1974), who died at age 96 last July 10 in Milan.
- As Bogart’s much younger wife (shades of Lauren Bacall), Elizabeth Sellars (The Chalk Garden), who’s still around at age 98.
- Franco Interlenghi and Enzo Staiola, both featured in key roles in two Oscar-winning Vittorio De Sica movies: Shoeshine (1946) and Bicycle Thieves (1948). In The Barefoot Contessa, Interlenghi plays Pedro Vargas; Staiola can be briefly seen as a busboy.
- Former silent era star Bessie Love – whose credits include The Lost World (1925) and the first talkie to win a Best Picture Academy Award, The Broadway Melody (1929) – has a small role as Mrs. Eubanks.
See below Turner Classic Movies’ Ava Gardner schedule.
Ava Gardner ‘The Barefoot Contessa’ TCM schedule (EDT)
6:00 AM THE BRIBE (1949). Dir.: Robert Z. Leonard. Cast: Robert Taylor. Charles Laughton. B&W-98m.
12:00 PM RIDE VAQUERO! (1953). Dir.: John Farrow. Cast: Robert Taylor. Howard Keel. C-90m.
2:00 PM MOGAMBO (1953). Dir.: John Ford. Cast: Clark Gable. Grace Kelly. C-116m.
4:00 PM KNIGHTS OF THE ROUND TABLE (1953). Dir.: Richard Thorpe. Cast: Robert Taylor. Mel Ferrer. C-116m.
6:00 PM BHOWANI JUNCTION (1956). Dir.: George Cukor. Cast: Stewart Granger. Bill Travers. C-110m.
8:00 PM AVA GARDNER THE GYPSY OF HOLLYWOOD (2017). Dir.: Sergio Mondelo. B&W-52m.
9:15 PM THE KILLERS (1946). Dir.: Robert Siodmak. Cast: Burt Lancaster. Edmond O’Brien. B&W-102m.
11:15 PM PANDORA AND THE FLYING DUTCHMAN (1951). Dir.: Albert Lewin. Cast: James Mason. Nigel Patrick. C-124m.
1:30 AM THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA (1954). Dir.: Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Cast: Humphrey Bogart. Edmond O’Brien. C-130m.
4:00 AM THE ANGEL WORE RED (1960). Dir.: Nunnally Johnson. Cast: Dirk Bogarde. Joseph Cotten. B&W-99m.
Joe Hyams quote via his Humphrey Bogart bio Bogie.
François Truffaut quote: The Films in My Life, translated by Leonard Mayhew.
Federico Fellini’s admiration for The Barefoot Contessa is mentioned in Pictures Will Talk.
Ava Gardner The Barefoot Contessa schedule: Turner Classic Movies website.
Ava Gardner The Barefoot Contessa image: United Artists.
Ava Gardner Mogambo image: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Ava Gardner and James Mason Pandora and the Flying Dutchman image: Romulus Films / MGM.
“Ava Gardner The Barefoot Contessa: Underrated Mix of Hollywood Glamour + Star Charisma” last updated in October 2019.