Every once in a while we like to revisit some notable classic movie titles. Today’s choice is 1954’s The Barefoot Contessa, written and director by Joseph Mankiewicz and costarring Ava Garner and Humphrey Bogart.
The movie is really a down-home show biz story wrapped up in Hollywood’s then fascination with Europe. Bogie — just three years away from his death of lung cancer — plays a jaded, washed up movie producer who just happens to discover a talented sexpot, Maria Vargas, dancing mostly in barefoot in a Madrid nightclub. His attempts to make her a Hollywood star are offset by her dizzying love life. There is a crime of passion at the end.
When she made this picture, Ava was in her early 30s, and her career was blossoming. Bogart’s, on the other hand, was sunsetting. (Although he was contractually obligated to top billing, Bogart was being paid about half of Gardner’s salary.) The picture is largely Ava’s.
Garner and Bogie did not get along especially well. In shooting early scenes, Bogart once turned away and snapped: Hey Mankiewicz, can you tell this dame to speak up? I can’t hear a goddam word she says. Part of the problem was the actor’s deteriorating health. Many takes were ruined when Bogart experienced racking coughing spells.
Gardner had a better time of things. She got to wear a seemingly unending stream of stylish costumes. She got to dance. She got to bask in the worldwide publicity surrounding the breakup of her marriage to Frank Sinatra, which occurred shortly before The Barefoot Contessa went before the cameras. Her career in Europe was taking off. (Not bad for a girl from the red earth heartland of rural North Carolina.)
Bogie is fine in the picture. The script won Mankiewicz an Oscar nomination. And then there is Edmond O’Brien.
O’Brien, born Redmond O’Brien in 1915, began his career as a stage actor including a stint as a member of the famed Mercury Theater, before making his movie debut in 1939’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, directed by William Dieterle.
British writer-critic David Thomson writes: Built around the heavy-jowled, anxious frown of someone in pain, O’Brien had been barred from lead parts. But as a supporting actor, he was vigorous, imaginative and often brought more subtlety to a part than was expected.
There’s a reason O’Brien won a best supporting actor Oscar for his role as the sweaty, insincere publicist The Barefoot Contessa.