Friday, January 7, 2011

Still Film: The Barefoot Contessa (1954). A Condessa Descalça

The Barefoot Contessa is story of interweaving parts in the life of a hypnotic, small town Spanish dancer cum Hollywood starlet, Maria Vargas. The story opens the theatre curtain to reveal the push-pull tensions behind the scenes of Hollywood and the glamourous stars that appear so perfect and content on the glimmering surface.  A pressure cooker of film industry big wigs, investors, her director, and the audience all have stake in that beautiful, real-life silverscreen doll on the glossy pages. Everything from her romantic life to her career moves are on the table for scrutany and redirection. She was happy as a sought-after nightclub dancer in Spain, is she happier as a hollywood star?  Doubtful.

The screenplay eeriely echoes the real life of Ava Gardner, who plays Maria Vargas.  She was currently living in Spain at the time of production and, thanks to her Hollywood up-bringing which plucked her from her backwoods Southern roots a groomed her for stardom, she thought that love is nothing. And the more suitors she had, the harder this maxim cemented in her heart. The director and writer Joseph L Mankiewicz is a strange parallel to Bogie's director character Harry Dawes and his relationship to Maria/Ava. Mankiewicz directed Ava's most noted films and although he had something at stake in her celebrity, he was also very protective of her, as is Harry of Maria.

Ava signed a studio contract at 18 and after years of vocal lessons and reprogramming she was ready for mass consumption.  Just like Maria Vargas, the studio suits behind her image sought to control her every move, and Ava became more jaded by it.  Certain professional partners, such as Mankiewicz, understood her talent, giving her more creative license and guidance-- which is probably why their films were so sucessful.

Back to Maria.  The story begins with Maria's funeral and tells the story from the points of view of the men who pulled the strings of her film career. Most of the men in her life, professional or romantic, weren't portrayed as cold or evil, however they were mainly concerned with Maria's well-being for self-serving purposes: money, image, career, good times.  The death of Maria caused them to reflect for the hour of her funeral, but inevitably, the machine went on with a new cog filling her  old role.

Interestingly, the statue made of Ava for the film was bought by  the one great of love of Ava's life, Frank Sinatra, for his backyard in Southern California.  When Sinatra remarried in the 70's, the sexy plaster Ava idol was out, carried away in a truck, and never seen again. Its hard to believe that some dumpster diver out there wouldn't have snatched that up and resold it.  I'd like to think its probably still stashed in some lot behind a desert trailer park or something.

The fashion style of the Maria is va-va-voom classic hollywood meets matador Spain.  There are glitter appliques on blouses to no end, gold hoops, pops of color anchored in black, and an endless supply of rose red nails and shoeless dainty feet.


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