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The title of the film The Naked Maja (1958) refers to a famous painting by Spanish artist Francisco Goya (1746 -1828) of a brunette beauty reclining nude with her hands behind her head. Its twin, the Clothed Maja, shows the same woman in an identical pose, but dressed in a clingy, diaphanous white garment and embroidered jacket. Some art historians believe the model for the paintings was the Duchess of Alba, a flamboyant beauty, egalitarian aristocrat and freethinker whose marriage posed no threat to her vigorous extra-curricular love life, and who may have been Goya's mistress. Others identify the model as the mistress of Manuel Godoy, prime minister under Goya's patron, King Carlos IV. Set against the turbulent background of the Inquisition and Spain's war with France, The Naked Maja is a heavily fictionalized account of Goya's career, and his relationship with the legendary Duchess. Sumptuously produced and lushly photographed in color by the great Giuseppe Rotunno, the film was shot in Italy with an Italian cast, because the puritanical Franco government and the descendants of the Duchess objected to its scandalous subject matter and would not permit it to be made in Spain.
Ava Gardner was perfectly cast as the unconventional Alba. One of MGM's top stars throughout the 1950s, she had grown tired of the Hollywood scene, especially during her tempestuous marriage to Frank Sinatra. When they broke up, she moved to Spain to get away from the media scrutiny and had become an aficionada of all things Spanish - bullfights, flamenco dancing, and Spanish art and music. Gardner was initially enthusiastic about playing the Duchess, especially when the film was to be shot in Spain. When those plans changed, Gardner decided to go ahead with the film because it would be her last film under her MGM contract (the studio was distributing, but not producing the film). The Naked Maja would also be Gardner's first film since she had injured her face in a drunken accident while bullfighting on horseback. The damage was barely visible by the time filming began, but Gardner's face was her fortune, and she was nervous and self-conscious about how she would look in the film. Thanks to Rotunno, she looked as gorgeous as ever. Rotunno also shot Gardner's next film, the critically acclaimed On the Beach (1959).
Gardner's apprehension only increased when she met her Naked Maja co-star Anthony Franciosa, who was playing Goya. A New York Method actor, his way of working was much different than Gardner's untrained, instinctive one. In her posthumously-published memoirs, Gardner recalled, "The lights would be set, the cast would be standing in front of the camera waiting for Tony to start the scene, and he'd be standing off to the side, carrying on as if he were choking to death and nearly vomiting before he would come on." An added irritant was Franciosa's wife at the time, Shelley Winters, who was convinced that Gardner was after her husband, and that the two were having an affair - a charge both Gardner and Franciosa denied. So did director Henry Koster, who claimed, "Franciosa and Ava hated each other. They used to sulk in separate dressing rooms between scenes, refusing to speak to each other."
Koster, a veteran who had directed everything from Deanna Durbin musicals in the 1930s to biblical epics such as The Robe (1953), called The Naked Maja "one of the most torturing experiences I had in my time of making pictures.... I walked off the picture a couple of times." Not only was he working with difficult stars, he also had a predominantly Italian cast who "spoke the dialogue in broken English," and who were later dubbed by American actors. Norman Corwin's original screenplay was rewritten by Giorgio Prosperi, with uncredited rewrites by Albert Lewin and by Koster himself. Koster claims that with rewrites, shooting, and post-production, he spent a year in Italy working on the film.
The critics acknowledged The Naked Maja's superb production values and some of the performances, but were brutal about the screenplay. "The costumes are colorful, the backgrounds seem authentic, and the dancing is fiery. The Naked Maja is often visually exciting and action, when it does occur, captures the interest. But for the most part [the film] just drags on, a maze of pompous dialog and muddled emotions that seldom ring true," according to Variety. "May be the most inept movie biography since Cecil B. DeMille tore Cleopatra from the pages of history," sneered Time.
Despite the title, there is no nudity nor any steamy bedroom scenes between Franciosa and Gardner. Still, The Naked Maja became the unlikely center of an anti-pornography campaign by the U.S. Post Office. In March of 1959, as part of the film's publicity campaign, United Artists sent out a few thousand postcard reproductions of Goya's eponymous painting to members of the press. The Post Office took one look and seized the postcards as obscene. United Artists, jumping on the publicity opportunity, fought the case, and the postal examiner upheld the seizure. UA then appealed to the Justice Department, which threw out the case, with the Post Office admitting that the postcard was not obscene. But the racy publicity was not enough to save The Naked Maja, which tanked at the box office.
Director: Henry Koster
Producer: Goffredo Lombardo, Silvio Clementelli
Screenplay: Norman Corwin, Giorgio Prosperi, based on a story by Oscar Saul, Talbot Jennings
Cinematography: Giuseppe Rotunno
Editor: Mario Serandrei
Costume Design: Dario Cecchi, Maria Baroni
Art Direction: Piero Filippone
Music: Angelo Francesco Lavagnino
Cast: Ava Gardner (Duchess of Alba), Anthony Franciosa (Francisco Goya), Amedeo Nazzari (Prime Minister Manuel Godoy), Gino Cervi (King Carlos IV), Lea Padovani (Queen Maria Luisa), Massimo Serato (Sanchez), Carlo Rizzo (Juanito).
by Margarita Landazuri