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The working title of the film was Goya. Prior to the production of The Naked Maja, other projects were in the works to dramatize the life of famed painter Francisco Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828). A June 1953 Hollywood Reporter news item stated that producer-director Earl McEvoy had purchased a script by Miguel Tansillo that dramatized the romantic life of Goya, emphasizing his romantic affair with Maria Teresa de Cayetana, the 13th Duchess of Alba (1763-1802). According to a May 1954 Hollywood Reporter item, producer Joseph Mankiewicz was considering a production on the life of Goya. In February 1957, Hollywood Reporter noted that producer Goffredo Lombardo and Titantus, S.P.A. had negotiated a deal with Albert Lewin to co-produce, write and direct the company's project on Goya. An August 1957 Hollywood Reporter item indicated that director Anthony Mann had acquired the rights to This Is the Hour, a fictionalized biography of Goya by Lion Feuchtwagner, in which Mann hoped to star his wife, Sarita Montiel. The item stated that Mann was in discussions with United Artists, but there is no further information on the project.
Lombardo negotiated distribution of director Henry Koster's The Naked Maja between UA, which released the picture in the United States, and M-G-M, which released it in all foreign countries except Italy, where distribution would be handled by Titanus. There is no indication that Lewin's, Tansillo's or Feuchtwagner's work was used in the released film.
According to a modern interview with Koster, the script for The Naked Maja was changed numerous times by an unnamed Italian writer, by Koster himself and by Lombardo. The director indicated that a scene was re-shot at the behest of Lombardo and actor Anthony Franciosa with direction by a dialogue director. Koster also indicated having a difficult time working with Franciosa and noted that Ava Gardner did not appear to like the project. Koster also indicated that several of the Italian actors used were inadequately dubbed for the American release but claims never to have seen the film once it was completed. Gardner stated in her autobiography that Franciosa was a Method actor, which caused some tensions on the set. The actress offered great praise to The Naked Maja's cinematographer, Giuseppe Rotunno, and noted that The Naked Maja was the last film under her M-G-M contract.
The Time review of The Naked Maja indicated that it was shot in Italy because of pressure brought by the Alba family on the Franco government to keep the film locked out of Spain. The Filmfacts review noted that Variety reported that writer Norman Corwin asked Titanus to have his credit removed from the screen, but the prints had already been ordered. Publicity material for the film indicates that Mario Russo, credited onscreen as assistant director, co-directed an Italian version of the film.
In February 1959, Variety revealed that UA and the Advertising Code, a branch of the MPAA, were at odds over ads for The Naked Maja that showed the Goya portrait of the Duchess of Alba in the nude. In spite of the portrait appearing in the film, the New York-based Advertising Code indicated they did not believe it was appropriate for it to appear on ads, but UA refused to change the ads even if this caused the PCA to revoke its seal of approval, which had already been granted. According to the file on the film in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, at one point, an attorney for UA inquired how common it was for the PCA to revoke a seal once it had been issued and if legal action might be used to defend a film from that action.
In March 1959, UA filed suit against the U.S. Post Office, which had ruled that ads featuring the portrait did "not meet the statutory requirements of mailability." The suit stated that the postal decision was crippling the ad campaign being mounted for the film. A March 17, 1959 Daily Variety article stated that Congresswoman Kathryn E. Granahan, the head of the House Post Office Subcommittee had agreed that the inclusion of the portrait in trade magazine advertisements made them unmailable. Nevertheless, on March 23, 1959, Hollywood Reporter reported that UA had dropped its suit when the Post Office submitted affidavits stating that the proposed ads were never banned nor declared unmailable by the Post Office.
Hollywood Reporter reported on March 30, 1959 that all four of Los Angeles' daily newspapers refused to carry the ads. According to the article, the two Hearst publications, Los Angeles Examiner and Los Angeles Herald Express, refused to carry the ads outright, but Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles Mirror-News offered to run the ads if UA "subdued" the image of the nude; UA refused to alter the portrait image in any way. The newspapers were unified in stating that "there is no question of the Goya painting being a work of art. It's the way it's exploited that makes it objectionable." Two weeks later, Hollywood Reporter noted that Los Angeles vice squads had ordered the removal or covering of the two billboards advertising the film using a reproduction of the portrait. UA, which could not get billboard firms to accept the twenty-four-sheet ad, had persuaded the owner of the Morgan Camera Shop on Sunset and Vine to agree to the publicity stunt. UA also had an agreement with Life to photograph the billboard display, which attracted police attention. The article noted that all seven of Los Angeles's television stations were covering the controversy using the nude reproduction in their reports. The piece also revealed that UA publicists were frustrated upon learning that two years earlier, a major Los Angeles department store had used a likeness of the Goya painting to exploit Maja soap without police interference.
As depicted in The Naked Maja, Goya, known as one of Spain's greatest artists, received commissions from the royal family and aristocracy. By the age of forty, Goya had painted portraits of the royal family and aristocracy that had established him as Spain's best known portraitist and he was named one of the painters to the king. When King Carlos IV [also known as King Charles IV] ascended to the throne, Goya was named chief court painter. This is somewhat at variance with events depicted in The Naked Maja, which opens with Goya ambivalently struggling to attract the king's favor while not compromising his art. The film does not reveal that in 1792, at the age of forty-six, Goya suffered a long illness that left him completely deaf for the remainder of his life. As shown in the movie, Goya continued painting portraits of King Carlos and Queen Maria Luisa, both of whom he privately disdained and portrayed in a frank, frequently unflattering manner. Although presented in the film as a young, energetic man at the time of his meeting with the Duchess of Alba, Goya was in fact nearly fifty and deaf. Although alluded to in the film, it is not stressed that the Duchess of Alba was indeed one of Goya's most significant patrons.
In the film, the Duchess of Alba confides in Goya that she is childless and has adopted a young black girl, who appears briefly in the film. A modern biography on Goya confirms that the Duchess indeed had a black daughter, Maria de la Luz, often referred to affectionately as "La Negrita (Little Dark Girl)." The film mentions Goya's infamous series of eighty etchings called "Los Caprichos (The Caprices)," which a modern critical evaluation describes as "graphic visions of greed, superstition, vanity and cruelty...based on the foibles [Goya] observed in a changing Spanish culture." There is no evidence that, as the film implies, "Los Caprichos" featured the Duchess of Alba as a model. According to the same source, these works likely shocked Goya's contemporaries, but, unlike events shown in the film, he was not brought before the Inquisition tribunal because of them.
Modern biographies note that Goya likely began his relationship with the Duchess of Alba in 1795. Their relationship May have been a romantic one, and it resulted in numerous well-known portraits of her, several made at her country estate, as depicted in the film. A modern biography on the Duchess states that when she died at the age of thirty-nine, she was rumored to have been poisoned by her servants, who were included in her will. In 1945 her body was exhumed to establish the cause of death, which was declared to be encephalitis, preceded by a lymph infection that had damaged the kidneys and lungs. No trace of poison was found. The painting most associated with the Duchess of Alba, which currently hangs in Spain's Prado museum, is "The Naked Maja" (completed in 1800), depicting a dark-haired, nude woman reclining on a couch with her hands clasped behind her head. When the Catholic Church demanded that Goya cover the naked figure, the artist made an entirely new painting (completed in 1805) called "The Clothed Maja," featuring the dark-haired woman in the same pose, but fully clothed.
The nude portrait is seen fleetingly in the film, when "Godoy" stumbles upon it in the Duchess' library and later as evidence in the Inquisition tribunal. Goya biographies indicate that in 1808, after Napolean's brother Joseph had been placed on the Spanish throne, the two "Maja" portraits were confiscated and Goya brought before the Inquisition tribunal. The Spanish Inquisition (variously dated as occurring between 1483-1834), which is referred to throughout The Naked Maja, is traditionally thought to have been initiated by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella following the Crusades in an attempt to complete unification of Spain by driving out non-Catholics. Initially focused on Jews and Muslims, by the mid-1500s, the Inquisition turned against Protestants and anyone identified as a heretic. As depicted in the film, the Inquisition was run by an inquisitor-general who established local tribunals. Those accused of heresy were brought before the tribunals and encouraged to confess and indict others. Those who confessed might be freed or imprisoned for a time. Those who refused were frequently subjected to a public ceremony ending in their execution or sentence to life imprisonment. It remains unclear how Goya's case before the tribunal was settled.
Modern evaluations of Goya's work indicate that numerous art historians have concluded that the model for the famous painting is not the Duchess of Alba, and some suggest it might instead be a mistress of Prime Minister Manuel Godoy (1767-1851). Godoy, as mentioned in the film, was Queen Maria Luisa's lover and advanced in power by her favor. Godoy was also an important patron of Goya's and came to own both "Maja" paintings, which he hung in a secret cabinet in the palace.
Reviews of The Naked Maja were almost all negative. New York Times described it as "reduc[ing] the epic spiritual struggles of Goya to a foolish fable." Variety noted that despite its visual spectacle, "this production just drags on, a maze of pompous dialog and muddled emotions that seldom ring true." Time was especially harsh, remarking: "What atrocities they have not committed on history, writers Norman Corwin and Giorgio Prosperi have dealt out to the script." NYHE labeled it "an unfortunate tragedy."
In 1999, two other films about Goya were released. Volavrunt, a French-Spanish co-production directed by J. J. Bigas Luna, starred Jorge Perugorria as Goya and Aitana Sanchez-Gijon as the Duchess of Alba. Goya en Burdeos, a Spanish-Italian co-production, was directed by Carlos Saura and starred Francisco Rabal as Goya and Maribel Verdu as the Duchess.