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The Barefoot Contessa
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,The Barefoot Contessa

The Barefoot Contessa

After turning his biting wit loose on the Broadway stage for All About Eve, which brought him Oscars® for Best Director and Best Screenplay, Joseph L. Mankiewicz took on Hollywood with The Barefoot Contessa (1954) a scathing look at international stardom and jet-set society. As with other show-biz sagas like Valley of the Dolls (1967) and The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), the film left fans and industry insiders buzzing about whose lives were really being dissected on-screen. Some even suggested that the film's leading lady, Ava Gardner, was actually playing a fictionalized version of herself. Far from being the model for her character, however, Gardner wasn't even first choice for the role.

The film's title character - a woman who rises from poverty to become an international sex symbol and marry into royalty while always keeping her feet in the dirt - bore some superficial resemblance to Gardner, who started life as a sharecropper's daughter. But Mankiewicz had really modeled the role on Margarita Cansino, the Latin dancer who achieved stardom as Rita Hayworth and briefly deserted the screen to marry Prince Aga Khan. There were incidents drawn from Gardner's life, however. Her character's relationship with the eccentric billionaire who discovers her was similar to Gardner's affair with Howard Hughes. When Hughes found out during post-production, he threatened a massive lawsuit unless certain line changes were made. Mankiewicz protested that it would be impossible to re-dub the dialogue with his cast and crew now scattered over three continents. So Hughes, who owned TWA, gave the film's editor a letter allowing him to claim any seat on any of the airline's flights, and the changes were made.

Originally, Mankiewicz had planned to cast an unknown in the female lead, but after looking at the young Joan Collins and Rosanna Podesta, he decided to go with a star. With her exotic beauty and earthy sexuality, Ava Gardner quickly emerged as the only possible choice. There was just one problem. She was under contract at MGM, where Mankiewicz had just made Julius Caesar and burned a few bridges. When he approached them about borrowing Gardner, they stuck him for $200,000 - twice what he was paying the film's top billed star, Humphrey Bogart - plus ten percent of the gross. Gardner ended up costing Mankiewicz $1 million, while MGM only had to pay her contracted weekly salary, which came to $60,000. But she was well worth the cost when she contributed some of the most memorable scenes in the film - and her career - in particular, a flamenco dance to the film's best-selling theme. Although she had never danced on screen before, Gardner rehearsed the number for three weeks. When the playback machine broke during filming, she didn't miss a step, dancing as the extras clapped out the beat.

One cast member was always Mankiewicz's first choice. He had loved working with Edmond O'Brien on Julius Caesar (1953) and delighted in his clowning between scenes. That inspired him to create the role of press agent Oscar Muldoon. At first O'Brien wasn't sure about taking the supporting role. He was getting star billing at the time. But Bogart convinced him that the role and he were a perfect match. They were indeed. O'Brien was the only member of the high-powered cast to win an Oscar® nomination (Best Supporting Actor) and went on to become the only actor to win an Oscar® for playing a character named Oscar.

Director/Producer/Screenwriter: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Cinematographer: Jack Cardiff
Composer: Mario Nascimbene
Editor: William W. Hornbeck
Art Director: Arrigo Equini
Associate Producer: Michael Waszynski
Costume Designer: Sorelle Fontana
Cast: Humphrey Bogart (Harry Dawes), Ava Gardner (Maria Vargas), Edmond O'Brien (Oscar Muldoon), Marius Goring (Alberto Bravano), Valentina Cortese (Eleanora Torlato-Favrini), Rossano Brazzi (Vincenzo Torlato-Favrini).
C-131m. Closed captioning.

by Frank Miller

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