What would have happened if Rita Hayworth had carried on a torrid love affair with Howard Hughes? It certainly would have amounted to something a lot more lively than the last hour of The Barefoot Contessa.
For it's first third, Joseph L. Makiewicz's Hollywood-at-Cinecetta-on-Hollywood succeeds at scrutinizing cinema in a manner similar to his evisceration of the Broadway set in his smash hit, All About Eve. Harry Dawes (Humphrey Bogart), a writer, director five months off the bottle and on his knees for a job, hitches his faded star to billionaire and would-be movie financier, Kirk Edwards (Warren Stevens).
Edwards is a consummate prick. Arrogant, demanding and cruel though he may be, it's his dime and he expects a big bang for his buck. Oscar Muldoon (Edmond O'Brien), Edwards' PR flunky, is a walking torrent of flopsweat. He could put a positive spin on anything while personally detesting all human behavior.
The two men travel with Edwards to Spain in order to scout a south of the border senorita's nightclub act. Mank chooses to conceal Maria Vargas' (Ava Gardner) one and only nightly performance. Viewers don't see so much as a tapping ankle. Maria's song and dance is reflected through reaction shots of the spectators.
The Americano big shots arrive late and Edwards demands a command performance, something Maria has never agreed to. After Oscar falls flat on his face, Dawes is reluctantly called into action to use his brains and manipulative skills to get Edwards what he wants. The big joke is, none of the three films Maria Vargas lives to star in are financed by Kirk Edwards. He never produced anything. Edwards delights in playing at producer almost as much as Maria enjoys whoring herself.
We know from the get-go that this is a set-'em-up-to-watch-'em-die Hollywood biopic. Maria's funeral is cheapened by an offscreen appearance by the Rome Fire Department, their mighty hoses transformed into rain machines. The gushing tubing causes the water to flop down in clumps as opposed to studio controlled rain-bars that uniformly disperse the droplets. Four reels later finds it properly done and presumably after the Hollywood-in-exile company was sent back to L.A. for the proper gear.
Harry and Oscar share the film's narration, a rarity at the time. Harry takes us through the introductory passages where we first set eyes on the ravishing Maria making nice to some greasy gaucho behind her dressing room curtain. Forgive my fetishistic indulgence, but that introductory shot of Ms. Gardner's fair tootsie with a golden bracelet clinging to its ankle could be sold as a two-minute freeze frame on an adult pay site.
The Maria Vargas character was based on Rita Hayworth who for some crazy reason declined the offer to play the role of a slut who dies early in life. The reason I tag Howard Hughes as the basis for Kirk Edwards has something to do with a dubbed-in line that occurs during Maria's first scene. Her voice refers to Kirk as "the owner of Wall St." while her lips reveal a different location: Las Vegas.
The film has at least one stunning scene. Harry goes to Maria's grotto in order to persuade her to jet to Hollywood for a screen test. Harry is never allowed access to her world. He is an outsider looking in. As Maria's mother screams at her scheming son, the old man sits complacently in the center of the frame. Her father's radio, turned up to a deafening level, overpowers the scene. This exquisite long take is a nifty bit of foreshadowing on Mankiewicz's part. Word will soon arrive that dad was paying less attention to the radio broadcast than the voices in his head that compel him in the next reel to kill his wife. Harry sweet talks Maria out the front door and the shot continues on for quite a while a longer. Once Maria agrees to take a stab a stardom, the rest of the scene plays out with an abundance of cuts.
Before you get to thinking that Harry should be sainted, remember that he's hustling Maria because he wants a job. Harry needs this paycheck more than Maria does fame. Wisely, Mank refrains from linking Harry and Maria romantically. Maria has the pick of the litter (but one) while Harry remains faithful to his lover, Jerry (Elizabeth Sellars) who spends most of the picture out of the picture.
The acrid exchanges between the gum-chewing Edwards and groveling Harry give way to an unwanted European vacation. It all turns to rot the second Count Vincenzo Torlato-Favrini (the moldy before his time Rossano Brazzi) and his sister Eleanora Torlato-Favrini (a discordant Valentina Cortesa) arrive on scene. This duo of Wimp and Simp do their best to suck every bit of life and imagination out of Mankiewicz's heretofore spotless execution.
The Count is instantly smitten by Maria and for one solid hour we are kept in suspense wondering why this handsome nobleman refuses to seal the deal with the town pump. Is he gay? Impotent? No ink in the pen? Is penis size important? I guess it is particularly after his was shot off in the war. It's a great payoff, that takes forever to arrive.
Edmond O'Brien's slippery performance as the perspiring pitchman brought him recognition. As much as I admire the generally over-the-top Mr. O'Brien -- the man who pumped excess into Marty "Fats" Murdoch in Tashlin's The Girl Can't Help It! -- his Oscar Muldoon is all bluster and blarney. His showcase scene, an animated phone exchange with Harry, immediately disintegrates into a third-rate Jack Carter routine. Needless to say, he thanked the Academy profusely during his best supporting actor acceptance speech.
Stunningly photographed by Powell and Pressburger collaborator, Jack Cardiff, whose lush style of '40's Technicolor filmmaking was perfectly suited to this project. All of the European scenes were shot through a series of diffusion filters that give them a soft, fairy tale look. Everything in Hollywood is pictured in stark contrast.
For a superior take on Hollywood-talent-in-exile, visit Vincente Minnelli's Two Weeks in Another Town, his sordid 1962 followup to The Bad and the Beautiful.