If ever there was a film to challenge the movie-making truism, "Show, don't tell," it would be Joseph L. Mankiewicz's The Barefoot Contessa (1954). As in Mankiewicz's best-known film, All About Eve, sharp and loquacious dialogue dominates Barefoot Contessa's storytelling, sometimes to a ridiculous degree.
The first of the film's many monologues is heard in voice-over (another dubious "must-avoid" for today's screenwriting students), as we see the hangdog face and soaked raincoat of film director Harry Dawes (Humphrey Bogart). Harry is standing in the rain at the funeral of his great cinematic discovery, Maria D'Amata, née Vargas, buried finally as the Contessa Torlato-Favrini. Maria is played by Ava Gardner, who manages to embody the character's idealized mixture of earthiness, understated thoughtfulness, and unrepentant sexuality without sacrificing her plausibility as a human.
That isn't to say, however, that the image of Maria Vargas that the film projects is a fully formed one. Using a structure that recalls his brother Herman's script for Citizen Kane, writer-director Mankiewicz retells Maria's ultimately tragic rise to fame and wealth through sometimes disjointed flashbacks, not only from Bogart's Harry Dawes, but also from cartoonishly sweaty PR man Oscar Muldoon (Edmond O'Brien, in his Oscar-winning role), who witnesses Maria's sham courtship with spoiled playboy Alberto Bravano (Marius Goring), and finally from the chivalrous man who would eventually claim Maria's heart, Count Vincenzo Torlato-Favrini (Rossano Brazzi, Three Coins in the Fountain). Harry's relationship with Maria is the deepest one shared with any of the three narrators, but even Harry can't be trusted to tell this mythical woman's story in the way that she might.
This distance, which allows the audience access to Maria only through the gaze of those around her, is clearly by design. In fact, during Maria's first scene in the movie -- dancing in a Spanish nightclub -- she is never once visible onscreen. Mankiewicz instead focuses on the varied reactions of the spectators, who are amazed, intoxicated, and, in many cases, made jealous by Maria's unseen performance.
While this choice of keeping Maria away from the audience works brilliantly in an anticipation-building early moment, it becomes distracting and unsatisfying in later sequences in the film. When Maria, the big Hollywood star who never forgot who she really is, learns that her poor, put-upon father is being tried for the murder of her abusive mother, she ignores conventional showbiz wisdom and supports her father at the trial. Maria gives one of the finest performances of her life in the courtroom, testifying for her father -- but we the movie audience don't get to experience it. Instead, the courtroom scene plays out in pantomime, narrated point-by-point by the gobsmacked PR man, Muldoon, as he watches in the courtroom. Later, when Maria's would-be fairy tale romance to Count Vincenzo turns sour, Mankiewicz chooses to dramatize the unraveling of their marriage by having Maria describe it to Harry in a late-night conversation, rather than giving us a chance to see the strain in their interactions ourselves.
Clearly, Mankiewicz just prefers staging scenes between Bogart and Gardner, volleying his carefully crafted dialogue at each other. The fact that Bogart's character is basically a Mankiewicz surrogate probably has something to do with it (while the life story of Gardner's character bears a tell-tale resemblance to Rita Hayworth's, mixed in with tidbits from the bios of some other classic female stars -- including a bit of Gardner's own). However, one should not discount the amiable chemistry that Bogart and Gardner consistently generate onscreen as a motivating factor either. Reportedly, the two stars couldn't stand each other, but no traces of that animosity are palpable in their generally sweet shared scenes. Smartly, the then-54-year-old Bogart is not positioned as a possible romantic option for Gardner, which allows their characters to develop a believable mentorship and friendship.
Besides eschewing action in favor of conversation, Mankiewicz frequently flouts Hollywood convention by having characters cynically dissect how their behavior deviates from what it would be in one of Harry Dawes's scripts, i.e., a "normal" movie. These self-conscious quirks help to give The Barefoot Contessa a strong personality, but they also represent what makes this a memorable film without being a wholly satisfying one. There's clearly a smart, sensitive heart beating at the center of The Barefoot Contessa, but its creator is too busy making ingeniously snarky cocktail party banter to let the audience get anywhere near it.