#270. The Barefoot Contessa (1954)

I wrote some midling half-essay for this back when I watched it, so long ago now, and I’m re-writing it now at 10:32 in Coral Gables, it’s the Tuesday when Hurricane Dorian was expected to make landfall. Dorian didn’t, but this morning Mango was having trouble breathing, trouble standing. I took him to the vet in North Miami and they let him in as an Emergency case, put him in an oxygen box, and the vet told me that he was suffering heart failure, that his lungs were full of fluid, and that the uncertain treatment they could provide would probably annihilate his lungs. So I signed off to have him euthanized. He was 17.

            That was two hours ago. I drove to the Gables cuz it’s always been a comforting place. I like the look and the feel of it. I’m sitting at a different Pasion location from the one I visit every day, having some coffee, sitting with my laptop and hoping to lose myself in a bit of work because I do, ultimately, love doing this. Stressful as it gets.

            Fittingly, the next movie that needs an essay (the one I’ve inexplicably neglected writing for so long) is The Barefoot Contessa, which I didn’t particularly like as a movie—although it was nice to see here that, like with Mrs. Miniver, we see a marriage between two people, Humphrey Bogart and Elizabeth Sellars, that isn’t the focus of the story and also isn’t all that complicated. They’re not super passionate, they’re not super distant. They just seem like a couple of middle-aged lovers who really enjoy each other’s company.

            The other thing that was really interesting is Bogart. He plays a filmmaker here who’s been shuttled to Madrid at the behest of a tyrannically libidinous produer (what I think is a thinly-veiled parody of Howard Hughes) in pursuit of a leading lady who ends up being played by Ava Gardner.

            The movie’s a bit of a melodrama, a love triangle except I think it’s got several more sides than usual (Bogart, interestingly, isn’t a factor in the romance), and I’m frankly at a bit of a loss for why it’s on the List except for two things: (1) I’ve been told that the Academy is particularly fond of movies about movies, about Hollywood, especially when they’re being artful and cerebral about dishing Hollywood dirt. (2) The Barefoot Contessa is a beautiful case study in stardom. Star power.

            Humphrey Bogart would die two years after this movie was released and though he didn’t know yet about the esophageal cancer that was killing him, that would make a living nightmare of his final months, he looks gaunt on screen. Pale. His eyes are ringed with red and production was routinely paused so that he could work his way through these sporadic thirty-minute coughing jags that left him limp and useless for the rest of the day. Apparently he was cued into something being wrong when he told somebody he couldn’t stand orange juice anymore cuz it was burning his throat so badly.

            There’s something about his performance here that’s resigned. Languid. Content. He does a great job of communicating the irreverent defeat of somebody who’s fallen from great heights but, boueyed by the love of his wife and craft (I guess), has managed to keep an irreverent sense of humor about things. But, at the same time, there’s an inescapable meta component, watching these movies chronologically, in seeing that Bogart, too, has had a kind of graceful descent. Still very much a leading man, graced with a strange and distinctly Hollywood charisma, but when he stands with Ava Gardner you can see him conducting himself with an easy star power that Gardner is still kind of growing into. It’s an earned coolness in front of the camera. Particlarly during a scene toward the end of the first act where Bogart goes to see her at night, secretly, in front of the small apartment she shares with her family.

            Bogart didn’t know he was sick, but there’s something knowing about his repose. He’s no longer the furious fast-talking pistol from Maltese Falcon or High Sierra or Treasure of the Sierra Madre; in fact, from the look of him here, it’s hard to imagine him even mustering the energy for something like the role he had in The African Queen.

            Ava Gardner’s worth studying in this respect, too. I’ve given her shit through the List because I thought she was unremarkable in The Killers and that she played such a remarkably cruel role in Pandora and the Flying Dutchman that, like with James Mason in that same movie and so many others, I’d been convinced that she was maybe an unlikeable person. That was also influenced, though, by having read James Kaplan’s biography of Frank Sinatra—where Gardner doesn’t appear monstrous at all but where we’re made to sympathize so much with Sinatra, in all of his histrionic longing for her over the course of a seven-year divorce, that I think I’ve harbored a silly grudge. Here, unlike those earlier roles, Gardner’s character has an authoritative edge to her, and she’s almost the opposite of her borderline-sociopathic turn as Pandora. She suffers and suffers, gives and gives, wants what she cant have and gets caught up in the tide of other people’s agendas. I’m mindful of the fact that maybe I’m only drawn to her because she isn’t as authoritative as in those earlier roles, that maybe, unconsciously, I’m more drawn to subservient women. Women who are shown as having no choice. Women who are shown as needing rescue.

            I have a feeling some close reading of my responses to these movies might finally show some ugly dispositions and biases I’ve never noticed in myself. Hopefully it’ll mark some growth, too.

            Marius Goring is wonderfully campy here, as delightfully scene-stealing a cameo as he had in the opening of Pandora, and director Ben Mankiewicz composes the whole thing beautifully (I try to be mindful, after the fact, of how coherently the filmmaker’s communicated a story that’s actually pretty complicated and many-fingered on paper) but it doesn’t pack anything quite like the punch I felt from his previous effort on the List, All About Eve, which I just about loved and which also has a meta component in its (more-explicit) exploration of waning versus blooming celebrity.

            Anyway. I keep seeing notifications in the bottom righthand corner of my screen about people responding on Instagram to my post about Mango’s death (why have I always been so allergic to phrases like “passing” and the like?) and it’s pretty sobering. But I’m glad to be caught up in typing this while it all trickles in.

            Thousand Movie Project balms another wound.

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