The Barefoot Contessa Proved Hollywood Didn't Know What To Do With Ava Gardner

Throughout the Golden Age of Hollywood, many actresses came and went. Those we remember are the ones who were able to make a clear and distinct mark on cinema, and a lot of that has to do with their found niche. Marilyn Monroe had brilliant comedic timing and could grab the camera's attention, even in small roles. Bette Davis, while deemed difficult to work with, was known as a most serious actress. The list of notable actresses goes on and on.

The one Golden Age actress that remains quite baffling is Ava Gardner. While included on the American Film Institute's Top 100 Stars list, the performances Gardner had put out over the course of her career were arguably weaker compared to her contemporaries at the time. She did make a name for playing seductive beauties earlier on in her career in films like "The Killers" and "The Barefoot Contessa," but, upon review, more emphasis seemed placed on capturing her appearance rather than a noteworthy performance.

Her appearance was the lure that drew MGM in. But, throughout the course of her career, she never felt herself to be a true actress and commented as much in interviews. "I was never really an actress," she remarked. "None of us kids who came from MGM were. We were just good to look at."

Looks can only get so far. In the case of Gardner, Hollywood didn't know what to do with the actress, starting with "The Barefoot Contessa."

No support

For "The Barefoot Contessa," Gardner was cast as Maria Vargas, a complex, fun role. During production, however, Gardner struggled with both a lack of direction from director Joseph L. Mankiewicz and disrespect from her leading man, Humphrey Bogart. 

In Pictures Will Talk: The Life and Films of Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the director recalled Gardner and expressed regret for how he handled her at the time. "I don't think I was as much help to [Ava Gardner] as I would have liked," he shared. "She was aware that this was a tremendously difficult part, and she was terribly insecure about her ability to do it. I think I failed her, in one respect, because I didn't give her enough security."

A re-watch of "The Barefoot Contessa" highlights the uncertainty. At times, her performance barely scratches the surface of Vargas, and critics at the time noticed. Given more time, perhaps, and security, Gardner could have nailed it. A lack of support from her screen partner didn't help either. Joe Hyams, a Humphrey Bogart biographer, noted "[Bogart] complained that as an actress she gave him nothing to work with. Consequently, when he felt a scene between them was going poorly, he'd deliberately muff his lines to get a retake."

In a role she could excel at with direction, Gardner could have found her niche. Instead, "The Barefoot Contessa" showed people not knowing how to work with her. If we look back, these issues started at the beginning of her career.

Failure to launch

Gardner started off at the bottom in Hollywood. Despite a disastrous screentest, MGM snatched her up and she relocated to Los Angeles. They then began the process of teaching her all the skills she'd need to know to presumably achieve success.

But many thought little of Gardner, based on David Denby's article in The New Yorker. As he shared in the article, publicist Greg Morrison witnessed Gardner's arrival to Los Angeles, and summed up the experience to autobiographer Peter Evans as such:

"They teach her to walk, talk, sit, sleep, shave her legs, shake hands, kiss, smile, eat, pray. Her ass is great, fine tits, short but good legs, great shoulders, thin hips, fix the toes, do the hair—clean it, but don't touch the face. Everybody and every camera is drawn to that face. The town is jammed with pretty, but not like that—the eyes, the mouth, are from another world. She becomes the "armpiece du jour," learns what they want. Learns how to do it without giving her soul away, and learns everything but how to Act. In her whole shitkicking, barefoot life she never really learned to pretend, nor did poverty give her much humor, certainly none about herself."

With an attitude like that, it's no wonder they struggled to figure out which roles would suit Gardner best. While she self-admittedly wasn't a great actress, with the people around her dismissing her from the get-go, it left a lasting mark on her career.