For “The Barefoot Contessa,” Gardner was cast as Maria Vargas, a role that is complex and fun. During production, however, Gardner struggled with a lack of direction from director Joseph L. Mankiewicz and disrespect from its lead, Humphrey Bogart.
In Pictures Will Talk: The Life and Films of Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the director reminisced about Gardner and expressed regret for the way he handled him at the time. “I don’t think I’ve been of much help to [Ava Gardner] just like I wanted,” he shared. “He realized that this was a very difficult part, and he was very unsure about his ability to do it. I think I let him down, in a way, because I didn’t give him enough security.”
A rerun of “The Barefoot Contessa” highlights the uncertainty. At times, his performances barely scratched Vargas’ surface, and critics at the time took notice. Given more time, perhaps, and security, Gardner could have done it. The lack of support from its screen partners doesn’t help either. Joe Hyams, a biographer of Humphrey Bogart, notes “[Bogart] complained that as an actress she gave him nothing to work with. As a result, when he feels that the scene between them is going badly, he deliberately muffles his lines to get repetition.”
In a role he could master with direction, Gardner could find his niche. Instead, “The Barefoot Contessa” shows people who don’t know how to work with it. If we look back, this problem started early in his career.