Forbidden Divas: The Naked Maja

David Melville Wingrove returns with another despatch from the far shores of divadom ~


Painting by Numbers

“I leave to you the two things I love most – yourself and Spain!”

~ Ava Gardner on her deathbed, The Naked Maja

As Hollywood rumour has it, the formidable MGM boss Louis B Mayer saw the very first screen test by the young movie hopeful Ava Gardner and cried out: “She can’t act! She can’t talk! She’s sensational!” Only her most ardent fans would ever dispute his verdict. The daughter of a dirt-poor sharecropper from rural North Carolina, the young Lucy Johnson (her real name) had little if any formal training as an actress. Nor, in the 40-year movie career that followed, did she ever seem to feel the lack of it. Her beauty was so lush – and her presence so regal and radiant – that Ava Gardner managed to leap-frog the petty confines of mere Drama and landed directly and squarely in the magic circle of Myth.

She did, in fairness, produce a number of more-than-watchable performances. A gypsy dancer turned movie queen in The Barefoot Contessa (1954), an anguished Anglo-Indian half-caste in Bhowani Junction (1956), a blowsy and booze-soaked Earth Mother in The Night of the Iguana (1964). It was unclear, in each case, just how much of her work was conscious ‘acting’ and how much was drawn from aspects of her own life. But in order to truly appreciate her special magic, we need to see Ava Gardner in one of those films where she barely acts at all. A lavish but lumbering biopic of the 18th century Spanish painter Francisco de Goya – with Gardner as his aristocratic muse the Duchess of Alba – The Naked Maja (1958) is one of those star vehicles whose raison d’être begins and ends with its star. It is about literally nothing more than the ability of Ava Gardner to embody (and eclipse) one of the most iconic portraits in the history of art.

For any discerning viewer, that is more than enough. In the utterly dispensable role of the painter himself, the Method-trained thespian Anthony Franciosa acts up a storm. Yet his performance verges on the unwatchable. One of those actors who emote always at the highest level of intensity, Franciosa finds himself – almost before he can put brush to canvas – with literally no place left to go. (His off-screen marriage to Shelley Winters must have been the daily equivalent of the Act Two murder scene from Tosca.) In contrast, Ava Gardner seems to do little more than show up and learn her lines. Given the quality of the dialogue, even that is open to debate. Yet Gardner is utterly ravishing and riveting. We truly believe she is the most infamous and desirable woman in Spain – that kingdoms may topple and empires may fall at her slightest whim. Rarely has the alleged link between ‘acting’ and the movies seemed less significant or more tenuous than it does here.

Given the lack of an attractive or even an adequate leading man, this on-screen Duchess of Alba forms a passionate and all-consuming liaison with her wardrobe. There are moments in The Naked Maja where the sheer splendour of the star and her outfits is enough to make us stop and gasp for breath. The Duchess, in a hat adorned by plumes of poisonous green and iridescent mauve, shows up to mock poor Goya when he sells out and becomes a painter to the royal court. The Duchess, in a gown of white tulle and a glistening silver-grey cloak, pauses midway up a staircase of white marble. (She is fleeing, but without any undue haste, from the clutches of the Inquisition.) The Duchess, in a black flamenco dress with a blood-red sash and a spray of blood-red roses in her hair, forsakes the man she loves and goes back to an old admirer (Massimo Serato) because that is the one way she can save Goya’s life. None of this has anything much to do with acting; it is modelling raised to the level of a High Art. You might, of course, say the same for Marlene Dietrich in The Scarlet Empress (1934) or The Devil Is a Woman (1935). Yet Marlene had the great Sternberg to mould and inspire her; Ava is doing it entirely off her own back.

The director of The Naked Maja was Henry Koster, a capable hack who specialised in ‘uplifting’ family entertainments like The Bishop’s Wife (1947) and Good Morning, Miss Dove (1955). He also directed the first-ever film in Cinemascope (not to mention one of the dullest) the ponderous pseudo-Biblical epic The Robe (1953). His use of the widescreen format had improved dramatically by the time of Maja – meaning he had worked out how to do something other than stand half a dozen actors side by side, shoulder to shoulder, across the screen. More credit should go, perhaps, to the Italian cameraman Giuseppe Rotunno – who actually does make every frame glow like a Goya canvas. The Naked Maja was shot in Rome as a US-Italian production with Titanus. Not that Rome looks any more like Madrid than Hollywood does, but it was presumably a lot cheaper.

Naturally, the supporting cast includes a roster of well-known Italian actors. Gino Cervi plays the Bourbon King of Spain as a portly but amiable dullard. Lea Padovani plays his Queen (the Duchess of Alba’s bitter rival) as a vindictive, sharp-faced shrew. The villain of the piece is the former Fascist poster boy Amedeo Nazzari, a star in such bellicose epics as Bengasi (1942) and Luciano Serra, Pilot (1938).  Here he plays the evil Prime Minister Godoy, who schemes to hand Spain over to the invading armies of Napoleon Bonaparte. Nazzari keeps a creditably straight face for lines like: “Camp life is not very gay. There is nothing but men in the army!” One can only assume the double meanings got lost in Italian. In fairness, all these actors might be a great deal worse than they are. It would not matter, in any case, as we would only ever be looking at Ava Gardner.

History suggests that the real-life Duchess of Alba was a complicated and enigmatic woman – a revolutionary liberal and patroness of the arts, who read Voltaire and Rousseau and enjoyed an unfettered sex life with men of all classes. Her death by poisoning is a mystery historians have yet to solve. A pair of vastly superior films – Goyescas (1942) with Imperio Argentina and Volaverunt (1999) with Aitana Sanchez-Gijón – have imbued her story with some of the complexity and sophistication it deserves. Yet when it comes to sheer iconic power, The Naked Maja wins out every time. We can believe that Ava Gardner might inspire a man to paint a work of Great Art. But we also have to wonder. What work of Great Art, if any, could ever hope to compete?

David Melville

17 Responses to “Forbidden Divas: The Naked Maja”

  1. I think you seriously underrate Ava. All she seemed to do was show up, look beautiful and read her lines. But there’s a lot more going on than that in her performances, particularly in The Barefoot Contessa, Showboat and Priest of Love

  2. david wingrove Says:

    Believe me, I totally love Ava – especially in the THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA and BHOWANI JUNCTION! But I always wonder how much conscious ‘acting’ is going on. Ava herself always denied she was an actress. Perhaps she didn’t have to be? Many of the greatest screen icons are not.

  3. david wingrove Says:

    Her co’star Anthony Franciosa is an ‘actor’ with bells on – and he’s totally f***ing unbearable!

  4. My maternal grandmother’s sister, Dorothy ( whom we grew up calling Auntie Dot) was Ava Gardner’s personal secretary. Although we never met the actress, we referred to her as Auntie Ava.

  5. I like Franciosa in a number of things — a lot — but he seems the wrong match for Ava, as would be anybody methody and strenuous. Ava never strains.

  6. Ah, acting. Ava kills in THE KILLERS, and she’s never looked better than she did in PANDORA AND THE FLYING DUTCHMAN shot by Jack Cardiff.

  7. chris schneider Says:

    To act and to “be” for the camera are two separate skills. Some people like Joan C, circa HUMORESQUE, are expert at both. Gardner was expert at the latter, with her adroitness at the former a sometimes thing. What you say, DMW. about Franciosa and Gardner puts me in mind of Agnes Moorhead and Kim Novak in JEANNE EAGELS. Moorhead shows, again and again, her acting expertise, yet in her scenes with Novak it’s Novak that we look at.

    I was just disparaging Henry Koster recently, I’m afraid. The man who directed NO HIGHWAY IN THE SKY does deserve, however, some words on his behalf. Even Jean Renoir, when he worked with Deanna Durbin in the ’40s, said that Durbin’s pictures with Koster captured something other directors seemed unable to catch. Or so I remember from an article about THE AMAZING MRS. HOLLIDAY.

  8. Franciosa was cute as can be (well, in THE SWEET RIDE,anyway.) But Adler and Strasberg had managed, with their Method baloney, to inflict irreparable damage on the American Theatre and thus on film acting too.

    Franciosa was unendurably self-regarding and self-conscious in every movie he made; thanks again, Adler and Strasberg (plus some Uta Hagen thrown in), with their insistence that text, script, story, were expected to serve *the actor*, not the other way round, a crucial difference between US and UK approaches to text, as Gena Rowlands once admitted. British acting at its best shines with the experience of stage-trained actors who learn how to project performance by doing it on the boards night after night.

    Ava was living, towards the end of her days, in Earls Court, holding on to the booze that sustained her. Or perhaps it was holding on to her.

  9. Cardiff was great with actresses. And he collected some pretty great ones.

    I believe Mr. Wingrove knew someone who called on Ava, or at any rate acquired a story about such a person?

    A Hatful of Rain is the Franciosa film I like best — Zinnemann seems to have embraced methodry wholeheartedly (he was the first to cast Steiger) and everyone is doing it here, except Lloyd Nolan, who can BE in the best Ava tradition, even if he’s somewhat less easy on the eye.

  10. david wingrove Says:

    A close friend in London dated the ROCKY HORROR Charles Gray, who was Ava’s best pal and confidante in her declining years. My friend once had dinner a trois with Ava and Gray – and said Ava was utterly charming!

    Franciosa is indeed excellent in the Italian film SENILITA, directed by Mauro Bolognini. But then Bolognini was possibly as great a director of actors as George Cukor and Franciosa’s voice was dubbed by some unknown Italian, which put a much-needed limit on his overacting.

    Godfrey Hamilton, I agree with you totally about Method acting! I spent two unhappy years at a Method school…and have nothing but contempt for the whole ghastly business.

  11. For a number of years Frank Sinatra had an office at the “Warner Hollywood” studio (formerly the Goldwyn lot) on Santa Monica blvd. Next door to it is “The Formosa Inn” (which alas has recently been sold and pegged for destruction) a marvelous Chinese restaurant diner and bar (it’s featured in “L.A. Confidential”) One evening Ava and a bunch of her pals were there knocking back a few when she got wind of the fact that Frank had placed a food order to be sent to him at his office. So Ava paid for it and signed the bill “From an Admirer “) That’s why Robert Mitchum called her “Honest Ave”

  12. Actual facebook comment exchange on a post on my page showcasing James Cagney’s dancing.

    Some Guy I Don’t Know: Along with Cagney, Hugh Jackman is one of those rare entertainers that can sing, dance, act and beat the ever-lovin’ shit out of you. Great stuff!

    Me: Cagney is brilliant, of course. But being a dual or triple-threat isn’t all that rare. And it was quite common in the thirties, forties and fifties.

    SGIDK: What you consider, ‘double’ or ‘triple’ threats from that era may have been able to sing and dance, but in the words of Marlon Brando, “Most of the so-called ‘actors’ from the 30s to the 50s were lifeless and wooden. As diverse and interesting as cereal boxes.” Cagney could ACT and was the first true anti-hero on film with a number of his performances.

    Me: Not going to be pulled into an argument with Marlon Brando, who is dead, and was a pompous ass. There were plenty of great actors in Hollywood that preceded him. I assume that by “actor”, he meant “star”.

    SGIDK: ‘Not going to be pulled …’, but responds? Way off base about Brando. He influenced an entire generation of actors; Pacino, De Niro, Hoffman, Hackman and so on and so on. And continues to make his presence felt to this day. And, yeah, maybe he was a pompous ass, but if you received 17 curtain calls after your portrayal of Stanley Kowalski on Broadway at the age of 24 maybe there would be some merit to that ego?

    Me: Funny how this became about Marlon Brando.

  13. SGIDK also apparently DK anything about pre-Brando actors.

    Ava on Sinatra’s wedding to Mia Farrow: “I always knew he’d marry a boy.”

  14. HAH! (On both comments.)

  15. Does anyone know where to watch this movie?

  16. It’s not streaming but you can buy it on DVD as an import from Europe.

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