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?