For his performance, O'Brien won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and the corresponding Golden Globe. Mankiewicz was nominated for the Academy Award for Writing Original Screenplay.
Down on his luck, a washed-up movie director and writer Harry Dawes (Humphrey Bogart) is reduced to working for abusive, emotionally-stunted business tycoon Kirk Edwards (Warren Stevens), who has decided that he wants to produce a film to stroke his monumental ego. Looking for a glamorous leading lady, they go to a Madrid night club to see a dancer named Maria Vargas (Ava Gardner), whom Kirk had already been told about. Maria is a blithe but proud spirit who likes to go barefoot and has a troubled home life. Maria immediately likes Harry, whose work she knows, but takes an instant dislike of Kirk. Although she flees during their meeting, Harry tracks her down to her family home and convinces her to fly away with them to America to make her first film. Thanks to his expertise and the help of sweaty, insincere publicist Oscar Muldoon (Edmond O'Brien), her film debut is a sensation. With subsequent films by this team, Maria becomes a respected actress, Harry's career shines bright once again, and their relationship becomes a healthy friendship.
During a party at Maria's house, Kirk and wealthy Latin American playboy Alberto Bravano (Marius Goring) become involved in an argument over Maria. Alberto had conspicuously admired Maria during the evening, while believing that she is Kirk's mistress. When Alberto invites her to join him on his yacht in the Riviera, Kirk orders her to stay away from him. Freeing herself from the dictates of Kirk, she accepts Alberto's invitation. Also seeing an opportunity, Oscar, tired of stooging for Kirk, switches his allegiance to Alberto.
Maria is now a great star, but she is not satisfied. She envies the happiness her friend Harry has found with his wife Jerry (Elizabeth Sellars) and wants a Prince Charming of her own. Alberto is too frivolous and shallow for her. One evening at a casino, while Alberto is gambling, Maria takes some of his chips and cashes them, throwing the money to her gypsy lover from a window. When Alberto goes on a losing streak, he berates Maria in public for ruining his luck. Subsequently, he receives a slap in the face from Count Vincenzo Torlato-Favrini (Rossano Brazzi), who escorts Maria from the casino.
Maria stays with Vincenzo and his widowed sister, Eleanora (Valentina Cortesa), at the Count's palazzo. She has found the great love of her life, and they wed in a lavish ceremony, in which Harry gives away the bride. But there is a problem. The count and his sister are the last of the Torlato-Favrinis; without offspring, the noble line will die out. The Count has a secret. Due to a war injury, he is impotent. He does not tell Maria about this until their wedding night.
On a rainy night months later, with Harry in Italy, an unhappy Maria arrives at his hotel room, telling him about her husband's impotence, but confessing that she is pregnant. She believes Vincenzo will want this child in order to perpetuate the family lineage and will come to love the child as his own. Harry warns her against this, contending that Vincenzo is too proud to accept this. But, Maria feels otherwise and plans to tell him about her pregnancy that night.
As Maria departs from his hotel room, Harry notices Vincenzo's car trailing hers and follows them. Vincenzo had suspected that she was unfaithful, and back at the palazzo in the servants' quarters, he shoots to death both her and her lover before she can tell him about the child. Harry arrives just as the shots are fired, seeing the Count carrying Maria's limp body. He does not tell Vincenzo about the pregnancy. The Count goes into the house to call the police. The story ends (as it began) with flashbacks at her funeral.
According to Turner Classic Movies, Mankiewicz based the film's central character of Maria Vargas on American movie star and dancer Rita Hayworth, who had been married to Prince Aly Khan. According to the audio commentary on the 1931 film Tabu, she was based on Anne Chevalier, an actress in that film.
Although The Barefoot Contessa is considered one of Mankiewicz's most glamorous "Hollywood" films, and one of the most glamorous of Golden Hollywood, The Barefoot Contessa was shot at the Cinecittà Studios in Rome, Italy. Exterior scenes were shot at Tivoli (the olive grove), Sanremo, and Portofino. However, Bogart wasn't on location at Sanremo. The studio was about to release the film's poster with no image of Bogart, a contractual violation. Bogart had the matter rectified with the addition of a large line drawing of his face.
The film's Italian production was part of the "Hollywood on the Tiber" phenomenon.
The film was praised by many critics for its extravagance, which earned the director many new admirers. Saturday Review called Ava Gardner "one of the most breathtaking creatures on earth". Some critics disapproved of the film; the book Feature Cinema in the 20th Century: Volume One: 1913–1950: a Comprehensive Guide called the film "dreadful", remarking that Mankiewicz's "intelligence and ambitious aims too often collide with an astonishing lack of subtlety and aesthetic judgment". Bosley Crowther called it a "grotesque barren film" about the "glittering and graceless behavior of the Hollywood-international set."
However, François Truffaut wrote, "…what is beyond doubt is its total sincerity, novelty, daring, and fascination … I myself accept and value it for its freshness, intelligence, and beauty … A subtle and intelligent film, beautifully directed and acted." It currently holds a 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on eight reviews.
On December 13, 2016, Twilight Time Movies released The Barefoot Contessa on high-definition Blu-ray. This is a limited-edition release of 3000 copies available.
The May 1955, issue #23 of Mad has a parody by Jack Davis entitled "The Barefoot Nocountessa".
The Food Network cooking show Barefoot Contessa is named after Ina Garten's best-selling cookbook, The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook, which in turn was named after her specialty food store which she bought in 1978. The store, which is no longer in operation, opened in 1975 and was named after the film.
A tour boat in the TV series Riptide was named Barefoot Contessa.
Jesús Franco directed a 1975 film called Female Vampire, also known as The Bare Breasted Countess.
Parts of the movie were featured in Lana Del Rey's music video 'Carmen'.