Fetching Ava Lavinia Gardner was born poor and came from a large, loving family in the North Carolina cotton and tobacco fields in a little shanty called Grabtown. Over the years when she was down and out and miserable after some failed marriage or romance, Ava would turn to her family. They always remained her center. She would also turn to one of her ex-husbands and he to her, but that's for a little later. Let's not get ahead of ourselves. We certainly don't want to miss Ava's early life.
She was always a great beauty, far and away the best looking of her six siblings. Her sister gave a photograph of Ava to a New York photographer (who the sister was dating and would marry) and he put it in the store window. It was seen there by an MGM talent scout and yes, the rest, as they say, was history. Do you know how many young women wanted that to be their history, particularly back in the really, really old days of the 1940s? The knee-slapper here is that Ava wasn't really all that interested. She had not sat around day-dreaming of becoming a movie star.
Ava never doubted that she was a true movie star with movie star assistants and sycophants and studio checkbooks and movie star demands, but she never hid the fact that she felt she was not a very good actress. I think she was crazy... she was a terrific actress and many of her male costars have publicly said the same.
Ava became an MGM glamour star for one reason... she wanted the dough. Don't broads say dough? She knew she could make it on her looks but she didn't care much about them. She didn't mind dissing with the girls while getting made up and fussed over. She didn't count on how hard the work or how long the waiting in between camera setups would be. When Miss Ava got bored, she got in trouble. She was bored a lot.
Her early years at MGM were spent doing programmers as they were called; silly, inconsequential movies, but they were a good training ground. She was merely decorative. What she did was become some of the tastiest eye candy Hollywood had ever seen.
She took the requisite cheesecake photos (which she hated... c'mon, that's not for broads) but the babe side of her knew she turned heads everywhere she went. Men crashed their cars trying to get a good look at her. She went along on publicity tours for other people's movies. She went on studio-arranged dates. That part she loved. She had been a shy North Carolinian but there's something about Hollywood, y'know, that makes a girl get all perky. She would accompany some big he-man star or some up-and-comer to the Mocambo or the Trocadero and she soon became enamored of what would be a lifelong love of booze and nightlife.
In these heady days she would soon come to the attention of MGM's biggest star, the diminutive and horny Mickey Rooney. He wanted to climb up her willowy frame from almost the moment he met her and she somewhat guardedly accepted his proposal. She said that Mickey had so many other interests and she felt lonely as a young wife. The union didn't last long.
All three of her husbands were famous, rich and accomplished. Number two, a self-proclaimed difficult man, was bandleader Artie Shaw. Artie was contankerous and conceited with a high IQ and a penchant for learning. He may be the only husband who yawned a bit over Ava's beauty but he was bound and determined she'd be smarter than he claimed she was. She hadn't read much more than movie magazines or The Tobacco Quarterly (ok, I made that up) so he not only introduced her to the classics but would quiz her on what she'd read and hopefully learned. She always remained positive about this part of the marriage but she could not abide his control freak ways.
So what did she then do? She married Frank Sinatra. No one could accuse him of being a control freak. And she didn't marry Sinatra as quickly as she did the first two. Their romance became le scandale in a town that usually sloughed off such things.
You see the problem was this: Sinatra was already married and had three little kids. Ava was the other woman... a coupla more B-words were added to her charm bracelet. She had dated plenty of others in between her marriages, she had caused some trouble, but nothing anywhere near the brouhaha that wouldn't go away in the early 1950s when she and Sinatra needed to get a room.
Sinatra's wife often made the papers, saying she would never give in to a divorce. Until she did. Ava and Sinatra married shortly thereafter. This coupling, however, was one of the most volatile in the annals of Hollywood. The problems came out of drinking, yelling, jealousy, throwing, hitting and sexual psychodramas. There was no way it could last. If the marriage didn't last, the loving friendship certainly did, for the rest of her life.
|"The Killers" photo seen round the world|
The world took true notice of Ava when she played a gun moll, a very bad girl, in the superb 1946 film noir The Killers. Her scenes with Burt Lancaster were steamy and her scenes without him were steamy as well. Ava didn't require partners to steam.
In 1948 MGM wanted to make One Touch of Venus about a department store clerk who touches a statue of Venus who then comes to life. The part would require someone very beautiful indeed. Why not Ava Gardner? She is breathtaking in the role and displayed a flair for comedy.
Ava's role in 1949's East Side West Side had a twist of irony. She played the other woman, a predator who was taking Barbara Stanwyck's husband away from her. The two actresses only have one scene together, a dramatic confrontation in Gardner's apartment. The irony? Earlier in the same year Gardner offscreen was the other woman in the life of Stanwyck's husband, actor Robert Taylor. Talk about icky...!
In 1951 she accepted the role of Julie in Show Boat, one of MGM's great musicals. Julie was a mulatto and MGM-contractee, songstress Lena Horne desperately wanted the role but in 1951 the public wasn't ready for the love relationship between a half-black woman and a white man. Ava was a friend of Lena's and sick about taking the part, but she was under contract and did as she was told. Most of the time. She actually did sing, too, but they later scrapped her voice and someone else's voice was substituted to her utter annoyance. She was married to a singer and wanted to show off her own pipes.
In 1952 she made one of my favorite films of the era, costarring with Gregory Peck for the second of three times in The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Told in flashback and while married to Susan Hayward, Peck pines for the beautiful Gardner, his real love, the one who got away.
Mogambo came in 1953 and Gardner's career struck a new high with this colorful African tale of a big-game hunter (her third outing with Clark Gable) caught between a woman he loves (Grace Kelly, a lifelong Gardner pal) and a woman who loves him (Gardner). It reeked of dusty sexual tensions and filled up the MGM cash registers to the brim.
|How much more glam do you want?|
As if she wasn't raising testosterone levels worldwide, Gardner took on the role of sexy dancer Maria Vargas in 1954's The Barefoot Contessa. It has been bandied about for years that this character is actually based on the life of Rita Hayworth, but I could sure make a case for Gardner being the inspiration herself.
In 1956 she made a film that is perhaps not so well remembered, Bhowani Junction, but I was totally captivated by it and her performance as an Anglo-Indian caught up in the uprisings as Britain prepared to depart India.
I always thought all the actors cast in 1957's The Sun Also Rises were a little long in the tooth to be playing these Hemingway characters. Nonetheless, Gardner as Lady Brett Ashley met all my expectations as the expatriate out to have a good time and to capture the love of a man she cannot have. In 1959 she was ultra-glamorous as the Duchess of Alba, otherwise known as The Naked Maja.
The last film up for discussion is the one in which I think she was at her bloody best. I also suspect it is the one that most reflected the real Ava Gardner. Her portrayal of Maxine, the hotel proprietress in The Night of the Iguana, was simply superb. She was a boozy, profane, slatternly woman past her prime but still hoping for love and the white picket fence. Her scenes with both Richard Burton and Deborah Kerr were such fun to watch under John's Huston's direction of Tennessee Williams' play.
|Her youthful beauty gone, she was dazzling in "Iguana"|
Believe it or not, Bette Davis was passed over for this role and she had even played it on the stage. Viva Ava. In her autobiography, she tells of meeting Davis once, when Gardner was already a star, and she approached the great one, "Miss Davis, I'm Ava Gardner and I'm a great fan of yours," to which Davis replied, "Of course you are, my dear, of course you are."
In the mid 1950s, Gardner, after divorcing Sinatra and severing ties with MGM, tired of the Hollywood scene. She had become completely infatuated with bullfighting. She dated the matadors, stayed up til the wee hours of the morning slugging down shots of tequila. She moved to Spain where bullfighting was replaced with flamenco dancing. She made fewer movies and when she made the papers, it was usually due to some booze-laden peccadillo in the hours before dawn.
The liquor and carousing were taking a toll on her looks. She didn't really care. She knew her face was her meal ticket, but never mind. Her gypsy feet took her out of Spain and a move to London where she lived out the remainder of her days. She was quite ill at the end of her 67 years, almost destitude apparently and was financially cared for by Sinatra, though he was married to another.
I have read three fascinating books on Gardner. The first was Ava, written by Roland Flamini (Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1983). Next was Ava's Men by Jane Ellen Wayne (St. Martin's Press, 1990). Imagine having an entire book written just about the romances in your life. That reminds me of the fact that Ava was man-bashed a lot in her life. Most of her relationships were physical that way and she participated fully in the mayhem. Beautiful Kate Beckinsale effectively played Gardner in The Aviator showing a true-life incident where she bashed Howard Hughes across the head with a large ashtray. Later on she dated actor George C. Scott who famously and cruelly beat her up numerous times, both of them enveloped in a haze of booze.
Then came her autobiography, Ava: My Story (Bantam Books, 1990). She said she wanted to tell her side of the story before it was too late... and it almost was. By the time the book came out, she was dead, which made it all the more surreal.
In her book she made a statement that struck a chord with both my cousin Jane and me and we each have it tacked on our office walls. It reads... The truth is that the only time I'm happy is when I am doing absolutely nothing. I don't understand people who like to work and talk about it like it was some sort of goddamned duty. Doing nothing feels like floating on warm water to me. Delightful, perfect!
She was always the girl who just wanted to have fun. I always enjoyed sitting in darkened movie theaters across the country watching her be the reluctant movie star. What a babe! What a broad!
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