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Gardner, Ava (1922-1990)

Gardner, Ava (1922-1990)

Film actress Ava Gardner was the last, and least typical, of the screen's Love Goddesses, superseding Rita Hayworth and outliving Marilyn Monroe. As the hard-bitten press agent (Edmond O'Brien) in The Barefoot Contessa (1954) says of the Madrid slum gypsy (Gardner) elevated to screen stardom, "Whatever it is, whether you're born with it, or catch it from a public drinking cup, she's got it; and the people with the money in their hands put her there." Joseph L. Manckiewicz's film was dubbed "a trash masterpiece" by critic Pauline Kael, but trash or not, it perhaps gave the fullest expression to the magic sensuality of its titular star. Tall and lissome, Gardner was frequently likened to a panther and her sinuous grace inspired publicists for The Barefoot Contessa to trumpet her as "The World's Most Exciting Animal." Dark-haired, smokily glamorous, and husky-voiced, her sex appeal was subtly come-hither, and with her "natural" quality she was a beauty both dazzling and refreshingly uncontrived.

To quote from The Barefoot Contessa again, "Life, every now and then, behaves as though it has seen too many bad movies." Spoken by Humphrey Bogart, the words might well have reflected the less happy aspects of Ava Gardner's life although, by all accounts, she was a warm, generous, witty, and life-loving free spirit. However, she was as famed for her torrid love affairs and her heavily publicized marriages as for her legendary looks. Indeed, fame first came her way not for her work, but for her first marriage to an unlikely husband, the pint-sized Mickey Rooney, in 1942. It lasted 17 months, and her second, to bandleader Artie Shaw in 1945, was even shorter. Most famously, her third and last husband was Frank Sinatra. They married in 1951, separated in 1954, and divorced in 1957, but it was a grand passion and a tempestuous liaison that resonated for years to come in their lives and in the pages of an eager tabloid press.

Popular myth has it that Ava Gardner (her real name) suffered an unhappy childhood as a daughter of dirt-poor tenant farmers in North Carolina. In reality, life was a struggle for her Depression-hit family, but nobody went hungry. In 1940, aged 18, Ava visited her married sister in New York where she intended to become a secretary. Her photographer brother-in-law took pictures of her and sent them to somebody at MGM, resulting in a screen test and a seven-year contract with the studio that boasted "more stars than there are in heaven." It took six years before Gardner was one of them. She was put through the usual rigors of studio training in how to walk, how to talk, how to pose for publicity pictures (of which, in her case, there would be thousands), but MGM initially failed to realize her potential. She was given small roles in a variety of films and lent to other studios. It was only after she played the sultry temptress opposite Burt Lancaster in The Killers (1946)—on loan to Universal—that stardom beckoned. The path to the top was uneven—leads alternating with supporting roles. She played her first starring role, appropriately as a goddess, in the none-too-successful One Touch of Venus (1948), but the public was entranced by her. Whether playing secondary parts or leads in less than distinguished films, she retained top star status until her career ended in 1982, her beauty matured but intact.

Gardner's high public profile, arising from her private life—after parting from Sinatra she lived for a time amidst the Jet Set in Madrid, romancing with playboys and matadors—tended to obscure her professional accomplishments. Cinema historian David Shipman wrote "Ava Gardner has seldom been accused of acting," and many considered that she held the world in thrall with her ravishing looks but had little talent. Time proved this a common misperception. Although her range was limited, her intelligence was unmistakable, and she revealed a touching vulnerability that enhanced characters as diverse as her critically well-received mulatto Julie in Show Boat (1951), her gutsy Hemingway woman in The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952), the half-caste Anglo-Indian of Cukor's Bhowani Junction (1956), and the small but significant role of the patriotic discarded mistress of a deranged general (Burt Lancaster) in Seven Days in May (1964).

Gardner was never more beautiful than as Pandora in the mythical, mystical hokum that was Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951), ensnaring and redeeming eternally wandering sea captain James Mason; and she was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance as a tough-talking, witty good-time girl, costarring with Clark Gable in Mogambo (1953), a remake of his outing with Jean Harlow in Red Dust (1932). To her detractors, the biggest surprise was her performance in John Huston's screen version of The Night of the Iguana (1964). No longer youthful, but still oozing sexual charisma, she did creditable justice to Tennessee Williams's play, at the center of things as the heavy-drinking hotel keeper lusting after Richard Burton's defrocked priest.

Ava Gardner retired from the screen in 1982 and made a late television debut in 1985 in Knot's Landing. She played three more roles on television, notably as the scheming Agrippina in the miniseries AD, before settling to a reclusive life in London, England, where she died of pneumonia at the age of 67. Her autobiography, compiled by Alan Burgess and Kenneth Turan from interview tapes, was published posthumously.

—Robyn Karney

Further Reading:

Daniell, John. Ava Gardner. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1982.

Gardner, Ava. Ava: My Story. New York, Bantam Books, 1990.

Shipman, David. The Great Movie Stars, The International Years. London, Angus & Robertson, 1980.

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