Actress Ava Lavinia Gardner (1922–1990), who many still consider the most beautiful woman to have appeared on film, starred in such popular films as The Killers (1946) and Night of the Iguana (1964).
Known for her dark, incandescent beauty, earthy nature, and hard–living lifestyle, Gardner enjoyed more than 30 years of stardom, appearing in such hit movies as The Barefoot Contessa (1954) and The Sun Also Rises (1957). Her stormy marriages to Frank Sinatra, Artie Shaw, and Mickey Rooney were short–lived and, unlike the intelligent, tough women she played, Gardner suffered from deep insecurity about her acting talent.
A Country Girl Went to Hollywood
Ava Lavinia Gardner was born on December 24, 1922, in Grabtown, North Carolina, the seventh and last child of a cotton and tobacco farmer, Jonas, and his wife, Molly. The farming kept food on the table, but Gardner said she had only one dress. She was happy and free, however, usually going barefoot and playing all day with her two brothers and four sisters. While the children were still young, the Gardners lost their property, forcing Jonas Gardner to work at a sawmill and Molly to begin working as a cook and housekeeper at a dormitory for teachers at the nearby Brodgen School.
When Ava was 13, the family soon decided to try their luck in a bigger town, Newport News, Virginia, where Molly Gardner found work managing a boardinghouse for the city's many shipworkers. That job did not last long, and the family moved to the Rock Ridge suburb of Wilson, North Carolina, where Molly Gardner ran another boarding house. Gardner's father died of bronchitis in 1935. Ava and some of her siblings attended high school in Rock Ridge and graduated from there in 1939. She then attended secretarial classes at Atlantic Christian College in Wilson for about a year. At this point, school had been insignificant to her. Gardner had reportedly read only two books thus far: the Bible and Gone with the Wind. Her scant education would contribute to her insecurity later in life.
Gardner, who by age eighteen had become a stunning, green–eyed brunette, was visiting her sister Beatrice in New York in 1941 when Beatrice's husband Larry, a professional photographer, offered to take her portrait. He liked the results and displayed the final product in the front window of his Fifth Avenue studio. An executive from Metro–Goldwyn–Mayer (MGM) Film Studios noticed it soon afterward, and asked about the young beauty. His inquiry led to a screen test for Gardner at MGM, although she had no acting experience. According to the Internet Movie Database, she later remembered that after the test—a silent one to conceal her heavy Southern accent—the director "clapped his hands gleefully and yelled, 'She can't talk! She can't act! She's sensational!' "
Bit Parts Led to Major Roles
MGM signed Gardner immediately, and she and her just–divorced sister moved to Hollywood so the new actress could start an intensive program of speaking, acting, and makeup lessons. Beatrice looked out for Ava and served essentially as her manager. Despite her looks, MGM was reluctant to give Gardner any good roles, given her inexperience. From 1942 to 1945, she appeared in 17 films in which she spoke no more than two lines. The first of these was We Were Dancing, in which she appeared on stage for just a moment. She had a bit more to work with in the 1944 Three Men in White, in which she played a sultry enchantress who tries to seduce a doctor played by Van Johnson. Some of her other credits during this period were This Time for Keeps, Reunion in France, and Sunday Punch.
Her personal life, meanwhile, was taking off. Despite her appearing only in tiny roles, the starlet had not escaped the notice of the many male stars whom she met frequently at nightclubs and parties around town. A self–proclaimed party girl, Gardner often stayed up all night, drinking hard and cavorting with the other "beautiful people" of Hollywood. They included Mickey Rooney, then the country's top–ranked movie star, who courted her furiously until she accepted his marriage proposal in 1942. After the wedding, Rooney continued to live a bachelor's life, usually leaving Gardner home alone as he caroused with friends. She was 19, Rooney not much older, and the marriage lasted just over a year. Many years later in her autobiography she said, "We were a couple of kids. We didn't have a chance." In 1943, she was introduced to Texas billionaire Howard Hughes. The two were instantly attracted to each other and would carry on a tempestuous, often violent, on–again–off–again romance that would last twenty years, mainly during the periods when Gardner was between husbands.
Trusting it would be different this time, Gardner married band leader Artie Shaw in 1945. However, they divorced within a year, as their busy schedules and Shaw's insistence that Gardner improve her education to meet his high standards quickly drove them apart. In 1946 Gardner, on loan briefly to United Artists, finally got a coveted role. Appearing opposite George Raft in the grade–B western film noir Whistle Stop, she played a woman who returns home to her small town after spending time in the big city. She appeared later that year in the melodramatic hit The Killers, while on loan to Universal Studios. Acting opposite another new star, Burt Lancaster, as the treacherous and deadly but smolderingly seductive Kitty Collins, one of Gardner's most memorable lines from the film is, "I'm poison to myself, Swede, and everyone around me." Unlike in many of her other films, MGM allowed Gardner to sing in her own voice for this one.
Achieved Marquee Status by Late 1940s
At the peak of her beauty, Gardner, having convinced Hollywood of her acting ability, got bigger and better film roles. In 1947 she starred opposite childhood idol Clark Gable in The Hucksters, and in 1958, her tiny waist and ample bosom appeared to great effect during her lead role in One Touch of Venus. Many people took notice, and her movie roles began to be confined to that of glamorous seductress. She played a compulsive gambler in 1949's The Great Sinner and a murder victim opposite James Mason in East Side, West Side later that year.
One of Gardner's finest roles came in 1951 when she played Julie La Verne, a biracial song–and–dance star whose heritage surfaces and makes her marriage to a white man illegal. Critics called her performance in the classic stage musical genuinely touching. MGM insisted on dubbing her voice when she sang in this movie, much to Gardner's disgust. The actress, meanwhile, had begun a highly public romance with Frank Sinatra, then a new Hollywood arrival whose finances were such that he sometimes accepted money from his more well–established paramour. The couple married in 1951.
Gardner landed some of her most interesting and best roles during the 1950s, including one as a stubborn and heartbroken nightclub singer opposite James Mason in the 1951 Pandora and the Flying Dutchman and another opposite Gregory Peck in The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952) as his true love who encounters tragedy. Many critics believe Gardner's real acting ability surfaced when she worked with renowned director John Ford in his 1953 film Mogambo, a remake with Clark Gable of the 1932 Red Dust. She played Eloise "Honey Bear" Kelly, a spoiled, emotionally scarred, wisecracking rival of Grace Kelly, who plays Gable's do–gooder wife. Gardner's performance won her an Oscar nomination, the closest she would ever get to the coveted award.
In her early thirties, the actress appeared in 1954 in the lead role of The Barefoot Contessa, in which she starred opposite Humphrey Bogart as the mysterious and doomed peasant–turned–film star Maria Vargas. Gardner learned the flamenco for the film, and took immediately to the exotic, sensuous dance, sometimes practicing it all night. Her other notable roles that decade included a love–torn Anglo–Indian woman in Bhowani Junction (1954), a selfish and hedonistic patrician in The Sun Also Rises (1957), and opposite Peck in the postapocalyptic On the Beach (1959).
Fast Life Took Its Toll
Even as Gardner's film career blossomed, her personal life was feeling the effects of years of professional pressure and excessive partying. After six years of stormy marriage in which mutual jealousy triggered scenes that often splashed the front pages of popular tabloids, she and Sinatra divorced in 1957. People magazine named their relationship one of the "Romances of the Century." The actress had moved to Madrid, Spain in 1955, at age 33, to escape some of the press attention and personal disappointments. She was said to have privately entertained several of the country's leading bullfighters, including roguishly handsome but married Luis Miguel Dominguin. Gardner opted out her of her long–running MGM contract in 1958 after she starred as the Duchess of Alba in the critically condemned The Naked Maja.
Although she appeared in fewer films in the 1960s, some of them were among her best—although she claimed she did them only "for the loot." They enabled her to emerge from her typecast role. These included her performance as Maxine Faulk in Night of the Iguana as a low–class, strident hotel owner. Her other films during this period were Fifty–Five Days at Peking (1963), Seven Days in May (1964), Mayerling with Omar Sharif (1968), and The Bible (1969), directed by John Huston and starring George C. Scott as Abraham and Gardner as his wife Sarah. The actors carried on a stormy affair during the filming.
Tiring of her life in Spain and beleaguered by government demands for tax payments, the actress moved to London in 1969, but continued to appear in smaller supporting roles, such as Lilly Langtry in John Huston's 1972 The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean and as Charlton Heston's wife in the disaster epic Earthquake of 1974. In the latter, she stunned director Mark Robson by insisting that she do all her own stunts, which included dodging massive steel pipes and blocks of concrete.
Spent Final Years in Seclusion
Gardner's last film before leaving public life was The Sentinel in 1977, after which she went into seclusion at her London home. She told a reporter at the time, according to Internet Movie Database, "I haven't taken an overdose of sleeping pills and called my agent. I haven't been in jail, and I don't go running to my psychiatrist every two minutes. That's something of an accomplishment these days." Among her final appearances were at a Rock Ridge High School reunion in 1978, as a cast member on television's "Knot's Landing" (1979) and "Falcon Crest" (1985) series, and in "Karem," a 1986 made–for–television movie.
Gardner's sole companions at this point were her longtime maid, Carmen Vargas, and her Welsh corgi, Morgan. She never had children, but she was a favorite aunt of her brothers and sisters many children. Although two strokes in the late 1980s caused partial paralysis that confined her to bed, Gardner diligently worked on her autobiography, Ava: My Story, published posthumously, after her death at age 67 from pneumonia on January 25, 1990. Her body was buried in the Gardner family plot in Sunset Memorial Park in Smithfield, North Carolina. None of her former husbands attended the ceremony, but Sinatra had paid for her medical bills for some years and Peck took in both her maid and her dog when she died.
Empire magazine named Gardner one of the "100 Sexiest Stars in Film History" in 1995. Her fiery relationship with Hughes was depicted in the 2004 Martin Scorsese film The Aviator, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Hughes and Kate Beckinsale as Gardner. Fans still commemorate her at the official Eva Gardner Museum in Smithfield.
Dagneau, Gilles, Ava Gardner: Beautiful, Wild, Innocent, Greme Editore Publishers, 2003.
Gardner, Ava, Ava: My Story, Bantam Publishing, 1990.
Wayne, Jane E., The Golden Girls of MGM, Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2003.
New York Daily News, January 26, 1990.
New York Times, January 26, 1990.
"Ava Gardner," Reel Classics,http://www.reelclassics.com/Actresses/Ava/ava.htm (January 7, 2005).
"Ava Lavinia Gardner," Movie Treasures, http://www.movietreasures.com/main/Ava–Gardner/ava–gardner.html (January 7, 2005).
"Biography for Ava Gardner," The Internet Movie Database,http://www.imdb.com/name/nm001257/bio (January 7, 2005).
"North Carolina and Hollywood, California," Ava Gardner Museum,http://www.avagardner.org (January 7, 2005).
Nationality: American. Born: Ava Lavinnia Gardner near Smithfield, North Carolina, 24 December 1922. Education: Attended Smithfield High School; Atlantic Christian College, Wilson, North Carolina. Family: Married 1) the actor Mickey Rooney, 1942 (divorced 1943); 2) the musician Artie Shaw, 1945 (divorced 1946); 3) the singer/actor Frank Sinatra, 1951 (divorced 1957). Career: 1941—contract with MGM; 1946–47—roles in The Killers and The Hucksters established her as a leading sex symbol; 1958—contract with MGM expired; freelance actress; lived for many years in Spain and, from 1968, in London; 1985—in TV mini-series The Long Hot
Summer and A.D.; in TV series Knots Landing. Died: In London, England, 25 January 1990.
Films as Actress:
Fancy Answers (Wrangell—short); H. M. Pulham, Esquire (King Vidor) (as girl); Maisie Was a Lady (Marin)
Joe Smith, American (Highway to Freedom) (Thorpe) (as girl); We Were Dancing (Leonard) (as girl); This Time for Keeps (Reisner) (as girl in car); Kid Glove Killer (Zinnemann) (as carhop); Sunday Punch (Miller) (as ringsider); Calling Dr. Gillespie (Bucquet) (as girl); Mighty Lak a Goat (Glazer—short); Reunion in France (Reunion; Mademoiselle France) (Dassin)
Pilot No. 5 (Sidney) (as girl); DuBarry Was a Lady (Del Ruth) (as girl); Ghosts on the Loose (Ghosts in the Night) (Beaudine) (as Betty); Hitler's Madman (Sirk) (as Katy Chotnik); Young Ideas (Dassin) (as girl); Swing Fever (Whelan) (as girl)
Lost Angel (Rowland) (as hatcheck girl); Three Men in White (Goldbeck) (as Jean Brown); Two Girls and a Sailor (Thorpe) (as Rockette girl); Maisie Goes to Reno (You Can't Do That to Me) (Beaumont) (as Gloria Fullerton); Music for Millions (Koster); Blonde Fever (Whorf)
She Went to the Races (Goldbeck) (as Hilda Spotts)
Whistle Stop (Moguy) (as Mary); The Killers (Siodmak) (as Kitty Collins)
The Hucksters (Conway) (as Jean Ogilvie); Singapore (Brahm) (as Linda)
One Touch of Venus (Seiter) (title role)
The Great Sinner (Siodmak) (as Pauline Ostrovski); The Bribe (Leonard) (as Elizabeth Hinton); East Side, West Side (LeRoy) (as Isabel Lorrison)
My Forbidden Past (Stevenson) (as Barbara Beaurevel); Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (Lewin) (as Pandora Reynolds); Showboat (Sidney) (as Julie Laverne)
Lone Star (Sherman) (as Martha Ronda); The Snows of Kilimanjaro (Henry King) (as Cynthia)
Ride, Vaquero! (Farrow) (as Cordelia Cameron); The Bandwagon (Minnelli) (as the Movie Star); Mogambo (Ford) (as Eloise Kelly); Knights of the Round Table (Thorpe) (as Guinevere)
The Barefoot Contessa (Joseph L. Mankiewicz) (as Maria Vargas)
Bhowani Junction (Cukor) (as Victoria Jones)
The Little Hut (Robson) (as Lady Susan Ashlow); Around the World in Eighty Days (Anderson) (as spectator)
The Sun Also Rises (Henry King) (as Lady Brett Ashley)
La maja desnuda (The Naked Maja) (Koster, Italian version directed by Mario Russo) (as Duchess of Alba)
On the Beach (Kramer) (as Moira Davidson)
The Angel Wore Red (La sposa bella) (Johnson) (as Soledad)
55 Days in Peking (Nicholas Ray) (as Baroness Natalie Ivanoff)
Seven Days in May (Frankenheimer) (as Eleanor Holbrook); The Night of the Iguana (Huston) (as Maxine Faulk)
La Bibbia (The Bible . . . in the Beginning; The Bible) (Huston) (as Sarah)
Mayerling (Terence Young) (as Empress Elizabeth)
Tam Lin (The Devil's Widow) (McDowall) (as Michaela)
The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (Huston) (as Lillie Langtry)
Earthquake (Robson) (as Remy Graff)
Permission to Kill (Frankel) (as Katina Peterson)
The Bluebird (Cukor) (as Luxury)
The Cassandra Crossing (Cosmatos) (as Nicole); The Sentinel (Winner) (as Miss Logan)
City on Fire (Rakoff) (as Maggie Garyson)
The Kidnapping of the President (Mendeluk) (as Beth Richards)
Priest of Love (Miles) (as Mabel Dodge Luhan)
Regina (Roma) (Prate)
The Long Hot Summer (Cooper—for TV) (as Minnie)
Harem (Hale—for TV) (as Kadin); Maggie (Hussein—for TV)
By GARDNER: book—
Ava: My Story, New York, 1990.
On GARDNER: books—
Higham, Charles, Ava: A Life Story, New York, 1974.
Bernard, Andre, Ava Gardner, Paris, 1976.
Romero, J., Sinatra's Women, New York, 1976.
Parish, James, with Gregory Mank and Don Stanke, The Hollywood Beauties, New York, 1978.
Kass, Judith M., Ava Gardner, New York, 1979.
Rampling, Matthew, Ava Gardner, Paris, 1981.
Daniell, John, Ava Gardner, New York, 1982.
Flamini, Roland, Ava: A Biography, New York, 1983.
Dagneau, Gilles, Ava Gardner, Paris, 1984.
Fowler, Karin J., Ava Gardner, A Bio-Bibliography, New York, 1990.
Wayne, Jane Ellen, Ava's Men: The Private Life of Ava Gardner, New York, 1990.
On GARDNER: articles—
Current Biography 1965, New York, 1965.
Vincent, Mal, "Ava Gardner," in Films in Review (New York), June/July 1965.
Domarchi, J., "Pour Ava, beau monstre touché par la grâce," in Cinéma aujourd'hui (Paris), May/June 1976.
Hauptfuhrer, Fred, "Ava Gardner Is Back and Beautiful at 59—But All She Wants Is Peace and Quiet," in People Weekly (New York), 11 January 1982.
Shipman, David, in Radio Times, 27 March 1982.
Ciné Revue (Paris), 26 August 1982, and 30 August 1984.
Kobal, John, "Heavenly Bodies: Worshipping at the Shrine of Hollywood's Goddesses," in American Film, July/August 1986.
Obituary in New York Times, 26 January 1990.
McBridge, Joseph, obituary in Variety (New York), 31 January 1990.
Thomas, Walter, "Amorous Ava," in Harper's Bazaar (New York), February 1990.
Murphy, Kathleen, "Farewell My Lovelies," in Film Comment (New York), July/August 1990.
Schickel, Richard, "Ava Gardner: Nominee for Mogambo in London," in Architectural Digest (Los Angeles), April 1992.
Atwood, M., "Ava Gardner Reincarnated as a Magnolia," in Michigan Quarterly Review, no. 4, 1995.
"Kino Releases Crawford and Gardner '50s Movies," in Classic Images (Muscatine), 10 January 1996.
* * *
Although Ava Gardner appeared in more than 25 films during the 1940s, her screen identity did not really emerge until the 1950s. A product of the studio system, Gardner was put under long-term contract at MGM in the early 1940s. After playing small roles in mostly minor films, she won acclaim in Robert Siodmak's The Killers, emerging (along with Burt Lancaster) as a star, and she is a radiant presence in The Hucksters, Singapore, Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, and Showboat, among others. To an extent, the studio succeeded in promoting her as a sex goddess because of her extraordinary beauty and sensuality. Gardner, however, never fulfilled the expectation that she would become a sex symbol.
In fact, during the 1950s, Gardner undermined this status, specifically by not exploiting her physicality or attempting to develop identification with a cinematic stereotype that would make her accessible to the male audience. The feminist critic Marjorie Rosen (Popcorn Venus) asserts that Gardner embodied the "ideal fantasy creature" in several films, including Joseph L. Mankiewicz's The Barefoot Contessa; but, on the contrary, Gardner refutes this concept of objectification in the film. The film's tensions are produced through her sensitive characterization of a woman who insists in having a right to a subjective identity. She plays a similar "rebel" character in George Cukor's Bhowani Junction. Cukor, aware that her potential had been undeveloped because she was treated by the studio as a beautiful object to be featured in mediocre films, encouraged Gardner to explore her emotional range through this challenging assignment. Her other outstanding performance is in John Ford's Mogambo, which has the feel of a Hawks film in the construction of the central heterosexual relationship and the sense of ease in the narrative's flow. In the film, Gardner, like the Hawksian heroine, displays "masculine" strength without losing her feminine appeal.
Unfortunately, by the end of the decade, Gardner already was appearing in films that required her to be a star presence projecting an image of ravaged beauty. When given a substantial role, however, she could offer a performance to match her character. Such was the case in The Night of the Iguana, in which she played a lusty hotel proprietor opposite Richard Burton's defrocked minister. Her last substantial portrayal came in Roddy McDowall's Tam Lin (The Devil's Widow), an interesting, but unsuccessful, attempt to explore a woman's fear of aging.
As a star of the 1950s, Gardner's screen identity was uncharacteristic of a period that attempted to equate women's sexual desirability with the size of their physical endowments. Still, no more sublimely beautiful woman ever appeared on a movie screen. Like a number of her characters (such as Pandora Reynolds in Pandora and the Flying Dutchman and Lady Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises), Gardner became an American expatriate, living for many years in London. She died there of pneumonia after having completed her autobiography, which was published posthumously.
—Richard Lippe, updated by Rob Edelman