Unearthing the Unearthly (Yet Earthy) Ava Gardner

The career of Ava Gardner (1922-1990) can neatly be divided into thirds: 1) anonymity; 2) reign as world class siren; 3) schlock. I was there for the last third of it in my nonage, first experiencing her in things like the disaster movies Earthquake (1974), The Cassandra Crossing (1976), and City on Fire (1979), and horror pictures like The Sentinel (1977) (She was also in AIP’s 1970 Tam Lin a.k.a. The Devil’s Widow, directed by Roddy McDowell and featuring a young Ian McShane in this period though I never saw this until recently). And she had a recurring role on Knott’s Landing in 1985, which I never watched but my mother avidly did, so there was no being unaware of it. And during these years, one would hear from the older people of Gardner’s legendary beauty, and kids would go, “HUH?” I mean, I’m sure I said much meaner and ruder things than that. In my defense, I was all of ten years old. She literally seemed scary. The roles she played reinforced that initial impression. In The Cassandra Crossing her character is literally paying a gigolo (Martin Sheen) to sexually service her — and he really hates having to do it. In Earthquake she whines and pleads with husband Charlton Heston not to leave her for younger Genevieve Bujold. He disses her throughout the entire picture, only coming to her rescue in the film’s final moments, when she is being washed away down a flooded sewer.

The Cassandra Crossing

But beauty, much like horror, can’t be unseen. I subsquently caught up with Gardner’s earlier films from her storied heyday, and now I see that part of her in those later performances and find her attractive in them, Nightmare Lady and all. Many rated the younger Ava Gardner the most beautiful woman in Hollywood; I would certainly put her on the short list. Her appeal was so immediately evident that she was hired by MGM purely on the strength of walking in the door.

Raised in North Carolina and Virginia farms and boarding houses, Gardner originally spoke with a mush-mouthed hick accent, which voice and elocution lessons polished into mid-Atlantic. In spite of her beauty, her climb uphill was steep. When I look at the scope of her career, she earned 70 screen credits spread over 46 years in the profession — which is not a lot. Over a third of those credits consist of extra work in bit parts during her first five years (1941-46). Without a lucky break, her career would certainly have been similar to those of hundreds of minor starlets, gorgeous, but employed only as eye candy in party scenes.

with Leo Gorcey of the East Side Kids

Amusingly, a couple of Gardner’s first decent early roles were in comedies, such as Ghosts on the Loose (1943) with the East Side Kids, Maisie Goes to Reno (1945), and She Went to the Races (1946), in which Frances Gifford got top billing. During these early years, the most interesting thing about her career was her husbands: Mickey Rooney (1942-43) who was foolish enough to go with other women when he was married to AVA GARDNER; and bandleader Artie Shaw (1945-46): same, but also a bit cuckoo.

Robert Siodmak decided to showcase unknowns in The Killers (1946) and this is how both Gardner and Burt Lancaster became top of the line stars. Roles like the title character in One Touch of Venus (1948) and Julie in Show Boat (1951) helped cement her image as a Glamour Goddess. When I think of Gardner’s heyday, I think of her in sultry and/or exotic settings and locations: Singapore (1947), The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952), Mogambo (1953), Bhowani Junction (1956), The Little Hut (1957), 55 Days at Peking (1963), and The Night of the Iguana (1964). Several have settings in Spain: Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951), The Barefoot Contessa (1954), The Sun Also Rises (1957), The Naked Maja (1957), and The Angel Wore Red (1960). Three of her films were based on the writing of Ernest Hemingway (The Killers, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, The Sun Also Rises).

Gardner’s characters were usually sexual she-wolves, her films famous for pushing the boundaries of permissiveness. Her image as a deadly siren was further cemented when Frank Sinatra left his wife Nancy to marry her in 1951. Bad headlines resulted, but they were more harmful to Sinatra than to Gardner. The pair fought constantly, and finally divorced in 1957.

Interestingly, this is about where her decline from star to supporting player begins. Characteristic of the period are two apocalyptic Cold War thrillers On the Beach (1959) and Seven Days in May (1964). In Tennessee WilliamsNight of the Iguana, she took the role of Maxine, which had belonged to Bette Davis and Shelley Winters on Broadway, acknowledging a shift into middle age. She met George C. Scott on the set of John Huston’s The Bible (1966). By her own account in her autobiography the pair had an affair, and he brutally beat her to within an inch of her life. Not too cool! Then in 1967, according to Mike Nichols, she lobbied hard for the part of Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate (and I suspect I would have liked her better in the part than Anne Bancroft) but she got off on the wrong foot by declaring that nudity was off-limits. Nothing like angling for a part by presenting the director with a series of demands! I can’t help but be reminded of Barrymore in Dinner at Eight, though Gardner was light-years away from being that desperate! But she was plainly no longer in a position to call all the shots. Gardner moved to London in 1968, where she resided for the remainder of her life.

Certain moments in her late career hearken back to her legend. In 1972 John Huston, who’d directed her in Night of the Iguana and The Bible, cast her as the legendary beauty Lillie Langtry in The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean. In George Cukor’s all-star adaptation of The Blue Bird, she was cast in the allegorical role of “Luxury”. Her very last screen role was in the 1986 comedy/mystery tv movie Maggie, where she was second-billed to Stefanie Powers. A great role; she went out on a high note! Shortly after this, she suffered a debilitating stroke. Her remaining years were spent on her best selling memoir Ava: My Story. It came out in 1990, several months after her death from pneumonia and related lung ailments (she was, naturally a lifelong smoker). I was working in a book store when Ava’s book came out. I’m hear to tell ya — it was a big deal.

Gardner’s official website, maintained by the Ava Gardner Trust, is here.