In retrospect Ava Gardner can be a mysterious and contradictory figure, awash in allure and breathtaking beauty. Considered to be one of the world’s most stunning women, she was contracted to a studio that seemed to be at a loss with how to manage her; she did some of her best work on loan or independently. She had a stated desire for domesticity, children and marriage but her most significant decisions expressed an overwhelming hunger for experience and adventure. Despite insecurity regarding her own talent, she boldly entered varying shooting locations with unfamiliar faces, unknown actors and half-written scripts, doing so with courage and aplomb, only losing outward signs of professionalism as her private life unraveled and the hurts exacted a toll. Too often she bolstered her confidence with liberal amounts of alcohol, resulting in distilled bravado. Not surprisingly she did her best work with sympathetic supportive directors who could tap into her raw sensuality and vulnerability while respecting her fearless beauty and artistic integrity.
Functioning as both coffee table book and detailed biography, Ava Gardner: A Life in Movies knowingly embraces these contradictions and chooses to move along at a fast, luxurious clip. The pace matches the mercurial, hectic and audacious life of one of the last of Hollywood’s true movie stars, a magnetic screen presence as earthy as the North Carolina soil from which she came. Eminently readable and meticulously researched, the book includes a multitude of photographs, behind the scene candid shots, movie stills and promotional images, beautifully interspersed to illustrate pivotal points in this actor’s life. Yet these are still secondary to the text, which treats its subject to a respectful yet honest look at her life and career. As such it lends itself to being a gorgeous reference book, not only a picturesque gallery for each of her films but a source for understanding the heartaches and frustrations that Gardner faced in filming, in loving, and in living.
Gardner’s adventurous spirit and joie de vivre was apparent from her first trips to New York, heady experiences for a young woman from a simple background. As a child, her enthusiastic embrace of life expressed itself as a tomboy’s love for fun and simple pranks. Ava’s early years of poverty and frequent moves, grounded in her love for her father and the devotion of her mother, are given sufficient exploration here, laying the foundation for an understanding of the unchanging aspects of her inherent nature; Her values are clear at the outset. Yet Gardner’s beauty was not easily ignored and despite her naivete, a life-changing photo shoot while visiting her sister in the big city ultimately led to a screen test with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Later Gardner’s passion for new experiences transported her to homes, location shoots and lovers in Hollywood, Madrid, Rome, Mexico and London. Her restlessness led to both good and bad choices, world-wide fame and crushing heartbreak. Gardner was a woman ahead of her time, independent in spirit and frequently in conflict with her studio and her inner desire for respect as an actor, despite her many protestations that she was merely seeking the lucrative pay. In the mid-fifties, following filming that repeatedly took her to Spain, Gardner finally settled there, leaving America for good. As such she developed the lifestyle of many ex-pats of the era, a decision that suited the filming schedules and on location shoots that became arguably de rigueur as the major studios struggled to face the challenges of television. Through it all she wrestled with her own fears that audiences and those in the industry would discover she was merely ‘The World’s Most Beautiful Animal’ as she was so famously labelled, a moniker now glaringly dated in its sexism.
One wonders if Gardner might have had different inclinations regarding her talent if her romantic life had transpired differently. Gardner’s husbands pursued her unrelentingly. Her three marriages were combustible; her third to Frank Sinatra was a union marred by immeasurable passion and unending conflict. Yet the first two were traumatic as well and potentially emotionally damaging. First husband Mickey Rooney, the perpetual boy in a man’s body, was unprepared for marriage to a beautiful naïve daughter of the south. Indeed, once the MGM marvel bedded his virginal bride, leading to a sexual awakening for Gardner, he had difficulty fulfilling the role of devoted husband, remaining a gregarious, roaming Lothario. Second husband Artie Shaw inflicted a different kind of wound. Determined to act as Professor Higgins to Gardner’s Eliza, he was mercilessly critical of her lack of intellectualism and cultural sophistication. In a period reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe’s own attempts to overcome feelings of inadequacy stemming from a simple background, Gardner worked to keep up with him. She met his unrelenting criticism and demands by taking classes, reading literature, pursuing her interests in jazz and classical music. But as she did so he grew bored and the marriage folded. Her deep disappointment at the failure of these two marriages left her vulnerable and open to a third with a volatile, charismatic Frank Sinatra. A fiercely determined talent and temperamental womanizer, Sinatra met his match in Gardner, a woman possessed of the same impetuosity and high spirits. He was so enamored of the raven-haired green-eyed rising star that he left his wife of twelve years. Yet such was the warmth of Gardner that his famous offspring remember her fondly as a natural beauty, glamorous even without make-up, accepting of their presence, both fascinating and giving. Sinatra and Gardner’s affair was a public relations nightmare that instigated a barrage of criticism. Gossip columnists and film fans perceived the actress as a home wrecker and the crooner as a fallen Catholic. Both careers suffered temporary blows. Following a tempestuous marriage, the two eventually settled on a lifelong simmering friendship once the flames cooled, with Gardner wistfully reminiscing on what might have been with the second sight of maturity. Sinatra carried his own contradictions; he became a steady rescuer for her on numerous occasions as their lives progressed.
The dynamics of these relationships and others are well-elucidated by authors Kendra Bean and Anthony Uzarowski, who provide specifics without indulging in salaciousness. Personal details of Gardner’s private life are neatly juxtaposed with accounts of her experiences in making movies, each grounded in chronological time and place. While some of her films may have at times lacked substance or even popular appeal, in others her smoldering persona captured the sensual yearnings of audiences. From her breakout role in The Killers to Mogambo, Bhowani Junction and On The Beach Gardner was unrelentingly riveting.
In hindsight John Huston’s rendering of Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana stands as perhaps her greatest film; it was her last significant screen role. As the wise, weary Maxine Faulk she ultimately reaches the epitome of her talent, delving within for a rich, worldly vulnerability that in many ways echoes the woman she had become. If Gardner was ever to have been awarded an Academy Award it would’ve been for Iguana yet that recognition was never bestowed. The authors pay loving attention to this significant film, rightfully and rewardingly so.
As with any actor she passed on some good roles and was overlooked for others. Yet she worked with many of the most significant directors and writers of her time, establishing enduring relationships along the way. Her warm friendships with John Huston, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams and many other significant figures are a remarkable testament to the fascination this woman held for those who appreciated her unique brand of Southern charm and sensuality. The lifelong presence of other friends, such as Grace Kelly and Gregory Peck speaks to her generosity of spirit. Film fans familiar with these larger than life personalities of the twentieth century will find this exploration of these relationships a satisfying aspect of this biography. Ava Gardner: A Life in Movies is a sumptuous feast for the eyes, beautifully presented in a format sure to resonate with fans of classic film. As such it is a treatment that Ava Gardner ultimately and finally richly deserves.
Many thanks to Running Press for providing this lovely book for this review. It is appreciated. It is available through Amazon and other booksellers.
This post is the second in the 2017 Summer Reading Challenge hosted by Raquel Stecher of Out of the Past. For more book reviews please check her blog throughout the summer!