Ava Gardner: A Life in Movies

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 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.

ava 5.jpgMany thanks to Running Press for providing this lovely book for this review. It is appreciated. Ava Gardner: A Life in Movies is available through Amazon and other booksellers.

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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!

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Dancing As Fast As They Can: Dance, Girl, Dance (1940)

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A RKO Production ~  Director: Dorothy Arzner, Based on a story by Vicki Baum, Screenplay by Tess Slesinger and Frank Davis, Art Director: Van Nest Polglase,  Costume Designer: Edward Stevenson

What a warm, satisfying movie this is. As must happen in post-Code Hollywood, a young woman pays a price, both for her naïveté as well as her ability to pack a good wallop, but becomes a better woman for it, having come to terms with her own nature and realizing her dreams in the process.

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There is so much in Dance, Girl, Dance that it’s hard to know where to begin. What’s most interesting is that Dorothy Arzner has been able to present characters that make many mistakes and yet remain sympathetic. She has an unerring sense of humanity towards these people, hiding their foibles in plain sight by rendering them as charming as they are flawed and struggling.

Their struggles involve primarily finding out who they are but also in finding who they love and it is only in resolving the first that they are able to discover the second. The resolved romances at films end work nicely to underscore this sense that these people have finally come home, only to find themselves opening the door. The film works as a romantic comedy but definitely has serious pre-feminist undertones.

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Our heroine,  Judy O’Brian, played by a luminous and young Maureen O’Hara, admits her Irish feistiness but acknowledges she “keeps it to a low simmer”. Her best friend, also a bit of an antagonist, is portrayed by a gorgeous and scene-stealing Lucille Ball. She plays Bubbles, a gold-digger disguised as a dancer but not necessarily one with a heart of gold. Her comedic gifts are certainly on display but here there’s a toughness and an edge rarely seen. Bubbles’ primary aim is to find that gold and keep it for herself; survival is the name of the game. While she’s capable of being a friend she’s not necessarily capable of being a good one.

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Bubbles offers Judy a chance to finally make a living dancing but it’s a humiliating one where she is actually called a Stooge. Sent on stage to be mocked and laughed at, she’s there to stoke the crowd for the more seductively naughty Bubbles, now facetiously dubbed Tiger Lily White, in a burlesque show.

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Judy longs for the kind of break that would allow her to truly pursue her heart and become a serious dancer, but her lack of confidence gets in the way and prevents her from sensing opportunity when it literally smiles her way. As the one doing the smiling, Ralph Bellamy adds a warm presence and a handy shoulder.

Judy’s nightly onstage humiliation moves her anger from what was a simmer to a slow burn and ultimately a full-blown knockdown drag-out with Bubbles. Ostensibly about a man who takes turns toying with each of them, a smarmy Louis Hayward, the confrontation is more about the women’s relationship and who they are to one another. Bubbles maintains this friendship not just because Judy has been useful to her but because she brings a warmth and depth to her life that would not be there without her companionship. Similarly, Judy admires Bubbles ability to unabashedly pursue her selfish interests and thereby make her way in the world, a man’s world, despite compromises. These are two tough women and they admire each other. But the dichotomy they represent is also why they come to blows.

This film opens with a simple dance sequence, marked by dazzling costumes, that immediately establishes character.  This small troupe is overseen by a wise Maria Oupenskaya, portraying Madame Lydia Basilova, who makes a short but lovely appearance as the original source of strength for these women.  Madame, a former ballerina and  head of her own dance troupe is a role model for Judy and Bubbles in an industry compromised by catering to men’s ogles and desires. Madame is tragically killed when Judy goes to what should’ve been her big break but which instead becomes only a revelatory moment; Judy is too frightened to fully pursue her dreams.  It is only when she finally grabs hold of her own anger that she is able to understand she is entitled to her own happiness.

Much of the story revolves around men who are used as plot devices; this is a woman’s story. In one literally show stopping moment O’Hara delivers a scathing speech to her predominately male audience, best seen rather than described. It’s far ahead of its time.

Despite being a film about dance the costuming works in homage to the characters and their development. The film opens with the small troupe dancing in unison in glittering black. However, as the women’s paths diverge, they are never again seen in identical costumes. Bubbles rise up the ladder of success involves not just a name change but the donning of gorgeous coats with luscious fur collars. She is expensively accessorized. Similarly, Judy is seen in simple designs, even wearing a Peter Pan collar to a nightclub, until the very end when she finally comes into her own. The costumes in this picture were designed by Edward Stevenson,  known for his ability to enhance story without drawing attention to his own designs. He later became the favorite designer for Lucille Ball who appreciated his eye for character-driven costumes that never overpowered her considerable personality except when needed for comedic effect.

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Maureen O’Hara positively glows with her youthfulness and beauty in this early role. A mere twenty years old at the time, she had already succeeded in starring roles in two motion pictures, this being her fifth film.

For Lucille Ball, the road to fame was a much longer, arduous process. Almost unbelievably this was Ms. Ball’s 60th film, with many more to come before she finally achieved stardom as Mrs. Ricky Ricardo in the famed I Love Lucy television series. The series was a love child for Lucille Ball and her husband Desi Arnaz.

Based on a story by Vicky Baum and a script by the frequent screenwriting partnership of Tess Slesinger and Frank Davis (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) Dance, Girl, Dance definitely showcases the perspective of the women who created it and the men who supported their vision.

Recommended, for knowledge of woman in film, lovers of Maureen O’Hara and Lucille Ball and sheer entertainment. 

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Notes and Extras

  • Bosley Crowther at the New York Times didn’t particularly care for this one, citing it as “a saga of glamour-struck chorines to end all sagas of said glamour-struck chorines” and not in a flattering way.  He does have a few kind words for Lucille Ball.
  • Yet this film is gaining in esteem and this is reflected over at Streamline, the Filmstruck Blog.  David Kalat gives it a fair amount of space and good words, in addition to exploring some other movies in the ‘small town girl hoping to make good’ genre.
  • Crowther also withheld praise from Too Many Girls, Desi Arnaz’s first film, co-starring his new bride, Lucille.  The influential critic had better words for her than for Arnaz who he panned horribly describing him as a “a noisy, black-haired Latin whose face unfortunately lacks expression and whose performance is devoid of grace”.  Needless to say Arnaz persevered.
  • The couple not only persevered but went on to buy  the very property where this was shot, along with the rest of RKO’s soundstages and backlots, subsuming them into the massive empire that became Desilu Studios.
  • Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz actually met during the filming of Dance, Girls, Dance.  Due to the strenousness of filming a morning into afternoon vicious catfight between O’Hara and Ball, shooting was stopped, freeing up the latter for the remainder of the day. Lucy casually strolled over to a stage where the cast of Too Many Girls, already in the planning stages, was gathered.  Desi’s quick eye caught hers and he proceeded to not only show her his rumba but asked her to dinner for the evening.  As Lucy later recalled “we were in love almost immediately”.
  • Lucy and Desi were married on November 30, 1940, three months after the release of Dance, Girl, Dance.  For more on their breath-taking relationship and professional partnership, Lucy & Desi: The Legendary Love Story of Television’s Most Famous Couple by Warren G. Harris is highly recommended.
  • Maureen O’Hara and Lucille Ball became fast friends during the filming of this picture and remained so until Ball’s death in 1989.  O’Hara, nine years her junior, outlived her by twenty-six years.
  • Costume designer Edward Stevenson first worked with Ball on That Girl From Paris (1936), another RKO film. When seeking a designer for her television show I Love Lucy, Ball sought him out.  He worked for her until his death from cardiac arrest in 1968. At the time, Stevenson had placed a called to Desilu to consult upon a fabric. When Ball got to the phone, she was informed he’d been stricken.
  • Director Roy Del Ruth was initially assigned to direct this film, but left the production, causing Arzner to scramble and pull the film together and quickly.
  • Dorothy Arzner was well-suited to pulling things together.  As the only female director working in the 1930’s, she was adaptable.  Arzner was the first woman to direct a sound film and the first to join the Directors Guild of America.
  • Dance,Girl, Dance is available for streaming through Amazon, to either rent or purchase.  Choices, choices.
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Dorothy Arzner with Lucille Ball on set