When they talk about the most beautiful actresses who ever lived, often the same names come up: Elizabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren, Audrey Hepburn, to name a few. There really is no such thing as “the most beautiful actress,” at least as a statement of fact, because people have their own tastes, perceptions and standards. Nevertheless, another one who pops up frequently on such lists is Miss Ava Gardner.
Gardner was born a simple “country girl” in 1922 in Brogton, North Carolina, though the town was nicknamed by the locals as “Grabtown” and she always referred to it as such. The youngest of seven children, she was raised for her first dozen or so years on a farm and was frequently barefoot. She later lived in Newport News, Virginia and then in Wilson, North Carolina as her family’s fortunes dipped. Her father died when she was fifteen and her mother worked in a succession of boarding houses.
Ava (who, believe it or not, really was born with the marquee-ready name Ava Gardner) graduated high school in 1939 and followed that up with classes at a Christian college. In 1941, she visited her sister and brother-in-law in New York City and agreed to pose for a photo for him to aid his burgeoning career as a portrait photographer. When her picture in the storefront window caused a stir, including the interest of a local movie theater owner, her sister and her husband took the theater owner’s advice to heart and sent a copy of the portrait to MGM. Amazingly, this gambit won her an interview at MGM’s New York office and she was offered a contract and shipped off to Hollywood!
The studio wasted no time in eliminating her southern drawl, which baffled both the New York and California representatives. Her looks, however, were too stunning to ignore. The down home girl was given a makeover that would have her not only able to portray royalty and nobility on the screen, but also provide her with a sexy style that would have men’s jaws dropping for several decades. Though she would toil away in bits of junk for several years, by 1946, her career hopped into higher gear (when she was loaned out to Universal for The Killers, Burt Lancaster’s film debut.) From then on she was a sought after leading lady, starring opposite many of the biggest actors of her day. In 1948, she played the title goddess in One Touch of Venus and no one was arguing!
Back to the beauty issue… I like ruins. I find them affecting and infinitely more interesting than new buildings. Maybe that’s why I always tend to be drawn more to actresses who are on the decline rather than ones who are in their prime. Thus, my favorite Ava Gardner performances are the ones she did after her (admittedly stunning) beautiful period. Even in her prime, she had evidence of puffiness under her eyes, a genetic trait, that was carefully eliminated in most movies and photos. (Click to enlarge this photo to the left.) As she aged, thanks to plenty of smoking, drinking and late nights, this feature would stand out more, but she never lost that dazzling sparkle that made her so arresting to watch.
Perhaps the peak of Ava’s career was 1953 when she played Guinevere in Knights of the Round Table, made a sparkling cameo as herself in The Band Wagon and, most importantly of all, nabbed her first and only Oscar nomination as Best Actress for her work opposite Clark Gable in Mogambo. She didn’t win (Audrey Hepburn won that year for Roman Holiday), but it marked her resume with some legitimacy, something she craved and yet felt she never once attained. (She was wrong.)
The next year, what many consider her signature role, The Barefoot Contessa, came along, the part of a simple girl being remodeled into an international acting sensation coming close to the truth of her own existence (though the character was Spanish.) Gardner was frequently cast as ladies of foreign nationality. She had no confidence in herself as an actress and, yet, this North Carolina native came off plausibly over the years as a half-caste Indian (as in the photo above right with Bill Travers from Bhowani Junction), a mulatto, a senorita or two, a Russian Countess, an Austrian queen and many other exotic parts.
Somewhere along the line, someone rightly decided that Gardner looked good in hats and so many of her films began showing her off in sometimes elaborate and sometimes simple creations that went beautifully with her oval face and sensual eyes with their almost impossible amount of eyelid space. For most women in the 1970s, hats were out, but Gardner appeared in either a hat or some other headgear in just about every one of her movies from that decade and not only didn’t look like an anachronism, but also looked damned good and probably led a lot of lesser women to the milliner, thinking that they could pull the looks off.
The British were far more appreciative of what Miss Gardner had to offer than the U.S. Academy was. She received three Best (Foreign) Actress nods from them for 1956’s Bhowani Junction, 1959’s On the Beach and 1964’s Night of the Iguana. Apart from a Golden Globe nom for the last film, she was given no significant recognition in America for her work in these or any other of her films. The thing is, in many cases she was the best thing about a movie and sometimes the reason that anyone went to see it in the first place! She left Hollywood in 1958 after years of servitude at MGM and scarcely came back, but her name retained a certain amount of drawing power for quite a few years after.
When she did 55 Days at Peking in 1963 with Charlton Heston, the sparks flew and not in a good way. He was exasperated (as he often was during his early career) with her delays and breaks in order to beautify and maintain that beauty as the day wore on. This photo of them smiling together demonstrates tremendous acting ability on both their parts! Years of being sold like meat by Louis B. Mayer while he reaped a lot of the reward along with having her various attempts at expanding herself be stomped out (such as when she was forbad from singing her own songs in Show Boat) had given her a rebellious attitude and a disregard for overbearing structure.
She would do practically anything for her pal John Huston, however, and gave him no trouble on Iguana. The potentially combustible combination of Huston, Gardner, Richard Burton and his wife Elizabeth Taylor (not in the film, but along for the ride), Sue Lyon as well as others in the cast, had its fair share of fireworks here and there, but Gardner threw herself into the earthy part of sexually aware hacienda owner Maxine and let go of most, if not all, of her vanity, even drawing lines under her eyes and obscuring her figure to look further "past it." The part had been originated on stage by Bette Davis, after all, who was fourteen years her senior.
Her next job for Huston, however, was a far less pleasant or rewarding experience. Huston had decided to tackle The Bible and amassed a rondelet of stars to act out the good book. However, he only got through a small portion of the mammoth tome and so the film was re-titled The Bible: In the Beginning… She was cast as Sarah, barren wife of Abraham (George C. Scott) and was done up in heavy eye-makeup (which I couldn’t possibly love any more) and filmy robes and veils (ditto!)
She and Scott (who went from Jekyll to Hyde when drunk) had a raucous, violent, abusive affair that caused a lot of problems for everyone involved (or nearby!) She sometimes had to be photographed in dim light in an attempt to cover the bruises from Scott that makeup didn’t fully obscure. For her trouble, she wound up in a bloated, dull flop and kicked Huston all throughout the premiere, muttering, “Christ, How could you let me do it?!” and other insults as the cinematic turd continued to unfold. Critic Bosley Crowther accused her of looking as if she were "posing for a monument." But what a monument!
As she aged, Ava, who had always had a potty mouth and a wicked sense of humor, began to develop an even more caustic wit and was increasingly less guarded with her remarks (thank God!) Her ex-husband Frank Sinatra married the waif-ish, closely cropped Mia Farrow and Gardner cracked, “I always knew Frank would end up in bed with a boy.” She took to calling everyone “honey” or “baby” and inserting that term of endearment before or after one of her delicious verbal bombs.
She lived for a long time in Spain, developing a taste for bullfighters, and then in London, only making sporadic returns to Hollywood and the rest of the U.S. (usually in order to make a little more dough to keep her comfortable financially.) In 1968, in her first appearance since The Bible, she took on what I consider to be her all-time most glamorous role. She portrayed Austrian Empress Elizabeth (beloved in real life by all her subjects and known as “Sisi”), the mother of Crown Prince Rudolf (Omar Sharif) in Mayerling. Based on fact, the story concerned Sharif and his young lover Catherine Deneuve and their tragic end, but whenever Ava appears, everyone else is wiped from the screen (in what is, at times, a very dull film.)
Empress Sisi was renowned for her long, lustrous, decorated hair and the stylists for Mayerling kicked things up even higher than they were for the real woman. Gardner sports so many long curls it’s a wonder she could even hold her head up at night! There just isn’t any way that she could look more glamorous and these photos don’t do her justice. Incidentally, Gardner was only ten years older than Sharif when she played his mother, but somehow they pull it off.
Gardner has to have set some sort of record for having worked as an actress for forty years and almost never played a mom! A review of her filmography shows an almost unbelievable lack of parts that gave her children in them. She didn’t have any kids in real life (but did abort two pregnancies with Frank Sinatra), which may have been one reason she wasn’t the go-to girl for parent roles the way some other actresses were.
Roddy McDowall, a longtime, close friend, cast her in his only directorial effort, 1970’s Tam-Lin (also known as The Devil’s Widow), a moody thriller about a woman who uses witchcraft to manipulate the people around her and suck the life out of them. Mismarketed by its distributor/owner American International and cut in a way that differed from his intentions, the film had a torturous path to and from the cinema, though there has been a re-edit done on it to return it to the way McDowall wanted.
Now appearing even more sporadically, she agreed to a cameo for her buddy John Huston in The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean in 1972, playing famed actress Lillie Langtry, the object of the title character’s obsession. Two years later, longing for a dose of California sunshine and eager to pick up some ready cash, she would come from London to Hollywood to make the movie that first introduced her to me, a saucer-eyed child, sitting agog at the spectacle of not only a decimated Los Angeles, but of a bitchy, bedraggled Ava Gardner.
Earthquake reunited Ava with her old sparring partner Chuck Heston from the highly troubled 55 Days at Peking. This time, though, the pair got along quite well. Heston had relaxed his stringent ideas about punctuality (or at least grew to appreciate that women need more time to get ready than men) and Gardner no longer felt the need to primp (especially when a lot of her time was spent covered in grime and wallowing around on the ground.) He was especially proud of her, as was practically everyone on the set, when she performed some of her own stunt sequences, including a treacherous one involving water.
It’s one of those ironies that during Peking, the two had to act in love, even though they didn’t get along. Here, they had to enact hatred even though they were now friendly! In the theatrical cut of the film (not the extended – and awful – TV version), Gardner gets to say the first line, “GODDAMMIT!!” to a sweaty Heston who is in mid workout. Their snotty repartee is one of those hilarious tête-à-tête moments that I recite aloud on long car trips to amuse myself.
Critics at the time (and some now) remarked on how bad Gardner looked with her tousled wig and floppy nightgown. Yeah, she’s older and all, but in the first place, she was playing a disheveled, suicidal alcoholic who is eventually caught in a cataclysmic earthquake! She does clean up a bit for a quick phone call to her father and then dons a hat and cream-colored suit in order to meet him for lunch. Afterwards, she and Heston have another fun exchange of vitriol inside an elevator in which she blasts him right and left over his affection for another woman. In better days, someone would have taken pains to see that she and Heston were on the same plane of vision. Perhaps she’d have been placed on an unseen platform or filmed in a way that gave them slightly more equal footing. In this case, she is stuck in the corner of an elevator, looking hilariously diminutive, with Chuck in the foreground, and she all but disappears except for her face! They may as well have had Estelle Getty perform this segment.
As I said, this was my first exposure to Ava and I was totally captivated. She (along with Stella Stevens from The Poseidon Adventure and Lee Grant from Airport ’77) taught me how to cuss and how to effectively take the Lord’s name in vain. She’s second-billed, but only in the film for about twelve to fifteen minutes total. Every frame that she appears in is screen magic to me, but probably my favorite moment is when she is desperately awaiting the fate of her father and tries to ask a dazed, shock-ridden secretary if he is all right. Some blessed soul loaded this moment onto youtube.com and I encourage you to watch it and be tickled by the hysterical intensity of her performance and the pronunciation (blended from a mixture of North Carolina, Hollywood tutors, Spain and London!) given to her line readings!
The next year she was paired with Dirk Bogarde (and in the posters received the same billing that Steve McQueen and Paul Newman had shared in The Towering Inferno, with Bogarde at the lower left and she in the upper right!) in Permission to Kill. The two had previously costarred in 1960’s The Angel Wore Red, in which she had been top-billed. Again outfitted in a stylish hat for part of the time, once she takes it off, a person flipping channels could be forgiven for thinking they’d stumbled on a second, lost Dirk Bogarde-Judy Garland movie!
1976 brought The Cassandra Crossing, a murky, but entertaining suspense film set on a plague-ridden train that is headed for a severely weakened bridge. (See individual post for that film by clicking on it in the column to the right.) Her character is a wealthy, sarcastic lady, always done up in expensive ensembles and jewelry, who is traveling with her yonger plaything Martin Sheen. Nothing that Gardner says or does after her opening scenes has any bearing on reality, but it scarcely matters because she is deliciously mouthy throughout and adds a lot of much-needed spice to the proceedings.
That same year saw the release of one of director George Cukor’s all-time debacles, the U.S.-Soviet co-production of The Blue Bird, a ghastly children’s musical with a cast that included such superstars of song as Elizabeth Taylor, Cicely Tyson and Jane Fonda!! Gardner played Luxury and was outfitted with an ornate headpiece. Filmed in the exceedingly uncomfortable conditions within the U.S.S.R., no one was happy or particularly healthy during the shooting of it and the end result was a gigantic flop.
The Sentinel was a 1977 horror film that was positively jam-packed with name actors. Nominally starring the somnambulistic Christina Raines along with Chris Sarandon, they are hardly the main attraction. Watching it now is a hoot because of seeing people like Jeff Goldblum, Jerry Orbach, Christopher Walken, Tom Beringer and Beverly D’Angelo before they had reached their full measure of fame. However, there are also old guards on hand such as Martin Balsam, Jose Ferrer, Burgess Meredith, Arthur Kennedy, John Carradine, Eli Wallach, Sylvia Miles and our Ava.
She plays a chic New York City real estate agent who rents part of an ancient brownstone to Raines. First seen with her hair pulled back and augmented with a faux knot, she then sports a flattering hat with a band on it to coordinate with the scarf at her neck. She chews on her lines with a vague sense of menace, mixing charm with some degree of mystery. It’s a joy to see and hear her showing off the apartment with her patented brand of voice and movement (something no imitator has ever been able to do well, despite the varied attempts!)
She was 55 at this point and had some wrinkles here and there, but was still able to withstand a massive close-up on the big screen. This shot of her is not cropped from a larger image. This is the way the frame delivered her at one point, up close and personal and I think she looks quite radiant, despite the angle and all things considered! She has a sort of vague Gina Gershon thing happening here in a way, don’t you think?
It’s likely that she only worked a day or two on the film, for her second scene has her in a different outfit, but with the same hat on, this time with a plain black band on it. Obsessive observer that I am, I noticed that in the first scene, in the cream suit, she had some fine hair sticking out from the back of her hat. In the second scene, though the outfit is different and presumably a different day, the hair is still there.
Gardner was off the screen for two years after this and made her return in one of the lesser disaster features ever made, the Canadian tax write off City on Fire, a cobbled together, derivative movie that somehow managed to wrangle together a plethora of name brand actors who were (apparently) in significant career or financial trauma. She played an alcoholic newscaster who delivers numbingly dispassionate reports on a series of fiery explosions. Most of the time, she looks pretty rough in this, but I must say I like her hair in this shot, a soft departure from the full, curly style and/or the taut, pulled back look she had been more often sporting.
Ava made three more films after this one, The Kidnapping of the President, Priest of Love and Regina Roma. The first lulu had her playing a shrewy, conniving wife to Van Johnson’s worried Vice President! In 1985, however, she made her TV debut (this being apart from appearances on talk and game shows) and did a string of projects in a row. First was A.D., a five-part miniseries chronicling Christians in the wake of Jesus’ crucifixion. She got to play a lascivious Roman lady named Agrippina, practically in clown-face, powdery makeup. This was followed by a supporting role in a remake of The Long, Hot Summer (playing the part Angela Lansbury originated in the 1958 feature film.)
Next up was a bit of a surprise. She took a six-episode role on the hit primetime soap opera Knots Landing! Now, if Ava had been a guest star on Dynasty, you can bet your ass she’d have been given a dramatic entrance with hats, furs, diamonds, luggage… the works, though her role surely would have been shallow and silly in the end since Dynasty focused more on the surface than anything. Here, she was still afforded a modicum of awe and prestige, but on a far smaller scale. She played the estranged mother of Greg Sumner (played by William Devane.)
The publicity photos sent out by CBS appear to have been carefully airbrushed to suggest someone a little more smooth and taut than the actress was by then, but she nevertheless managed to delight viewers with her fairly brief turn on the show. As expected, her blunt persona held up nicely against the TV son who was known for being a jerk to people and refusing to conform to other peoples’ standards. Devane’s father, by the way, was played by another movie veteran, Howard Duff, who had once been Ava's lover for a while several decades prior.
The final two roles that Gardner portrayed were in a comedy-mystery pilot called Maggie, in which she played Stefanie Powers’ mother and Harem, a two-part TV movie about Nancy Travis being abducted and forcibly placed into the title grouping. Here, Gardner played the chief wife of a sultan who was enacted by none other than her old Mayerling son, Omar Sharif! Travis stirs up jealously in Gardner and has to endure the consequences. This marked the final time that Gardner performed before a camera.
Miss Gardner, a lifetime heavy smoker, suffered from emphysema and had two strokes in 1986. As lacking in vanity as she was, the partial paralysis she was left with after this turned her into somewhat of a recluse and she rarely left her London apartment except to walk her pet corgi Morgan, a live-in maid being her other, constant companion. Her ex-husband Sinatra arranged a private plane with medical staff and an appointment with a specialist in the U.S., though he did this more as a favor than out of a financial necessity. (Gardner had spent much of her downtime writing an autobiography, which was a success, though she didn’t get to enjoy it, perishing before it was fully completed.)
She died of bronchial pneumonia in 1990 at the age of 67. She died way too early, but no one can say she didn’t live! She was one of Hollywood’s most glittering stars and had a heady enough existence then, but as soon as her contract with MGM was up, she lived the rest of her life on her terms, even if that meant not working unless she felt like it or needed to in order to feather her nest. When she did work, she made it a habit to give her all to whoever was directing, no matter the material they were working on.
What’s sad is that she never realized what a massive impact she had on people, nor did she recognize her own level of acting talent. Interviewed late in life, she said that she “never did anything to be proud of.” While I am certainly not focusing on her best work today, I vociferously beg to differ with her! Another quote was, “Christ, what did I ever do worth talking about? Every time I tried to act, they stepped on me. That's why it's such a goddamn shame, I've been a movie star for twenty-five years and I've got nothing, nothing, to show for it.” Again, I think most people would disagree. I know I miss her breathy, slinky voice and her amazing face all the time. No one today comes close and no one ever could!