Monday Glamour Starter --- Ava Gardner
There’s a scene in The Bandwagon where Fred Astaire, as washed-up movie star Tony Hunter, encounters a group of reporters and photographers waiting for his train. Thinking they’ve come to interview him, Tony is chagrined to discover it’s really Ava Gardner who’s causing all the stir, and after a perfunctory greeting from her, Tony has to stand by as Ava graciously accommodates the press (as shown here). "Honestly, isn’t all this stuff an awful bore?" says a long-suffering, but still game Gardner, as she submits to yet another picture. That Bandwagon cameo, a priceless moment, acknowledges the public’s by now (1953) awareness that stars are often mildly (but only mildly, mind you) annoyed with the demands of their profession, but always willing to pose for one more shot, sign one last autograph. Metro still had Ava Gardner and a lot of others under contract at this time, and all employees were expected to maintain an egalitarian attitude toward their public, which meant, among other things, being nice as they got off trains. So what happened to Ava? Within a couple of years, a cameo like this would have been greeted with laughter or rueful disbelief, based on the reputation she would earn with press (and eventual) public. Nightclub brawls, airborne champagne bottles, "chairs flyin’ around like rockets" (to quote Daffy in Nasty Quacks) --- all these became synonymous with Ava Gardner and her retinue of drunkards and hotheads as they lurched from bar to brothel to bacchanal all around the world and back again. Was Frank Sinatra to blame? How did a nice, simple country girl from Smithfield, or Grabtown, or Tobacco Juice, or wherever the hell it was in North Carolina, end up like this?
There’s an Ava Gardner museum in Smithfield, but I haven’t been there. Sixteen years after her death, I wonder how many visit of late. Yes, we share the same home state, and having just read the excellent new biography by Lee Server (Ava Gardner – Love Is Nothing, and you should read it), I honestly wish I could be a little more impressed with this actress, but hang it all, her life just sounds like a near total mess to me. She apparently never wanted the stardom, yelled from the rooftops that she couldn’t act, and behaved pretty wretchedly toward a lot of people. Ava seems to have been okay every now and then as long as she wasn’t drinking. Problem is she was drinking most of the time, especially after the aging thing got hold of her and the bad pictures kept getting badder. Now I’m no judge of acting. Never was. I could watch The Pleasure Seekers, and happily split an Academy Award between Ann-Margret, Carol Lynley, and Pamela Tiffen. If one hasn’t acted him/herself, who is one to judge? As to Ava, I think she’s plenty OK in her thesping. Frankly, I got tired of reading all those quotes where she’s so down on herself for not being an actress. After a while, it just seemed like whining, and all that pabulum about being the most beautiful woman in the world. Well, isn’t that pretty subjective, after all? For all we know, there may be guys who think Nancy Kulp was hotter than Ava. Are they wrong, just because they’re in a presumed minority? And what difference does it make anyhow, since Ava’s long gone, and all we’ve really got left of her is the movie output and a lot of neat stills, so what’s the verdict on them?
I have to say, I think the people Ava worked with are, for the most part, more interesting than Ava. Quite a distinguished group, as you’ll see here. She went years saying none of her pictures were any good, but according to Server’s book, Ava reconsidered when she started catching some of them on television during old age. Sometimes she’d even call up her old co-stars to let them know how good the work was, even though it had been decades since doing it. This first one is The Killers, and it’s too bad homebase Metro couldn’t deliver better upon the promise indicated in this breakthrough role for Gardner. Noirs would have seemed a natural, but MGM didn’t care to do a lot of "A’s" along those lines, so they wasted Ava in things like The Great Sinner and East Side, West Side (though The Bribe is a happy exception). Did she have an affair with Hucksters co-star Clark Gable? Either way, it's a tribute to their enduring mystique that after nearly sixty years, we still care. Pandora and The Flying Dutchman is best seen in its original three-strip Technicolor, but who’s got a print? Anyway, Ava (impliedly) swims naked in it, and titillated audiences no doubt reflected upon the fact that she was often known to do the same thing offscreen (in hotel pools, no less!). Slumming at RKO in My Forbidden Past, she took up with scamp-in-residence Bob Mitchum --- Ava proved to be the one bedmate willing to call Mrs. Mitchum for permission to steal her husband (Mrs. M chose not to comply). Mogambo, for which she got an Academy Award nomination, may well represent her summit, and judging by all that winged dialogue and improvised slapstick, it looks as though infatuated director John Ford pretty much gave Ava a free hand --- much as Howard Hawks would later do for Angie Dickinson in Rio Bravo. As to whether these were good ideas or not is a matter of viewer opinion.
Not sure when this posed nightclub/cocktail pose was taken, but it looks like they’re beginning to trade on Ava’s party girl spiral toward dissolution period that really got its launch when she went to Europe to do a couple of Metro frozen-fund specials. So what was it about bullfighters that got this woman so stirred up? The answer may well lie on a more explicit site than we care to host, but I wonder if she ever got as bored hanging out with them as I did reading about them? Humphrey Bogart looks unimpressed in this candid glimpse of a private party during the Barefoot Contessa shoot. He thought she was a lousy actress and didn’t mind saying so. Coming from a pro like Bogie, that one had to sting. Bhowani Junction was mutilated in post-production --- even an Oscar-worthy performance would have drowned in that sea of red ink and studio indifference. This grass skirt for The Little Hut showed she still had it in 1957, but hard-living was starting to catch up, and what better companion to bear this out than Errol Flynn in The Sun Also Rises? By the new decade, Gardner was expatriating all over Europe, with occasional layovers elsewhere --- in Cuba, she got into a slap-fest with Fidel Castro’s teenaged mistress over his affections --- and poor Sinatra seems to have been enslaved by her fickle charms over a near-lifetime. There are phone books with less names than the list of her (known) lovers. Her best performances (at least the loudest and most actionful) seem to have been given in hotel lobbies, sidewalk cafes, and the like. Unfortunately, those weren’t captured on film. Neither were her boudoir exploits, which must have been, as Barry Fitzgerald once put it, "impetuous … Homeric." If she’d just let them follow her around with a camera, Ava would no doubt have left us with a far more compelling drama than any of those she play-acted for movies.