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Sunday, May 07, 2006



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.

5 Comments:

Blogger Booksteve said...

I never particularly cared for Ava Gardner but I saw her in EARTHQUAKE yesterday for the first time in years and was struck by the fact that she seemed to be one of the few people actually ACTING in this disaster film! Old pros like Heston, Lorne Greene and Lloyd Nolan seemed to be just waiting for their line cues. George Kennedy was counting his diaster movie paychecks in his head and coming to life only when he had a line. Richard Roundtree didn't even seem to be trying. Marjoe Gortner was trying but just couldn't do it! Ava, on the other hand, was in character every time you saw her, whether or not she was the focus of a scene. Her lines seemed natural, not rehearsed and she clearly was the most professional actress in the picture!

6:30 AM  
Blogger J.C. Loophole said...

Wonderful pictures! Thanks for another great Glamour starter. Ms. Gardner certainly was no wall flower- and the hard living showed in later years. I still think she has been somewhat underrated as an actress- although she wasn't the stuff of Broadway, she held her own.

9:02 AM  
Anonymous Marco said...

Thank you for the pictures of Ava Gardner, one of the most beautiful actresses to grace the silver screen. There is a print of "Pandora and the Flying Dutchman" somewhere; they showed it on a double-bill with "Matter of Life and Death" at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco not too long ago. It was a great print; the color work was spectacular.

Miss Gardner, by the way, was born in Brogden, North Carolina.

I was surprised that "Night of the Iguana" was never mentioned in your narrative; she was earthy and capable in this role.

2:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thought her performances in Show Boat and On The Beach were very moving...and Ava was great in Mogambo, even if she was pretty much just being herself. Her character is the one you take to your heart and care about. Clark Gable's a rather distant presence in that movie, and Grace Kelly comes across like a snobby zombie ice-queen. (But when doesn't she?) Meanwhile, Ava's warm, funny, vulnerable and loveable.

You'll love her even more if you read her autobiography. Ava doesn't seem whiney to me - I adored her sense of humour, and her dry, dead-on observations about the movie industry, etc - Her writing style is very engaging. She comes across as genuinely down-to-earth, and not vain about her looks, which is nice.

How did a sweet country lass who started out with all these old-fashioned values and morals end up such a party girl? Well, I'm not sure. Maybe her beauty was her curse, and deep down she didn't really belong in Hollywood? Maybe that environment stimulated certain appetites - maybe it was a natural reaction to bust loose after such a proper upbringing? Maybe she was a complex person with passionate, contradictory impulses that she couldn't reconcile? It happens. I don't know. Can't say I relate to her, but I like her, and I feel she managed to stay unpretentious and sweet, yes, despite the drinking and brawling.

It's ironic, actually... when you think about all those disatisfied housewives out there, wishing they were glamourous stars like Ava Gardner. Meanwhile Ava's unfulfilled dream was apparently to be... a simple housewife and mother.

Oh, one more thing - Poor Frank Sinatra my ASS! He was just as much to blame for their combative relationship - he'd play mind games and pull crazy stunts like pretending to kill himself just to scare the shit out of her - he felt threatened by her success when he was at a career low - he was jealous and possessive, despite being unfaithful himself - etc, etc. Sinatra was no saint. I find it rather sad that Ava considered him her truest love.

Anyway, thanks for the beautiful photos. :)

Christine

11:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

P.S. Just had to add... Ava would've been the first to agree with you about that "Most Beautiful Woman In The World" hype - in her book she makes fun of her image, and the way the studios tried to portray her in movie taglines, etc. I get the feeling from your essay that you think *she* thinks she's Hot Stuff. But I don't think she did. If I'm reading you wrong, I apologize. :)

11:59 AM  

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