A Book Review by Louis J. Wasser.
I once confessed to a friend that, despite my preoccupation with serious film, I remained guilty of sporting an unabashed crush on Ava Gardner. While I’d never deluded myself that she possessed the superb talents of, say, French actor Simone Signoret or American method actor Geraldine Page, Ava’s effect on me through my boyhood and adolescence was nothing less than mesmerizing.
Imagine my delight, then, several years ago, when I received a postcard sent by my friend bearing a portrait photo of Ava Gardner smack on the front. During a trip to Europe, he’d been browsing in a Paris book shop, and had stumbled across the post card in a shop’s inconspicuous section that featured Hollywood memorabilia.
For years, that post card from Paris was my favorite candid shot of Ava Gardner. Until now. In Ava: A Life in Movies (Running Press, 2017), film historians Kendra Bean and Anthony Uzarowski have put together a weighty coffee-table book consisting of “the largest assemblage of photographs ever assembled in an Ava biography” (5), accompanied by an intimate narrative of her life.
While the book is a treasure trove of Ava lore, it offers no new discoveries about her life. Rather, Ava: A Life in Movies is best read as an historical plea – a plea for film aficionados to take a retrospective look at Gardner’s work, and elevate her from the dubious ranks of movie star into the marble halls of film actor extraordinaire. But that’s always been a tough metamorphosis for any actor, particularly for one like Ava who, early on, had become a product of the MGM studio system. Still, authors Bean and Uzarowski are dead set in proving, in the words of her close friend Gregory Peck, that Ava “was much better than she thought she was” (5).
She was born Ava Lavinia Gardner on December 24, 1922 in Grabtown, North Carolina, a community “so small and rural that state mapmakers didn’t bother to include it” (8). In later life, Gardner would recall, though her family was poor, she didn’t think much of it, because everyone else in Grabtown was poor. Besides, she was always confident her family loved her.
In 1940, at age 18, Ava flew to New York City to visit her sister, Bappie, and her husband, Larry Tarr, a noted Manhattan photographer. She loved New York, and while there, routinely dragged her sister to visit the big city’s jazz clubs and movie theaters. Ava couldn’t get enough of the silver screen, particularly if she got a chance to moon over Clark Gable.
As a child, she enjoyed watching Gable on the big screen and, of course, had no clue she’d someday appear with him in the remake of Red Dust (1932), a film she adored. But in 1940, the year Gone with the Wind garnered ten Academy Awards, the eighteen-year-old future Hollywood star was content to sit with her sister in a Manhattan movie theater and take in Gable’s portrayal of Rhett Butler over and over.
Unable to land a secretarial job that would enable her to stay in New York, Ava went back to North Carolina disappointed. On a return trip, she reluctantly took a screen test which her sister and brother-in-law managed to finagle from MGM’s New York office. Thinking she again missed the mark, she headed home once again to Grabtown.
This time, as soon as she returned home, she received that special phone call American dreams are made of. MGM’s New York office liked her screen test after all. They offered Ava a contract, and stipulated she had to depart for Hollywood immediately.
Public life for the beautiful star with whom America (including yours truly) would later fall in love was about to begin. Until she made her bones, Ava would become a fixture of the MGM studio system. She would work with dialect coaches to hammer out her thick Southern drawl. She would star in forgettable – nay, embarrassing – flicks with the likes of Bela Lugosi and Leo Gorcey of the East Side Kids.
And finally, in 1946, her breakthrough role came in the Mark Hellinger Productions adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s 1927 short story The Killers. She shared the limelight with the fledgling actor Burt Lancaster. After reading the following account, I suspect it was during the shooting of one particular scene when Ava first discovered her artistic limitations – what it was like to act rather than simply make a gorgeous cinematic appearance:
“Already nervous…she looked to her director [Robert Siodmak] for support and encouragement. Instead, Siodmark set up the scene and called action before Ava had a chance to seek his advice. The tension escalated with each take. Finally, emotionally and physically exhausted, releasing the tension of weeks of hard work, Ava collapsed, sobbing uncontrollably, crying out her lines in a distraught voice. When it was over, Siodmak put his arms around her: ‘I knew you could do it.'” (53)
I suspect too that this on-set incident served to reinforce the professional doubt the poor girl from rural North Carolina felt all her life. Despite her successes and any flattering publicity, she would continually crave the reassurance of close friends like Gregory Peck, director John Huston, playwright Tennessee Williams, and poet Robert Graves. And Bean and Uzarowski make it clear that the search for this reassurance was what drove her into ill-fated marriages to Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw, and Frank Sinatra.
Bean/Uzarowski’s biography offers a portrait of a kind and gentle woman who, although she never gave herself enough credit for being a good actor, was convinced she was not a great actor. But as did movie stars Kevin Costner, John Wayne, and Elizabeth Taylor, she received forgiveness from an adoring public for many of her clunkers, and managed to get better as she got older.
Ava’s performances in On the Beach (1959) and Night of the Iguana (1964) clearly show that, once her youthful beauty faded, she could still enchant film audiences with serious work. And despite her place in the chronicles of film criticism, she’ll always remain the film star who made my heart jump when that post card arrived from Paris.
Louis J. Wasser is a freelance essayist and critic specializing in film, and classical music. He’s written extensively for The Washington Post, Washington Jewish Week, Identity Theory, and other publications. He’s also a financial copywriter.