Ava Gardner is sadly remembered as much for her tumultuous love life & her striking beauty as she is for her acting talent. While no one can argue that her beauty is unparalleled, her ability as an actress was often underestimated & definitely under appreciated. Her mature roles, in films like On the Beach (’59) & The Night of Iguana (’64), reflected a world weariness that certainly cast back towards her real life, but they also showed immense growth & confidence as an actress. Her marriage at 19 to mega-star Mickey Rooney thrust the small-town girl from Grabtown, North Carolina into the white-hot lights of Hollywood before she was able to establish an identity of her own. It would be another 4 years & a second failed marriage (this time to famous bandleader Artie Shaw) before her big break came in 1946’s The Killers (Siodmak), but in the meantime her reputation as a good time party girl had been cast. Her matter of fact personality & tough exterior, however, belied a deep seeded & near crippling case of stage fright that contributed to the alcoholism that plagued her throughout her adulthood. Ava Gardner was never considered the greatest actress, but through shear will, determination & talent, she was able to carve out an important, if under appreciated career.
The Night of the Iguana (’64), based on a Tennessee Williams play, featured an all-star cast (Richard Burton, Deborah Kerr & Sue Lyon), an iconic director (John Huston) & as much backstage drama as any film of its time. The story of a de-frocked priest turned tour guide (Burton) stuck a Mexican resort with an uptight spinster (Kerr) & her precocious ward (Lyon). Gardner plays the proprietor & host trying to keep the peace & rescue Burton’s soul. Huston rewrote much of Gardner’s brash widow Maxine dialogue, making her more lovable & romantic than she had been played on stage 3 years earlier by Bette Davis*. Gardner’s life & career, in fact, seemed to have mirrored the fiery & sexually raw southern women of Williams’ plays, making Maxine her greatest character & her greatest performance. She imbued Maxine with an inner strength that was wholly fragile, masked in self deprecating humor, but both sexual & mothering. It’s a highly natural & revealing performance, showing as much of Ava’s soul as the character’s personality. Huston can be credited with helping to tease out the performance, giving her the confidence needed, but in the end it is all Ava. Her best.
#2 The Barefoot Contessa (’54) is the story of a Spanish dancer, discovered by a Hollywood director & catapulted to worldwide movie stardom. Gardner plays Maria, the dancer, in a part written specifically for her by director Joseph Mankiewicz. Rumored to be based on the life of either Rita Hayworth or Linda Darnell (Mankiewicz’s mistress at the time), The Barefoot Contessa takes all that is good & unique about Gardner’s performing style & distills it into a nuanced performance. Because shooting began just as Gardner’s impending divorce to 3rd husband Frank Sinatra was announced to the world, the film captures Gardner’s animal sexuality, her carefree attitude & her extreme vulnerability. Maria/Gardner uses her sexuality to manipulate men, but it is her sincerely & platonic relationship with Huphrey Bogart’s Harry Dawes, the film director that discovered & mentors her, that is the center of the film. In their scenes together Gardner tempers the flamboyant sexuality she exhibits for other men with a quiet & richly emotional relationship with Dawes. Because the film is told in a series of flashbacks, narrated by Dawes, their scenes together are tinged with melancholy & add to both characters performances. Gardner is luminous throughout the film, no greater than ‘at home’ among the gypsies dancing freely, barefoot, but the superficial nature of that beauty is played perfectly against the depth of her performance & the tragedy of the story well told.
The film that started it all, #3 The Killers (’46), would be higher on this list if only Gardner’s part were larger, but it also featured the screen debut of Burt Lancaster & ultimately The Killers is his movie. Gardner’s Kitty Collins is pure self-absorbed & manipulative malice & Gardner plays her to the hilt, no more so than in the final scene on the steps as she pleads with Reardon to save her soul. With the first 20 minutes cleverly based on an Ernest Hemingway short story, The Killers plays out as an insurance investigator (Edmond O’Brien) investigates the execution style killing of gas station attendant Ole Anderson (Lancaster), also known as the ‘Swede.’ Brilliantly directed by Film Noir master Robert Siodmak & released by Universal, The Killers was made at a time when MGM didn’t know what to do with Ava & loaned her out to make a profit on her contract. Once the film was complete, however, Universal was fully aware of what it had in putting Gardner front & center as one of the sexiest & deadliest characters on the screen; the epitome of the femme fatale. The flashback structure of the film pieces together Kitty & the Swede’s relationship, his taking the fall for her & the double cross that drives the murder. To bookend Kitty’s pleading on the steps is one of the most amazing character introductions in all of Noir (apologies to Hayworth/Gilda), where Gardner nonchalantly coos “The More I Know Love” as Lancaster melts into nothing more than the putty he will become as the story plays out. In between those 2 scenes Gardner radiates sexual possibilities as she manipulates poor Ole again & again. Gardner’s acting is simple & understated, letting her eyes & lips do most of the work, but The Killers clearly shows that the camera absolutely loves Gardner & fans soon took notice.
#4 Mogambo (’53), a remake of the Clack Gable, Mary Astor & Jean Harlow picture Red Dust (’32) has Gardner cast as the older, more worldly good time girl originated by Harlow, but also reflects a hard won maturity just 7 years after The Killers. Her Eloise Kelly is all brashness & bluster on the outside, but underneath is a wounded animal looking for protection & love. That Gardner could pull off both sides of Kelly is a testament to her growth as an actress, all while in the throughs of great personal drama with 3rd husband Frank Sinatra. Without the personal baggage, however, the performance is still a tour de force for Gardner & netted her her only Oscar nomination. Set in the African wilderness & directed by John Ford, Mogambo is the story of a larger than life big game hunter (Gable) caught in a love triangle with Gardner’s Kelly & the wife of an anthropologist (Grace Kelly). Just as in Red Dust, the short-term love affair between Gable (reprising his role from Red Dust) & the good time girl (Harlow/Gardner) is interrupted by appearance of the more proper & virginal Englishwoman (Astor/Kelly). As Gable dismisses Gardner dockside it may be the single best scene of Gardner’s career (as it was for Harlow). The look of understanding at being thrown away that creeps across Gardner’s face is as painful as any death scene. It contains not just dejection, but self-loathing as well & underscores the depth of her performance. Both before & after that scene Gardner seems at ease in a character that is all façade & masquerade, at various times funny & jovial & others sullen and bitter.
#5 Pandora & The Flying Dutchman (’51) is a lyrical homage to Wagner’s opera “The Flying Dutchman” & features Gardner as the ethereal Pandora Reynolds. Set in Spain, Pandora captivates all the local expats, vowing to love no one who is unwilling to sacrifice everything for her. When one lover destroys a precious race car she agrees to marry him, but when a mysterious sailboat arrives in harbor everything changes. She is drawn to the ship, swimming naked under the moonlight, & meets the equally mysterious Hendrik van der Zee (James Mason) as he paints a portrait of the mythological Pandora. In her portrayal of Pandora, Gardner melds kittenish innocence with knowing manipulation, to drive one man to suicide & another to self-destruction, but still makes Pandora more than just a pretty face. Here she uses her voice, sometimes in a nothing more than a whisper, to express her longing & inability to understand love. Mason, while not having the animal magnetism of someone like Brando or Burton, visually expresses the longing Pandora enables. He knows more than he says, but as the story unfolds, it is clear that the 2 are fated to be together & when Pandora pledges to die for him her understanding of love is complete. Made while Gardner was at the height of her beauty & her fame, Pandora offers a glimpse into the actress she would become. Shot by Jack Cardiff, the genius cinematographer most often associated with Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger (Black Narcissus “47 & The Red Shoes ’48), Pandora shows everything that is possible with color photography.
Ava’s exotic beauty sometimes afforded producers the ability to cast her as a person of mixed race if it suited the plot of their film. Such is the case with #6 Bhowami Junction (’56), a film set in post-WWII India on the verge of independence. Gardner’s portrayal of Victoria Jones, an Anglo-Indian serving in the Indian military, offers more than just a vessel for men to admire. She is smart and brave, but fights against her second-class distinction as the daughter of an Indian mother & British railroad engineer father. Her confusion leads her first to embrace her mother’s heritage, but being a Hollywood film, her struggles lead to heartbreak & a change of heart. The film deftly (for a film made in the ‘50’s) mixes political intrigue, the imminent departure of the British & the hopes for India’s independent future wrapped around Victoria’s personal struggles. When the communist leader, hiding out amongst the Indian people, attempts to destroy a train that holds the future of India, there is an intersection of self-sacrifice & fantasy that helps decide Victoria’s fate. While director George Cukor (The Philadelphia Story ’39, My Fair Lady ’64) initially did research in India, the Indian government refused to cooperate with the production & what little was shot on location in Pakistan.
Ava’s animal attraction to Gable in Mogambo was legendary and certainly reflected itself on screen, but in #7 On the Beach (’59) her & Gregory Peck engaged in something more cerebral. Peck plays a submarine commander docked in Australia, the only location spared the destructive nuclear fallout from World War III, in Stanley Kramer’s post-apocalyptic drama. As nuclear fallout drifts ever closer to the last holdout for mankind, Peck pines for his missing & presumed dead family, but establishes a relationship with Ava, a melancholy drunk. Ava’s performance, as she moved into more mature roles, wonderfully reflects the realists view of impending doom, always pining for a brief moment of personal contact. At one point, Peck mistakenly calls Gardner’s Moira by his dead wife’s name, with Moira responding “I wouldn’t mind. I don’t like myself anyway.” It’s perfect Gardner, regret mixed with resignation. When Peck is called away one final time the sadness in Moira’s eyes brings the sad inevitability front & center. Gardner is definitely up to the challenge of the emotional moments, distilling her performance in these quite moments down to its simplest expression.
#8 Showboat (1951), on the other hand, is one of those head scratchers where I didn’t think I’d like it, but I did. Gardner, who sadly had her singing voice dubbed, plays a mulatto performer expelled from the Showboat when her mixed race is discovered. Her poignant return near the conclusion is nicely played, but Gardner’s part is in a supporting role, so I place this here dubiously, more for the sly knowing performance & sheer spectacle, than because its one of my favorites.
If ever a high concept light comedy was wed to the physical embodiment of its leading lady, it might be #9 One Touch of Venus (1948). Not much is asked of Gardner other than being stunningly beautiful and of course she excels, playing a statue of Venus come to life. Robert Walker is quite good as the window dresser whose kiss brings her to life & manages the chaos she brings about, but it is Gardner’s overwhelming beauty that steals the show. In a performance that I can’t think is similar to anything else in her career, Gardner does play clueless/naïve in a very compelling way. Trust me there is enough romantic switch-aroo in this one to last several movies, but in the end all is right in the world & back at Mount Olympus. The statue of Venus that sets the whole plot in motion was created by sculptor Joseph Nicolosi, with Gardner posing topless. Studio bosses, realizing they could never use the naked sculpture had Nicolosi give it a more Grecian appearance with a draped tunic. The finished product leaves little to the imagination.
Finally, there is #10 East Side, West Side (1949), made just one year after One Touch & just 3 years after he stunning debut in The Killers, where Gardner gets to expose her claws, play on her pure sexual magnetism & manipulate a reasonably strong & respectable man (James Mason) into adultery. That is able to turn the head of none other than Barbara Stanwyck’s husband speaks to just how far Gardner had climbed in those 3 short years! A quick back & forth between her & Mason, while she is lounging on a sofa, alluringly removing her earrings, sums up her character to at tee:
Mason/Brandon Bourne: “Aren’t you being a little obvious?”
Gardner/Isabel Lorrison: “I always was.”
She is relentless in pursuing what she wants & Gardner’s perfect blend of sensuality & flippant reading of the line reflects both her growth as an actress & Hollywood’s cool understanding of her impact on men, both on the screen and in the audience. Mason’s Bourne later tries to explain to his wife his helplessness in Gardner’s presence, but he may as well be explaining every male viewer, when he says, “I’m like a drunk. I know it’s not good for me, but I can’t stop myself.”
Overall, Mason’s Brandon Bourne speaks for most viewers, male & female, by indicating the intoxicating effect Gardner has on the screen. She was discovered in a picture in a photographer’s studio window when she was just a teenager because her beauty was clearly evident, but she endures as one of the most famous actresses of Hollywood’s golden age because she was able to become a solid actress with magnetic presence. She worked hard & she played hard, but the tragedies & extravagances of her personal life cannot overshadow some of the wonderful performances on this list. She will always be a once in a generation beauty, but the more time spent watching her films it’s easy to see how her legacy endures.
*Gardner idolized Davis, considering her a ‘real’ actress & upon seeing her rushed up to her and stammered how excited she was to meet her. Davis turned impassively, responded, “of course you are” & walked away. Server p. 413-414.
Ava Gardner: Love is Nothing. Lee Server. St. Martin’s Press. 2006.
Frank & Ava: In Love & War. John Brady. Thomas Dunne Books. 2015.
An Open Book. John Huston. Knopf. 1980.