I’m not an actress
- Ava Gardner by Lee Server
Bloomsbury, 551 pp, £20.00, April 2006, ISBN 0 7475 6547 3
One day Ava Gardner dropped by the studio publicity department at MGM. She wanted to take a look at all those cheesecake photos they were always taking of her: throwing a beach-ball; licking an ice-cream cone. A drawer full of images was spread out before her. After a little while, according to Lee Server’s new biography, she ‘kind of shrugged, and she said: “Jeez . . . From the way people went on so, I thought I was better-looking than that.”’ There’s an essay to be written on the disadvantages of physical superiority, and Ava Gardner would make its perfect test case. Her beauty distracted others; it was an invitation, a property that never seemed her own possession. It might be lost through an accident. It made men act crazily. It made people forgive her. It was something that age would take and that she could ruin, with all those late nights, with all that drink. Above all, it made her lonely. She was not so much herself as the sum total of other people’s reactions to her. She was reduced to an object, a thing of pure physicality.
Al Altman, who made her screen-test, had seen enough starlets to know that a really beautiful woman was rare indeed, in fact a ‘freak’. The actor Howard Duff described her as the ‘most beautiful thing he had ever seen’. To others, she was ‘an extraordinary creature’, ‘the Taj Mahal of beauty’. Or she ‘was like an animal, Ava. The sex thing.’ When Howard Hughes suggested that after her three previous marriages, he ought really to have a turn, she replied: ‘You make it sound like I’m a pony ride at the county fair.’ The posters for The Barefoot Contessa (1954) advertised her as ‘The World’s Most Beautiful Animal’, and in the film itself Marius Goring declares: ‘You are not a woman . . . I only see that you have the body of an animal. A dead animal.’
She was the most beautiful girl at Rock Ridge High, and it was her looks that took her to Hollywood. She was famous as a beauty before she was famous as an actress. Her best films both celebrate her appearance and respond to it as a problem, almost a fate. They were always making icons of her: all those publicity stills and bathing-beauty snaps, a portrait by Man Ray for Pandora (1951), the ridiculously overblown statue for the graveside scene in The Barefoot Contessa (it ended up in Frank Sinatra’s garden until one of his later wives made him throw it out).
Even though her appetites were decidedly her own and even though she was happy to exploit the effect of her own fame and glamour, Gardner was unable to rise above Hollywood’s objectification of her. Even in Lee Server’s sympathetic book, her body isn’t quite her own but something between an exhibit in a freak show and a commodity of pure desire. He lists her measurements (thighs: 19 inches; calves: 13); he describes the problems caused on set by her erect nipples and tells us about the Mexican playboy trying to find a place on her body that had never been kissed (‘And I got to the soles of her feet and I said: “I found it!”’). More unusually, Server shares with us Mickey Rooney’s expressive admiration for Ava’s ‘cunt’, which apparently had the strength and mobility of a mouth. But Gardner’s inner life recedes, leaving us all too often with anecdotes and mere physical description. In Server’s favour, he applies the same treatment to some of the male protagonists. Soon after his first entrance, we are told that, when naked, Frank Sinatra resembled a tuning fork, a metaphor which left me none the wiser until things are more graphically spelled out a little later. A reporter once asked Gardner what she saw in Sinatra, a ‘hundred-and-nineteen-pound has-been’. Ava blandly replied: ‘Well, I’ll tell you – nineteen pounds is cock.’
Vol. 28 No. 20 · 19 October 2006
Michael Newton’s review of Lee Server’s biography of Ava Gardner brought to mind an episode Artie Shaw spoke about in recordings I made with him during the late 1980s, on which I later based a play called Artie Shaw Talking (LRB, 7 September). In Shaw’s words:
‘Johnny Hyde was Ava’s agent, and I told him I didn’t think she was being treated properly at Metro. They’d given her a contract when she divorced Mickey Rooney, who was their biggest star, but she and her sister Bappie, who took care of her business, were very naive and they accepted one of those seven-year contracts with all the options on the studio’s side. She was making about $125 a week.
‘Bappie was a baby name for Beatrice, I think. She was much older than Ava, a sort of surrogate mother. She manoeuvered her into the marriage with Mickey, and she tried to get her married to Howard Hughes. I found out later Ava had been living in a house Hughes was paying for when I met her.
‘At 5.30 one morning after we were married she got her usual wake-up call. She had to be at the studio at six for make-up. We’d been up till about midnight.
‘“Oh my God,” she said. “I’ll have bags under my eyes all day.”
‘“Don’t go in,” I said. “You’re not doing anything over there.”
‘“What do you mean?”
‘“They put you in a bathing suit and give you a beach ball and take you down to the beach and take a picture and put a caption on it: ‘Ava Gardner, starlet, featured in a forthcoming Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film.’ You’re not doing anything. You’re a stooge.”
‘“Well, what am I supposed to do?”
‘“Stay in bed,” I said.
‘“I can’t,” she said. This is the girl who said she didn’t want to be in movies, who’d hang up the phone after talking to some producer and say: “Oh, for Christ’s sake!”
‘“What’re they going to do?” I said. “I’ll give you the hundred and twenty-five a week. I give you more than that now – what is this bullshit?”
‘“Really?” she said.
‘“Yeah, stay in bed.”
‘I picked up the phone and said: “OK, we got the call. Bye.” It was a studio call.
‘Then I lay there waiting. Sure enough, in a little while the phone rang, a casting call.
‘“Where’s our little girl?”
‘“She’s very sleepy,” I said. “She’s beat and she’s not coming in today.”
‘“What? What’s the matter? Is she sick?”
‘“No,” I said. “That’s all you know.”
‘I knew it was going to go up the ladder from there. The next call’s from Billy Grady in casting. “Artie, what happened?”
‘“Nothing,” I said. “She’s tired, man. You’re going to take her out to the beach and take pictures of her against a rock? Who cares.”
‘“Artie, what’s going on?”
‘“Nothing, Billy. That’s all.”
‘I knew it was going to go up from there. Next call probably from Joe Cohen, and on up to Eddie Mannix, then Benny Thaw, and finally the head man himself, L.B. [Mayer]. It didn’t get to him. I stopped at Benny Thaw, who was one of the upper crust.
‘“What’s going on, Artie? You know this is very serious.”
‘“What’s serious? A hundred a week? That’s not serious. That’s pin money.”
‘“What am I going to say?”
‘Now Johnny Hyde calls up. It’s rebellion in the ranks, right?
‘“Artie, what’s happening?”
‘“I think this is stupid. Ava is very tired – she hasn’t slept – and she’s not doing a goddam thing at Metro.”
‘“Artie, you know how this works. They’ll either pick up her option or they won’t.”
‘“I don’t give a goddam.”
‘“They’re going to put her on suspension.”
‘“Fine, we’ll do without the hundred and twenty-five. I’ll give her a cheque every week and she’ll go shopping. She’s going to spend more than that anyway, so what are we talking about?”
‘He laughed. “You’re right, but what do you want me to tell them?”
‘“Tell ’em that.”
‘In a little while he called again. “L.B. would like to meet with you.”
‘“Why me? Why doesn’t he meet with you?”
‘“You’re the one that’s running this rebellion. Come in and we’ll have a meeting.” This was before people “took” meetings.
‘We went to a meeting. Johnny and I; and L.B., the rajah, and his henchmen. He never had a meeting alone. He had to have witnesses to say, “He never said that,” in case anybody tried to sue him. He would have these guys there, Eddie Mannix, Benny Thaw, Arthur Freed.
‘He had this big white desk that he played like an organ. Buttons. If he pressed all the buttons, the whole studio would come dashing in. The whole joint would blow up. This is where he used to cry “ball-bearing tears”, as Judy Garland put it, when he pleaded with some star to behave right. “Don’t go out with that guy, sweetheart. Honey, please, I love you like a father.” And he’d cry. “He’ll do you harm; he’ll fuck you. You don’t want that.”
‘He ran a harem.
‘“How are you, Artie?” he said.
‘“Fine, L.B.,” I said, “nice to see you.”
‘I was the MGM nemesis. As Natalie Wood said once at the Academy Awards, “Those days when everybody was marrying Artie Shaw …”
‘“What’s going on?” he said.
‘“Nothing, L.B.,” I said. “It’s kind of silly. It isn’t really worthy of your attention. Ava’s getting $125 a week, and I don’t want her doing these stupid things she does. You’re treating her as bait to get you some press. She’s my wife. I’d rather give her the money to stay home and do what she wants.”
‘“What are you suggesting?” he said.
‘“Nothing. It’s your studio.”
‘“Are you asking us to redo her contract?”
‘“No, I’m not. But if you expect her to come to work you’ll have to make it serious.”
‘“What do you have in mind?”
‘“I don’t know. What would you have to pay her as a salary so you’d respect her?”
‘“A thousand?” he said.
‘“Would you really respect her at a thousand dollars, L.B.?” Gable was then getting around five.
‘“Well, fifteen. At 1500 I’d have to have some respect. At the end of 40 weeks that’s $60,000. We don’t throw that kind of money around. The kind of money she’s getting now, you’re right, it’s an errand boy.”
‘“At $1500 a week you would take her seriously enough to put her into something that makes sense? A movie?”
‘“Yes. I think so,” he said.
‘“Johnny?” I turned to him.
‘“I think that would be a fair figure, Artie,” he said.
‘So I said OK and they redrew the contract. That was that.
‘I came home and told Ava she had a deal as a $1500-a-week actress.
‘They put her into a movie called Whistle Stop with George Raft, who was a big star at that time. She was the co-star. Metro lent her to an independent producer for that movie. They got $60,000 for her, so that took care of her salary for the year.
‘Then she was in The Killers. They lent her to Warner’s. John Huston wrote the script under the name Tony Villiers. Bob Siodmak was the director. He did a hell of a job and that made her.’
Vol. 28 No. 23 · 30 November 2006
Aram Saroyan details Artie Shaw’s role in the starry rise of Ava Gardne (Letters, 19 October). For most ordinary chaps, it’s not his band nor his marriage to Ava Gardner, lovely though she was, that is the principal fascination, but his marrying so many beautiful women. P.G. Wodehouse, in The Mating Season, has movie star Cora (Corky) Pirbright give the following speech, referring to one of her fan’s in-depth knowledge of the 1940s Hollywood scene:
She even knows how many times Artie Shaw has been married which I’ll bet he couldn’t tell you himself. She asked if I had ever married Artie Shaw, and when I said No, seemed to think I was pulling her leg or must have done it without noticing. I tried to explain that when a girl goes to Hollywood she doesn’t have to marry Artie Shaw, it’s optional, but I don’t think I convinced her.