I’m not an actress

Michael Newton

  • 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.’

Broadly speaking, Ava Gardner’s life is that of a small-town girl who became a Hollywood star, then a hard-drinking rabble-rouser, and finally a grand and rather sad old lady with a corgi and a maid living in one of those sadly grand houses in Knightsbridge. In between, she made some pictures. I read a large proportion of this book on a train, sitting opposite a woman immersed in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Gardner was never highly effective: her career happened in the lulls between drinking bouts or marital fights, or simply when she needed to escape from wherever she happened to be living. Her habits were all bad ones – getting drunk, smashing crockery, picking up handsome but ultimately unappealing men. In Hollywood, she transformed herself into a sassy and worldly-wise ‘broad’ (her own word), someone who would inquire of an English actor asking for a date: ‘Do you eat pussy?’ Around the same time she said to the Brazilian lyricist Vinicius de Moraes: ‘Yes I am very beautiful, but morally, I stink.’ She was being too hard on herself. She pursued her pleasures, and broke a few hearts, but most of the men she had sex with are still boasting about it half a century later. Sexually, there seems to have been little that she did not try. She also travelled; she drank; she hung out in brothels, danced with gypsies, took part in bull-fights, skinny-dipped, and got herself barred from most of the best hotels in Europe. Ava Gardner had a lot of fun.

She came from North Carolina, the last of six children in a poor farming family. Discovered when her photograph was spotted in a New York photo-store window (it had been taken by the store’s manager, Larry Tarr, who was the boyfriend of Ava’s older sister), she was screen-tested and brought to Hollywood, where she spent some years contracted to MGM, waiting for a break as a leading lady. She filled in the time by getting married. She had three husbands in quick succession, two of them before she had starred in a film, all of them famous. First was Mickey Rooney, the star of the Andy Hardy pictures. Rooney was effervescently manic, the kind of man who would attempt to bring the house down during a quiet lunch. As the marriage disintegrated, Howard Hughes appeared on the scene. Hughes saw her for what she was about to become: the commodifiable woman. His unwittingly arrogant statement of his intention to marry her – ‘I can do no better’ – sounded like a strap-line for a car ad. Gardner, however, was admirably resistant to the charms of money, not out of indifference, for she certainly knew the value of cash, but more out of a refusal to be sold at market.

Husband No. 2 was Artie Shaw, the band-leader. Rooney looked up to her; Hughes stalked her; Artie Shaw tried to educate her. Shaw was an insufferable intellectual. He oppressed her with psychoanalysis and Buddenbrooks, and made her pack a copy of The Origin of Species to take on honeymoon. It was as this marriage swiftly faded out that she made her first significant film, The Killers (1946). After Shaw came a period of pick-ups and cocktails before she fell for Frank Sinatra, then about to drop into a career low. In his way, Sinatra was just as appalling as Shaw or Hughes, faking suicide to get back at her, punching photographers, hanging out with the Mafia. Their arguments were the stuff of legend, but at first the rages seem to have been stormy prologues to an equally passionate making-up. Soon the fights were only fights, and soon after that they couldn’t live together at all.

She never remarried after the split with Sinatra. There were, however, countless lovers, from the guy who did the props to (perhaps) Fidel Castro. Though she had some disappointments with sex, in the main her erotic life seems to have been a dizzying round of pleasure. There’s no term for the female equivalent of ‘womanising’, but if there were, Gardner spent twenty years doing it. Her serial seductions were sometimes to do with sexual desire and sometimes to do with her fear of sleeping alone – some men were invited back merely to keep her company. Her biggest Hollywood affair post-Sinatra was with George C. Scott, the most ghastly of all her lovers.

Gardner had no private life. Her failed marriage to Sinatra inspired In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning, one of the great heartbreak records. Nelson Riddle said that Sinatra’s voice at this period was ‘like a cello . . . Ava taught him the hard way.’ Sinatra transformed his ‘private life’ and, more important, the publicity about it, back into public art. Gardner would do the same; in fact this process would be the key to her career. Her affair with Sinatra, who was married when they met, turned her briefly into a public hate figure, before perceptions of her changed following her performance as a sad, deserted woman in Show Boat (1951). Both beautiful and tortured, she became someone the audience could love. The scripts of her films began to make reference to a back catalogue of affairs and to her increasing fame as a drunk.

At first, Hollywood hadn’t known what to do with her. She waited for something to happen. She was groomed, she was photographed, she avoided being coerced onto the casting couch. She was put in a number of low-budget quickies, such as Ghosts on the Loose, a forerunner of Scooby Doo, but without the wit and sophistication. And then came The Killers. It’s a dreary and portentous film, a pseudo-tough version of Citizen Kane, and Gardner was not at her best as a femme fatale. Barbara Stanwyck could play the chilling tramp, and Veronica Lake was a charming blank; Gardner just looks like a nice kid from North Carolina who’s got herself in trouble. She may in later life have been scary and fiery company, but she was just essentially too nice, and The Killers couldn’t avoid revealing it. Yet in one extraordinary moment she redeems the entire film. The scene begins like a thousand others. The noble hero at last has the femme fatale on the ropes. She’s sitting in the back of a car with Edmond O’Brien. He’s playing that standard figure in mid-1940s noir, the insurance detective. She seems to be cornered, and to know it. ‘Where are we going?’ she asks. ‘The Green Cat on Sultan Street,’ he says. Then she is alone on the screen. She glances forward and then to the side, pissed off and sulky. ‘I thought you didn’t like The Green Cat?’ Her voice is somehow too high, a little trembly and bloodless. Her face is very pale below her dark hat and dark hair. But she’s playing tough too. Only her eyes drop a little as she talks to him. And then the camera focuses on O’Brien, giving his hard-boiled reply, ‘Only when I’m not expected,’ and then glancing across at her. And here the moment comes. Again she is suddenly alone on screen. She makes no answer, looks at him, looks forward, and then makes a barely perceptible shrug, or not even a shrug, more a faint loosening of the body, something between acquiescence and boredom with her own act, taking the measure of the moment and stepping outside it; not a vamp, but a woman with a history, a life before the film. And then she looks out of the car window, out beyond the frame with casual interest, as though what’s going on out there were more interesting to her than the rigmarole in the car. Robert Siodmak, the director, told her what to do in minute detail, forcing her to play down her performance. Whoever deserves the credit, the result is a little piece of perfection, a rare instance of downbeat, off-guard grace.

Gardner was never so good again, or at least not in this way. From now on, her strength would emerge in the process of just being herself on screen. Her repeated insistence that she wasn’t an actress wasn’t false modesty. When she came to play Pandora she read the description of her character – ‘Complex, moody, restless with the discontent of a romantic soul which has not yet found the true object of her desires’ – and said, according to Server: ‘It is almost me.’ Again, when she read the script of The Barefoot Contessa, she told Joseph Mankiewicz: ‘I’m not an actress, but I think I understand this girl. She’s a lot like me.’ Gardner’s increasing identification with her screen performances is not a surprise. This was how the star factory worked. They called Gardner the ‘Hollywood Cinderella’, but nearly every 1950s female Hollywood star was that, the medium itself providing the transformation that turned a Norma-Jean into a Marilyn. The films would be not only about her, but about her transformation by film.

Audrey Hepburn’s gamine looks were supposed to make her invisible: it was for Hollywood to uncover her unusual beauty; hence the revelations of Sabrina or Funny Face. With Ava Gardner, it wasn’t her extraordinary attractiveness that was being revealed – her attractiveness was obvious to everyone – but a spirit in her, something hidden behind the beauty, something natural it would require a lot of artifice to bring out. The studio set out to remake her as they set out to remake everyone in those days. Her voice was changed and she was instructed how to move, all in an attempt to capture a ‘quality’ that they saw she had anyway. Film would draw out a hidden essence, rendering that essence as surface: the shiny, beautiful, glow of Technicolor.

In the move from Grabtown, North Carolina to Hollywood, Gardner was driven to become something new, a modern creature, freed from the limits that life otherwise might have held for her. She had to play many roles to get by, the most notable one being the child of nature constrained by the brutality of civilisation. In reality she came to exemplify a certain kind of American modernity: the Hemingwayesque, a life of fast cars, fast planes, bourbon, bull fights and expatriation, rooted in an antique American image – a new direction for old frontier stock. She even played three Hemingway heroines, including the love interest in the dire Snows of Kilimanjaro.

Some of the best directors she worked with – Albert Lewin, George Cukor, John Huston – tried to locate what they felt was the private, natural quality in her so as to catch it on film. But Gardner, who had been obviously shy when she was young, was still secretly shy when older, and even oddly shy before the camera. As a result, although she always looked pretty, at first she was a wooden performer. She became an actor when she found a way of presenting herself on screen, the self she presented being in two senses a Hollywood creation: both the kind of person the milieu permitted, and also the package sold to the world through her relationship to the press. The quality those directors found was not the natural woman from Grabtown, but a product of the industry.

Gardner conformed with this process, even as she seemed to rebel against it. Her rebellions were also enacted on screen: the bad behaviour, the drinking, the player’s refusal to play. The Cinderella myth has to do with the transformation of ordinariness. What was special about Hollywood stars was that they could be perfectly ordinary and untouchable princesses all at once. For the public, the women in those 1950s films existed in a discrepancy between two models of knowledge and intimacy, both manufactured. There was the intimacy of film itself, the close scrutiny and imaginative identification with the star. And then there was the knowledge provided by the press, the gossip magazines, the newspaper photographs. Server suggests that Gardner was the model for Anita Ekberg’s character in La Dolce Vita, which explains everything about who she had become in the eyes of the public and the paparazzi. Many of the fake elements that made up Gardner’s public persona were there: Ekberg’s enactment of a wild child given over to pleasure, adored by men, but unattainable by them, strongly sexual, frustratingly innocent, pursued by cameras, and always behaving as though one were there watching her. Only Gardner’s saving qualities, her capacity for affection and her genuine warmth, were lacking.

The Barefoot Contessa brilliantly portrays the process of Gardner’s immersion in Hollywood. Above all, it exposes one essential part of the Gardner myth, present with every film star but uniquely strong in her case. The film pays tribute to the impressively egalitarian nature of Gardner’s sexual desire. Its male stars cannot have sex with her: they are father figures like Bogart, weird like Warren Stevens, or impotent like Rossano Brazzi. On the other hand, Gardner’s character is free to have sex with many anonymous and unseen ordinary men, gypsies, servants, men glimpsed infrequently or kept off screen altogether. She pays for this freedom with her life. The film responds to the audience’s basic desire that the star can still be someone whom anyone in the audience might possess. Yet she also falls victim to the film’s and the audience’s envious moralism, murdered by her stupidly jealous husband. Gardner’s character is constrained between desire and judgment, precisely the ground she occupied in her media life.

In retrospect her career was not a bad one. She outlasted some other promising femmes fatales, such as Rita Hayworth or Jane Greer, whose movie work was effectively over by the early 1950s. In the end, her staying power was her strength. When nearly everyone of her generation was dead, retired or in TV, she produced what may be her best ever performance, in John Huston’s adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s The Night of the Iguana (1964). A couple of years later, she almost played Mrs Robinson in The Graduate, a perfect piece of casting sabotaged by Gardner’s self-doubt and reluctance to strip. She was in many bad or dull films, though she also made some good ones, notably Pandora, Mogambo (1953), The Barefoot Contessa, Bhowani Junction (1956) and The Night of the Iguana. Yet she was never in a truly great film and her performances somehow fail to add up to an oeuvre.

Gardner spent her last years walking her dog in London. In the 1960s, sometimes people would ask her: ‘Aren’t you Ava Gardner?’ And she would say: ‘No, I just look like her.’ She would watch her old movies on TV. Once after seeing Bhowani Junction, she rang Stewart Granger to ask him: ‘Were we really that beautiful, honey?’ Even though the abiding impression is of a rather sad life emptied out by fun, one gets the sense from this book that Gardner was an extremely likeable person. She was coarse, though self-deprecating; energetic in the pursuit of pleasure, indolent otherwise; hot-tempered, easily bored and very good company.