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.’

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