For two decades, Ava Gardner was one of the most glamorous and popular Hollywood stars. Gardner had great difficulties coping with fame, and her so-called private life, constantly on display in newspapers and magazines, was a mess: three tumultuous marriages to celebrities, numerous affairs, and a serious drinking problem, all overshadowing her work on the screen. Lee Server’s Ava Gardner: “Love Is Nothing” tries to strike a balance between her film career and her tumultuous off-camera life.
Ava Lavinia Gardner was born December 24, 1922, in Johnston County, North Carolina. After her father, Jonas Gardner’s, farm began to fail, her mother, Molly Gardner, became the cook and housekeeper at a series of boardinghouses in North Carolina and Virginia. Following high school, Gardner went to New York to stay with her eldest sister, Beatrice, known as Bappie, then living with photographer Larry Tarr.
In the spring of 1941, a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer employee saw a photograph of Ava taken by Tarr. Because of her striking looks and despite her thick southern accent, MGM signed Gardner to a seven-year contract, and Bappie accompanied her to Hollywood. Studio portraits revealed Gardner as “enticing, mysterious, and erotic, a dark dream of succulent desirability.” Yet MGM already had one sex symbol, Lana Turner, and did not know what to do with another. Server portrays MGM boss Louis B. Mayer as a hypocrite who extolled family values in his studio’s films while condoning the rampaging immorality of his underlings.
Gardner married Mickey Rooney, MGM’s biggest star, only because Bappie, her mother, and her friends said she should. A virgin at the time of the 1942 wedding, she knew little about men or sex but soon became an expert. While Rooney was fun to be with, he was also a selfish, domineering philanderer, and the couple divorced the following year.
Gardner appeared in four short films and had small, often uncredited, roles in twenty-one features during this early period. She never considered herself as having any talent beyond her looks and “saw acting as an embarrassing ordeal.” This insecurity, as well as her failed first marriage, contributed to the drinking problem that would dominate her life for the next forty years.
Gardner met Howard Hughes in 1943, and the eccentric businessman, aviator, and filmmaker continued to pursue her for many years, often asking her to marry him although he was already engaged to someone else. She liked Hughes but thought he was likely to be sexually incompatible with her, was offended by his assuming he could buy her affections, and was disturbed by his spying on her.
Always a big fan of popular music, Gardner was thrilled to meet one of her favorites, Artie Shaw, the jazz clarinetist, bandleader, and composer. In 1945, Shaw made her the fifth of his eight wives. Gardner’s friend and sometimes rival Lana Turner was number three. Shaw considered himself an intellectual and forced Gardner to read seriously for the first time. He was also aloof, condescending, and less interested in sex after they were married. Her drinking increased, and they divorced in 1946.
While married to Shaw, Gardner finally got the breaks she had been looking for. MGM loaned her to United Artists for the low-budget melodrama Whistle Stop (1945). Although this film had little impact, producer Mark Hellinger saw it and cast Gardner in Universal’s The Killers (1946) opposite newcomer Burt Lancaster. The Killers expanded Ernest Hemingway’s short story “The Killers” (1927) into one of the major films noir of the postwar period. Hellinger chose Gardner because he believed she “could convince audiences a man would steal, go to prison, die for her.” The role would be the template for the rest of Gardner’s career: sexy, seductive temptresses who lead men astray.
Although The Killers had made her a star, MGM still did not know what to do with her, assigning her to a supporting role in The Hucksters (1947). Only after she had returned to Universal for leads in Singapore (1947) and One Touch of Venus (1948) did the Mayer factory give her leading roles. Of these films, however, only the minor noir classic The Bribe (1948) has much to offer. Like Lauren Bacall, Jane Greer, Lizabeth Scott, and Gene Tierney, Gardner had the makings of an indelible noir star, and her sultry talents would have been better served at Twentieth Century-Fox or Warner Bros. than at the comparatively staid MGM.
(The entire section is 1875 words.)