Ava Gardner

Annie Lee | Jan 16, 2024

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Ava Gardner, born December 24, 1922 in Grabtown, North Carolina and died January 25, 1990 in London, is an American actress.

Hired by contract with MGM studios in 1941, she appeared mainly in small roles until she attracted attention in the film The Killers (1946), alongside Burt Lancaster. Subsequently, she received a nomination for the Oscar for Best Actress for her role in the film Mogambo (1953).

Archetype of the femme fatale in cinema, Ava Gardner was nicknamed "the most beautiful animal in the world". She was ranked by the American Film Institute at number 25 in AFI's 100 Years... 100 Stars, the list of the greatest female stars of American cinema.

Youth and beginnings

Ava Lavinia Gardner was born on Christmas Eve 1922. She was the youngest of seven children born to Mary Elizabeth Baker and Jonas Bailey Gardner, tobacco farmers. Her father died when she was sixteen. She attended Atlantic City Christian College in Wilson, North Carolina and took courses in shorthand typing.

During a poor and studious youth in Grabtown, Brogden, Newport News and Wilson, Ava Gardner made frequent trips to New York City to stay with her older sister Beatrice, nicknamed Bappie, who was married to a professional photographer, Larry Tarr.

Impressed by the beauty of the then 18-year-old girl, Tarr took hundreds of photos of her and displayed them in the windows of his photo studio.

It is in these windows that Barney Duhan, an employee of MGM notices them, and he suggests to Larry to send them to the MGM film studio. Duhan said: "I was on my way to a party, I was late, and I thought it was really ugly, with my looks and my income, not to have a date. That's when I saw this picture, and I exclaimed out loud, maybe I could get her phone number?"

Marvin Schenck, who is in charge of the young talents of MGM, discovers these photos, contacts her and makes her pass a test. In 1941, she signed a seven-year contract with MGM for fifty dollars a week and left, accompanied by her sister Bappie, for Hollywood.

Handicapped by a terrible southern accent, she had to make do with a series of pin-up pictures and small roles in minor films, where she learned her trade. The young woman was not even credited as an actress in the 14 films in which she appeared from 1942 to 1943. Her name appears for the first time in the credits of Three Men in White in 1944.

She took diction classes to place her voice, and get rid of the North Carolina accent, as well as acting classes. The director Joseph L. Mankiewicz will refer to it in his film The Barefoot Countess, where he makes the actor Humphrey Bogart say that he does not want any diction teacher by his side.

First loves

During this period, Ava Gardner meets on the MGM sets, Mickey Rooney, a young veteran actor of MGM and popular actor of the Andy Hardy series. The box-office champion made her discover the whole of Hollywood and does not leave her anymore.

She temporarily comes out of the shadows, when she marries Mickey Rooney, with the consent of Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM. The wedding took place, organized simply by the studio, on January 10, 1942 in Ballard. The marriage will last sixteen months.

"While people have wondered a lot about whether being married to Mickey helped me land my first round of extras, I have to tell you that being Mrs. Rooney in the city did nothing to propel me into the limelight. Mickey never tried to make me an actress, he never taught me anything, he never got me a part.

- Ava Gardner, Ava, Memoirs, 1990

She then met the multi-billionaire Howard Hughes, who courted her. He will pursue her with his assiduity for many years, even going so far as to spy on her by having her followed by his henchmen and bugged. She did not care about these "spinning" and always refused his advances and marriage proposals, while maintaining his friendship.

After some time, she made a second marriage with the musician Artie Shaw in 1945, but the marriage was another failure, and they divorced a year later. Although they left on good terms, this marriage hurt the actress a lot, because of the criticism and cynicism of Shaw. He had even said to her one day: "Ava, you are so beautiful but you are dumb as a goose."


Films without much interest follow one another: Ava Gardner appears, uncredited, in more than fifteen films between 1941 and 1943, sometimes directed by King Vidor, Fred Zinnemann, Jules Dassin, George Sidney, Douglas Sirk, with as female stars Myrna Loy, Hedy Lamarr, Lucille Ball, but also the debutantes June Allyson and Gloria DeHaven.

MGM finally gave her a chance in 1946, starting with Tragic Appointment, where she played George Raft in her first major role, but it is especially in The Killers, that the butterfly comes out of its chrysalis. Her character of femme fatale is created with this film noir by Robert Siodmak, inspired by a short story by Ernest Hemingway, where she plays the vamp who fools Burt Lancaster (for the first time on screen). It is in this role that she receives for the first time the rave reviews from the critics.

"Many people have told me afterwards that my image and my career as a star were shaped in The Killers, where I established myself as a siren fatale with undulating hips and vertiginous cleavage, capable of setting the world on fire by leaning against a piano."

- Ava Gardner, Ava, Memoirs, 1990.

Her career is still struggling to get off the ground. However, very quickly, her name becomes synonymous with sex appeal: no matter if she plays badly or not, she has only to appear, that's enough: "In a mediocre film or in other better ones but which did not bother to integrate it into the plot and to flesh out its character, she royally asserted her presence.

MGM took advantage of her success, while "lending" her to other film companies. The studio uses the torrid side of the actress, she plays with the idol of his youth, Clark Gable who insisted on having her as a partner in Merchants of Illusions. For Universal Pictures, she will play Venus, the goddess of love, in A Whim of Venus where the censor covers the naked statue, representing her with a modest drape. Then followed a few minor films directed by John Brahm, Jack Conway, Robert Siodmak, Mervyn LeRoy (who had revealed Lana Turner), where she rubs shoulders with Robert Taylor, Charles Laughton, Gregory Peck, James Mason, Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Mitchum ...

At the end of the forties, Howard Hughes is still among the suitors of Ava Gardner. She also has affairs with Howard Duff or Robert Taylor. It was at this time that she fell in love with Frank Sinatra, then married to his first wife, Nancy. The actor-singer at the bottom of the wave and the rising star will experience a tumultuous and eventful passion, which will defray the tabloid press for years. Mutually eaten up by jealousy, they will live a relationship punctuated by violent disputes. When their affair broke out in broad daylight, the press was unleashed, Ava Gardner was described as a homewrecker, Catholic priests sent accusatory letters, the League for the Defense of Decency threatened to boycott the films of the actress. But Nancy Sinatra eventually divorced and the two lovers married on November 7, 1951.

Major roles

After two years of absence comes the time of great roles for Ava Gardner. A film will propel her to the top and the myth of this Venus descended to earth will meet another legend: that of the Dutchman flying on his Ghost Ship in the symbolic film of Albert Lewin Pandora (1951). The actress is definitively consecrated by this dreamy melodrama, where she is filmed for the first time in color; she demonstrates her extraordinary presence on the screen and her imperial beauty illuminates this eternal myth. It was during the shooting of this film that she discovered Europe for the first time, and particularly two countries that would mark her career and her private life forever: England and Spain. Fascinated by Spain from the start, she settled there for several years from December 1955.

The actress is now on a roll and MGM releases photos of her at a rate of three thousand per week. George Sidney asked her to play the beautiful role of Julie Laverne, originally intended for Judy Garland, in the musical film Show Boat. In this film, the actress is dubbed when her character sings Can't Help Loving that Man. It is Annette Warren who is chosen for the dubbing. Ava Gardner had insisted on singing herself, but MGM replied: "Listen, Ava, you can not sing and you are with professional singers. Her next film, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, brought her international fame. Ideal heroine of the novels of Hemingway, whom she knew at the time of The Killers and who became his friend later, the young woman made three adaptations from the works of this author: The Killers, The Snows of Kilimanjaro and The Sun also rises.

In 1951, she made three films, which were all huge successes. First of all, a chivalrous adventure film, The Knights of the Round Table, shot in London with Robert Taylor, the first MGM film in CinemaScope. The same year, she found Robert Taylor in a western, Vaquero. Finally, she played in Mogambo, a remake of The Beauty of Saigon (where she took over the role of Jean Harlow), accompanied by Clark Gable, the latter being already present in the first version of 1932. Directed by John Ford, this big budget film, shot in Africa in natural settings, gives the actress greater credibility in Hollywood. On this occasion, she was nominated for an Oscar, her first and only nomination.

However, the shooting is difficult for her, because she undergoes two abortions. The first, during the shooting: "I could not have a baby in these conditions. My pregnancy began to be visible well before the end of the shooting, so I had to inform John Ford before anything else. I felt that it was not the right time to have a child. Once I had made this decision, the most painful decision I have ever had to make in my life, I went to my director. John Ford did everything he could to dissuade me. The second one, at the very end of the shooting, and this time Frank Sinatra knew about it and was very saddened ("As long as I live, I won't forget waking up after the operation and seeing Frank sitting at my bedside, his eyes full of tears. But I think I did the right thing.

Ava Gardner explained in her 1990 memoirs the reasons that led her to have an abortion: "I had very strict principles about bringing a child into the world. I thought that if one was not determined to devote most of one's time to it during the early years, it was unfair to the baby. A child who is not wanted - and children always feel this - will be disabled for life. Not to mention all the penalties MGM had for stars who made babies. If I had a child, my salary would be cut. So how would I make a living? Frank was completely broke, and it was likely to be like that (or so I thought) for a while." She adds, "Frank and I were going to be apart for months more. And that brought back my old qualms about having a child when you don't have a healthy, stable lifestyle in which to raise it. Frank and I didn't have that. We didn't even have the opportunity to live together, like all married couples. Frankie would come home at the stroke of four in the morning after a concert or a night out at a nightclub. I had to leave the house at 6:30 in the morning, if not earlier, to get to the studio on time. Not exactly what you'd call a family life.

Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the director with two Oscars, asked her, despite the reluctance of MGM, to play Maria Vargas in The Barefoot Countess. As soon as the rumors of production, the biggest stars are lined up to play this character, whose life is strangely similar to that of Rita Hayworth (who will refuse to play it), Elizabeth Taylor, Jennifer Jones, Linda Darnell, Yvonne De Carlo, Joan Collins, among others, are on the list, but Mankiewicz wants only Ava Gardner and MGM ends up "loaning" her for this film, but at a price.

The Barefoot Countess is also the story of Ava Gardner: the poor origins, the brilliant rise, the temperament, the detachment from her profession as an actress, as well as the illusions and disillusionment with happiness. Maria Vargas will say "I think I am beautiful, but I do not want to be a star. If I could learn to act, would you help me become a good actress? This masterpiece remains the pinnacle of his career.

Exile in Europe

After several flashy affairs with second-rate actors, such as Mario Cabré, Ava Gardner left the United States in 1954 and moved to Spain to La Moraleja (en) near the center of Madrid, where she had a romance with Luis Miguel Dominguín, a famous bullfighter, whom she met in August 1953, during a party in Madrid. The star had a more peaceful love relationship with him than the one she shared with Sinatra. It was at this time that the couple Gardner-Sinatra separated for three years, they will end up divorcing in July 1957. They will keep throughout their lives a relationship of deep friendship. Always prioritizing her love life to the detriment of her career ("When I'm in love or I live an adventure, I stop working," she said), MGM will inflict a suspension of contract, for refusing the role of Ruth Etting in The Traps of Passion (role that will be held by Doris Day).

Despite her exile, the actress still makes some beautiful films. After two years of interruption, she made her return under the direction of George Cukor in The Crossroads, a super production with two years of preparations and thousands of extras, a sulphurous subject on the independence of India and the Anglo-Indian racial problem. Darryl F. Zanuck solicited her for The Sun Also Rises (1957), under the advice of Hemingway. The film takes place in Spain, as well as the following The Naked Maja biography of the painter Francisco de Goya and his muse the Duchess of Alba, his last film under contract with MGM.

Now an independent actress, she was entrusted by Stanley Kramer with the magnificent twilight role of Moira Davidson in The Last Shore.

In the early 1960s, she had an affair with Prince Alfonso of Hohenlohe-Langenbourg.

One of her best performances was in John Huston's Night of the Iguana. She expressed her vitality and her exceptional sensuality in this adaptation of a play by Tennessee Williams. She will still make some beautiful appearances, especially in the role of Lily Langtry, sublimated icon of Judge Roy Bean in Judge and Outlaw, where she meets again for the third time the director John Huston, who gives her this ultimate tribute.

She will again have an eventful affair with the actor George C. Scott who, under the influence of alcohol, becomes violent. Their relationship will be short-lived. She explains in her memoirs in 1990: "We both drank a lot, but I was generally happy and accommodating with alcohol. George, when he was drunk, could go berserk in a quite terrifying way".

The Crossroads, which offers her a particularly rich role, had already been a failure. In The Little Hut, where she meets Stewart Granger, her plastic is particularly highlighted. The Purple Angel, where she seduces the young Dirk Bogarde, is massacred in the editing, as well as the performance of Gardner - according to his words. The film The 55 Days of Peking, directed by Nicholas Ray, alongside Charlton Heston, received a lukewarm reception, and other expensive blockbusters such as the peplum The Bible by John Huston, where she plays Sarah and George C. Scott Abraham, or the adaptation of Maurice Maeterlinck, The Blue Bird, directed by George Cukor (where Gardner embodies the lust and Elizabeth Taylor maternity), resounding failures, contribute to the decline of his career.

She moved permanently to London in 1968. At the same time, the youthful Catherine Deneuve, succeeding Danielle Darrieux, played the lead role in Mayerling, in which Gardner played an aging Empress Elisabeth (Sissi).

The actress reunited with Burt Lancaster in the political drama Seven Days in May by John Frankenheimer and Charlton Heston in the disaster film Earthquake. She plays a wicked witch in Tam Lin, directed by actor Roddy McDowall and, in the thriller Cassandra's Bridge, she plays a woman who pays a man (played by Martin Sheen) for his sexual services. Other films (Priest of Love by Christopher Miles) go unnoticed.

In 1985 and 1986, driven, according to her own words, by financial needs, she works for television: in the peplum series A.D. (for Anno Domini), she plays the formidable Agrippina and meets her former lover Howard Duff in a few episodes of the soap West Coast, in The Fires of Summer after William Faulkner (Don Johnson succeeded Paul Newman), in Harem, where she plays the first wife of the Sultan of Turkey (played by Omar Sharif, who had played alongside her the role of Archduke Rudolf in Mayerling).

Ava Gardner fell ill in 1986 and died of pneumonia at her home in London, in the Westminster district, on January 25, 1990 at the age of 67 years. She is buried in Smithfield (North Carolina), at Sunset Memorial Park, near her parents and siblings.


"Having your birthday and Christmas fall on practically the same day when you're a kid, I'll let you imagine. It's like getting only one gift instead of the two you're entitled to. Because I knew perfectly well that I deserved two gifts and not one. And I was not at the end of the bad surprises, since I had to learn the existence of this other person, Jesus Christ, with his birthday that most people confused with mine. I took it very, very badly. And it took me a long time to forgive the Lord.

- Ava Gardner, Ava, Memoirs, 1990, page 7.

"When people ask me how I ended up as a film actress, I can't help but smile. Because the truth is, if my sister Bappie hadn't, on a sudden inspiration, decided to push open the door of Tarr's Photo Studio on the corner of Sixty-third Street in New York City, I probably would have ended up behind a typewriter keyboard somewhere in North Carolina, happy and content to lead a life of hard work."

- Ava Gardner, Ava, Memoirs, 1990, page 38.

"I've never dreamed of making movies, but I'll admit that compared to the prospect of working as a secretary in Wilson, North Carolina, the idea of going to Hollywood and breathing the same air as Clark Gable... In short, the choice wasn't very difficult."

- Ava Gardner, Ava, Memoirs, 1990, page 46.

"If I could live a second life, education is the first thing I would want to have. My life would have been different if I had received more education. You can't imagine what it's like to be the age I was at that time and know you're uneducated, so much so that you dread talking with people for fear that even the questions you ask will sound stupid."

- Ava Gardner, Ava, Memoirs, 1990, page 112.

"To tell the truth, I never recognized myself as the kind of alcoholic the press made me out to be. I was never one of those silent, fickle drinkers who drank day and night. I liked to party, I liked to stay up late, and I sometimes said a lot more than I did. And then when I drank, it was the effects of the alcohol that I was after. Of all the drinks I had, I don't remember enjoying any of them. The only reason I was drinking was to overcome my shyness."

- Ava Gardner, Ava, Memoirs, 1990.

"When I first met Frank Sinatra, I was still married to Mickey Rooney. It was one night at a club on the Sunset Strip, Mocambo probably, and Frank was there. He and Mickey knew each other very well - but who didn't know Mickey? - and Frank came over to say hello to the new wife. True to his character, he smiled and said, "It's too bad I didn't get there before Mickey. I would have gladly married you.

- Ava Gardner, Ava, Memoirs, 1990, page 150.

"Artie (Shaw) remains one of the great wounds of my life. I was madly in love with this man, I adored him, worshipped him, and I don't think he realized the harm he was doing to me by constantly putting me down. Besides, Artie was not the remorseful type. To him, I was just some cute little student he had on hand. I was never an equal, never achieved the dignity of a wife. Just like with Mickey, we were on opposite sides of the spectrum. I believed at the time that love could fix everything. I learned the hard way that it doesn't. To have a successful marriage, you need to have more in common than just crazy love. Still, Artie and I remained close for years, and I can't speak ill of him. He gave me a taste for studying, for thinking, for reading. Thanks to Artie, I read Death in the Afternoon, which helped me not to be silent when I met Hemingway (...) Of my three husbands, I admire Artie the most. He is unbearable, even sometimes for his friends, but he is a valuable person, an extraordinary man."

- Ava Gardner, Ava, Memoirs, 1990, page 120.

"We never had a disagreement in bed. If only all aspects of marriage could have been easy!"

- Ava Gardner, about her marriage to Artie Shaw.

"I think the main reason my marriages have been failures is that I have always loved a lot, but never reasonably. I knew that the men I married were very successful with the opposite sex: the twenty marriages they total between the three of them are a testament to that."

- Ava Gardner, Ava, Memoirs, 1990, page 234.

Quotes about him

"Ava, this is a gentleman."

- Quote from George Cukor.

"She is extremely intelligent. She exerts a great fascination but she is haunted by despair. She is a woman dominated by fatality. She doesn't relate well to herself and among other things - she considers herself a bad actress. It's very sad. In The Crossroads, she played some wonderful erotic scenes as I told you. She was brushing her teeth with whiskey, very vulgar and very exciting. But all that was cut by the censors."

- Quote from George Cukor, in Cinéma d'aujourd'hui by Jean Domarchi, éditions Seghers, 1965.

"I always admired her as an actress, and I always felt that she wasn't appreciated for what she was, because people were deceived by her beauty and didn't expect anything more. She herself was not very ambitious about her acting career. Yet she has steadily improved, and in her best films, I believe she can legitimately be ranked among the great actresses of American cinema."

- Quote from Gregory Peck, in Ava, Memoirs, 1990, page 291.


  1. Ava Gardner
  2. Ava Gardner
  3. (en) Frédéric Martinez, Portraits d’idoles, Paris, Perrin, 15 octobre 2015, 400 p. (ISBN 978-2-262-04719-1, lire en ligne), p. 65-66
  4. (en) Peter B. Flint, « Ava Gardner Is Dead at 67; Often Played Femme Fatale », The New York Times,‎ 26 janvier 1990 (ISSN 0362-4331, lire en ligne)
  5. Gardner, Ava & Evans, Peter: Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations, s. 44. Simon Schuster, 2013. ISBN 9781451627701. (englanniksi)
  6. ^ "Ava Gardner". Biography.com. April 22, 2021.
  7. ^ "FamilySearch.org". ancestors.familysearch.org. Retrieved June 1, 2023.
  8. ^ a b c Server, Lee (April 1, 2007). Ava Gardner: "Love Is Nothing". St. Martin's Publishing Group. ISBN 978-1-4299-0874-0.
  9. «Ava Gardner». Biography (em inglês). Consultado em 19 de outubro de 2019
  10. Server, Lee (15 de maio de 2007). Ava Gardner: "Love Is Nothing" (em inglês). [S.l.]: Macmillan. ISBN 9780312312107
  11. «Movie Reviews». The New York Times (em inglês). 17 de outubro de 2019. ISSN 0362-4331

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