GARDNER, AVA (Ava Lavinia Gardener) (1922–1990) Actress

One of Hollywood’s greatest beauties, Ava Gardner was born Ava Lavinia Gardener on December 24, 1922. The daughter of a sharecropper, she spent her early years in Grabtown, a small, rural community outside Smithfield, North Carolina.After graduating from high school, she briefly attended Atlanta Christian College, with the intention of becoming a stenographer.In 1941, Gardner traveled to New York to visit her older sister Bernice and her husband, Larry Tarr, a photographer. Impressed by Gardner’s beauty, Tarr took several photographs of her and placed one in the window of his studio. A clerk from the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) legal department spied the picture and convinced Tarr to send it to a studio talent scout. Gardner was given a silent screen test to mask her heavy Southern drawl. On seeing the test, one MGM official remarked, “She can’t act; she didn’t talk; she’s sensational.”

Contract in hand, Gardner took off for Hollywood. MGM gave their new discovery a barrage of acting and diction lessons, though in her early films she was expected to do little more than decorate her scenes. Resenting MGM’s disinterest in developing her talent, Gardner claimed the studio treated her like its “prize hog.” Despite her anger at MGM, Gardner took her work seriously and earned a reputation as a consummate professional. The public, however, was more interested in her personal life. At 19, she married Mickey Rooney, then MGM’s top star. His womanizing and her jealousy led to divorce 16 months later. In 1945 Gardner had second highly publicized marriage, this time to bandleader Artie Shaw. They divorced about a year later, as Gardner grew weary of Shaw’s unwelcome efforts to educate her. Through the rest of her life, Gardner remained friendly with Rooney and Shaw, as she did with most of her many lovers.

After playing small roles in about 20 films, Gardner had her breakthrough part as a treacherous nightclub singer in The Killers (1946). Because of its success, she was typecast as a femme fatale for several years. In 1951, however, she won the plum role of Julie in an all-star production of the musical Show Boat. Gardner was disappointed, though, when the studio hired Annette Warren to dub her singing voice. Also in 1951, Gardner married singer Frank Sinatra. The press was fascinated by their explosive relationship, especially their frequent public arguments. Although they divorced in 1957, Sinatra continued to regard Gardner as the love of his life. She is often credited as Sinatra’s muse for his classic recordings of the 1950s.

During this decade, Gardner was given more varied and challenging roles. She displayed a talent for wisecracking in Mogambo (1953), for whichshe was nominated for an Academy Award for best actress. The next year, she starred in The Barefoot Contessa (1954), the story of a Spanish fiamenco dancer molded into a movie star. The film’s director, Joseph Mankiewicz, later remembered her telling him, “Hell, Joe, I’m not an actress, but I think I understand this girl. She’s a lot like me.” Gardner was dismissive about her acting skills, often far more so than her critics. Although her highly photogenic face brought her to Hollywood,she projected an onscreen presence that, unlike those of most screen beauties, appealed to both men and women. No matter how glamorously she was made up, she remained charmingly down-to-earth. In her own words, she was just “a country girl.”

Press accounts of Gardner always focused on her love of drinking, smoking, and staying up all night. She, however, considered herself shy and was deeply offended by her image, which she described as “a loudmouthed, temperamental, oversexed, sultry siren.” In part to escape the press, Gardner moved toEurope in the late 1950s. While living in Spain, she became an enthusiastic fan of bullfighting and bullfighters. Gardner had many romances with matadors, including the famed Luis Miguel Dominguin. Gardner’s contract with MGM expired in 1958. In her subsequent film work, she often appeared in smaller but meatier roles. Playing a lusty widow operating a run-down Mexican hotel, Gardner had one of her best parts in Night of the Iguana (1964). She also had memorable turns in The Bible (1969) and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972) before retiring from film in 1977. As her health began to fail, she became increasingly reclusive. In her London apartment, she died of pneumonia on January 25, 1990.

Further Reading
Fowler, Karin J. Ava Gardner: A Bio-Bibliography. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990.
Gardner, Ava. Ava: My Story. New York: Bantam Books, 1990.

Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
The Killers (1946). Universal, VHS, 1998.
The Night of the Iguana (1964). Warner Home Video, VHS, 1992.
Show Boat (1951). Warner Home Video, DVD/VHS, 2000.