The fire is out, the wind is cold. What better time to warm ourselves with the memory of Ava Gardner, as we raise a toast to the actress whose often crowded life began on December 24th, 1922 as a Christmas Eve baby? The youngest of seven children born on a tobacco farm in Grabtown, North Carolina, as she grew up it was a bit of a shock to the girl that it "appeared that there was this whole other person Jesus Christ whose birthday a lot of people tended to confuse with mine. I was personally outraged. It was a long time before I forgave the Lord for that."
Despite that early brush with blasphemy and display of innately irreverent humor, Gardner's destiny seemed charmed. Her unvarnished natural beauty on display in a New York photographer's window caught the eye of someone with ties to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, leading to a contract with the studio in 1941. The kind of work she did there involved softening a pronounced Southern accent, learning to blend seductiveness and purpose under the tutelage of Lillian Burns, and posing for pictures like the one above, for all the holidays, some of which graced the walls of garages and barber shops throughout the land. Many walk-on parts and a couple of missteps down the marital path later (Mickey Rooney and Artie Shaw), the writer-producer Mark Hellinger spotted her in the low budget Whistle Stop (1946), and he just knew--this was "Kitty O'Shea."
With that heart-shaped face, cleft chin, green eyes, lithe form and instinctive sensuality, in earlier times she might have been Helen of Troy, Dido of Carthage, Boadicea of the Iceni, Nell Gwynne, or Emma Hamilton, but she was definitely perfect casting for the femme fatale in The Killers (1946). A star was born, even though it would take a few years of living before she observed that "stardom...gave me everything I never wanted."
Later, she was a glorious lost soul in The Great Sinner (1949), even better as the star-crossed Julie in Show Boat (1951), superbly mythic in Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951), hauntingly human in The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952), and a jet set gamine with an aching heart in Mogambo (1953). Yet, this great beauty, losing some of her luster, became more touching, funny and despite her denials, a damn good actress in later films such as On the Beach (1959), Seven Days in May (1964), and The Night of the Iguana (1964). (Heck, I even liked the Spanish Civil War movie The Angel Wore Red where her ragged bar girl lit up the screen opposite the daunting and talented Dirk Bogarde).
And her own assessment of her life work? She claimed that she was "never an actress – none of us kids at Metro were. We were just good to look at....[most of the time the] answer I usually gave was 'For the loot, honey, always for the loot,' and there was more truth than poetry in that remark. I had to do something and I didn't know how to do anything else."
The worldly elbowed each other for most of her sixty-seven years to gaze on her on the screen and in the street, all eager to see what an empty-hearted publicity hack labeled "the world's most beautiful animal." International headlines dogged her throughout her final tangled marriage to Frank Sinatra and through all the subsequent sordid and sad episodes with a parade of men who strutted through her hectic days. Eventually after Spain, movies, and a few television appearances, the actress found a quiet home in London with her dogs, her memories and occasional encounters with old friends (reportedly even Sinatra, who helped pay the bills and quietly carried a torch to the end). As her robust health ebbed away, she simply commented wryly, "There comes a moment when every woman has to face up to being an old broad."
In the years after she left home, Gardner would often return to North Carolina claiming, "I am pathologically shy. I was a country girl and I still have a country girl's rather simple ordinary values." Fittingly, that is where she rests since 1990, near her family and her roots. She was better than she knew.
|Above: One of the images of a 17-year-old Ava Gardner ascribed to photographer Larry Tarr. The display of this startling beauty in his New York studio window in 1939 drew the attention of Hollywood--eventually.|
Allan, William, Ava Gardner 'Country Girl', The Pittsburgh Press, Dec. 26, 1982.
Gardner Ava, Ava: My Story, Thorndike Press, 1992.
Server, Lee, Ava Gardner: Love Is Nothing, .Macmillan, 2007
For past entries in The Christmas Album on this blog, please click here.