top of page

Legends of the World Cinema - Ava Lavinia Gardner

(December 24, 1922 – January 25, 1990) was an American actress and singer.

She was signed to a contract by MGM Studios in 1941 and appeared mainly in small roles until she drew attention with her performance in The Killers (1946). She was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actressfor her work in Mogambo (1953).

Gardner appeared in several high-profile films from the 1950s to 1970s, including The Hucksters (1947), Show Boat (1951), The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952), The Barefoot Contessa (1954), Bhowani Junction (1956), On the Beach (1959), 55 Days at Peking (1963), Seven Days in May (1964), The Night of the Iguana (1964), The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972), Earthquake (1974), and The Cassandra Crossing (1976). Gardner continued to act regularly until 1986, four years before her death in London in 1990 at the age of 67.

She is listed 25th among the American Film Institute's 25 Greatest Female Stars of Classic Hollywood Cinema.

Early life

Gardner was born near the farming community of Smithfield, North Carolina, the youngest of 7 children (she had two brothers, Raymond and Melvin, and four sisters, Beatrice, Elsie Mae, Inez, and Myra). Her parents, Mary Elizabeth "Molly" (née Baker) and Jonas Bailey Gardner, were poor cotton and tobacco farmers. While there are varying accounts of her background, Gardner's only documented ancestry was English.

She was raised in the Baptist faith of her mother. While the children were still young, the Gardners lost their property, forcing Jonas Gardner to work at a sawmill and Mollie to begin working as a cook and housekeeper at a dormitory for teachers at the nearby Brogden School. When Gardner was seven years old, the family decided to try their luck in a larger city, Newport News, Virginia, where Mollie Gardner found work managing a boarding house for the city's many shipworkers. While in Newport News, Gardner's father became ill and died from bronchitis in 1938, when Ava was 15 years old. After Jonas Gardner's death, the family moved to Rock Ridge near Wilson, North Carolina, where Mollie Gardner ran another boarding house for teachers. Gardner attended high school in Rock Ridge and she graduated from there in 1939. She then attended secretarial classes at Atlantic Christian College in Wilson for about a year.

Early career

Gardner was visiting her sister Beatrice in New York in 1941 when Beatrice's husband Larry Tarr, a professional photographer, offered to take her portrait. He was so pleased with the results that he displayed the finished product in the front window of his Tarr Photography Studio on Fifth Avenue.

A Loews Theatres legal clerk, Barnard Duhan, spotted Gardner's photo in Tarr's studio. At the time, Duhan often posed as an MGM talent scout to meet girls, using the fact that MGM was a subsidiary of Loews. Duhan entered Tarr's and tried to get Gardner's number, but was rebuffed by the receptionist. Duhan made the offhand comment, "Somebody should send her info to MGM", and the Tarrs did so immediately. Shortly after, Gardner, who at the time was a student at Atlantic Christian College, traveled to New York to be interviewed at MGM's New York office by Al Altman, head of MGM's New York talent department. With cameras rolling, he directed the eighteen-year-old to walk towards the camera, turn and walk away, then rearrange some flowers in a vase. He did not attempt to record her voice because her Southern accent made it almost impossible for him to understand her. Louis B. Mayer, head of the studio, however, sent a telegram to Al: "She can't sing, she can't act, she can't talk, She's terrific!" She was offered a standard contract by MGM, and left school for Hollywood in 1941 with her sister Beatrice accompanying her. MGM's first order of business was to provide her a speech coach, as her Carolina drawl was nearly incomprehensible to them.

Career

After five years of bit parts, mostly at MGM and many of them uncredited, Gardner came to prominence in the Mark Hellinger-produced smash-hit film noir The Killers (1946), playing the femme fatale Kitty Collins.

Other films include The Hucksters (1947), Show Boat (1951), The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952), Lone Star (1952), Mogambo (1953), The Barefoot Contessa (1954), Bhowani Junction (1956), The Sun Also Rises (1957), andOn the Beach (1959). A particularly notable role was in The Barefoot Contessa as the doomed beauty Maria Vargas, a fiercely independent woman who goes from Spanish dancer to international film star with the help of a Hollywood director played by Humphrey Bogart, with tragic consequences.

Gardner starred as Guinevere in 1953's Knights of the Round Table, opposite actor Robert Taylor as Sir Lancelot. Indicative of her sophistication, she portrayed a duchess, a baroness and other ladies of royal lineage in her films of the 1950s.

Off-camera, she could be witty and pithy, as in her assessment of director John Ford, who directed Mogambo ("The meanest man on earth. Thoroughly evil. Adored him!")

She was billed between Charlton Heston and David Niven in 55 Days at Peking in 1963, which was set in China during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. The following year, she played her last great leading role in a critically acclaimed film, The Night of the Iguana (1964), based upon a Tennessee Williams play and starring Richard Burton as an atheist clergyman and Deborah Kerr as a gentle artist traveling with her aged poet grandfather. John Huston directed the movie in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, insisting on making the film in black and white, a decision he later regretted because of the vivid colors of the flora. Gardner received billing below Burton but above Kerr. She was nominated for a BAFTA and a Golden Globe award for her hearty performance in this signature role.

She next appeared again with Burt Lancaster, her co-star from The Killers, this time along with Kirk Douglas and Fredric March, in Seven Days in May (1964), a taut thriller about an attempted military takeover of the US government. Gardner plays a former love interest of Lancaster's who now may be instrumental in Douglas's preventing a coup against the President of the United States.

Two years later, in 1966, Gardner briefly sought the role of Mrs. Robinson in Mike Nichols' The Graduate (1967). She reportedly called Nichols and said, "I want to see you! I want to talk about this Graduate thing!" Nichols never seriously considered her for the part, preferring to cast a younger woman (Anne Bancroft was 36 while Gardner was 43), but he did visit her hotel, where he later recounted that "she sat at a little French desk with a telephone, she went through every movie star cliché. She said, 'All right, let's talk about your movie. First of all, I strip for nobody.'"

Gardner moved to London in 1968, undergoing an elective hysterectomy to allay her worries of contracting the uterine cancer that had claimed the life of her mother. That year, she made what some consider to be one of her best films, Mayerling, in which she played the supporting role of Austrian Empress Elisabeth of Austria opposite James Mason as Emperor Franz Joseph I.

She appeared in a number of disaster films throughout the 1970s, notably Earthquake (1974) with Heston, The Cassandra Crossing (1976) with Lancaster, and the Canadian movie City on Fire (1979). She appeared briefly asLillie Langtry at the end of The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972), and in The Blue Bird (1976). Her last movie was Regina Roma (1982), a direct-to-video release. In the 1980s she acted primarily on television, including the mini-series remake of The Long, Hot Summer and in a story arc on Knots Landing (both 1985).


Featured Posts
Recent Posts