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A Toast to Ava


pandorainmay
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I've just finished reading "Ava Gardner: Love is Nothing" by Lee Server. The author is noted for his earlier, much ballyhooed biography of Ava's erstwhile playmate and ?ber-hipster Robert Mitchum in the book with the apt subtitle, "Baby, I Don't Care". As in his Mitchum bio, Server is constantly at pains to let us know that he's as cool and knowing as his subject. This quality annoyed me throughout the Mitchum book, but, since I've liked Ava Gardner from the time that I first clapped eyes on her gloriously worldweary self in Seven Days in May as a kid, I plunged into this 500 page plus volume depicting her triumphs and travails during her comet-like rise and long, long fall from grace.

 

My introduction to Ava Gardner came from films such as Seven Days..., Night of the Iguana, and her heartfelt performance in On the Beach. I'd never seen her early films, when her beauty was at its floodtide, until I was an adult. Now, I can appreciate her iconic presence as a dazzling beauty in such films as The Killers, Pandora and the Flying Dutchman and Mogambo, where her inner warmth truly starts to shine through, but as a viewer, I'm glad that I got to "know" her first as a somewhat blowsy, likable gal with alot of miles on her.

 

Mr. Server even allows some genuine sympathy for his subject to leak into the book, though he's a bit tediously diligent in documenting the foibles of his central figure, for, given that she never seems to have fallen for a nice guy in her life, and, after early disappointments in love, particularly with Artie Shaw, (who comes across as a genuinely cold piece of work), she never seems to have let anyone really close to her as an equal--even Sinatra, who was more besotted with her than she with him, until they finally broke up. Then Gardner seems to have kept him as a romantic ideal in her heart, though whenever they came close during the subsequent years, the fragile peace between them was always easily shattered. This inability to trust may be one reason why no one, despite numerous testaments to her lovely qualities as a person, ever seems to have had the temerity to confront her fully about her obvious alcoholism. The author implies that the reasons for this affliction probably stemmed, at least partly, from an urge to anesthesize herself against the world's reaction to her exceptional beauty and to assuage her pain as it inevitably ebbed away with time and alot of abuse.

 

The author, perhaps to his credit, never speculates about why no one among her family and friends ever tried to get real help for the woman for these issues. But it is regrettable that she caused herself and those who cared about her so much grief. One wonders if a quieter life down south in Grabtown might've been better for her, though movies would've been somewhat poorer for it. By the way, the subtitle should be more completely quoted, since Ava Gardner actually said, "Love is nothing but a pain in the a**." As John Huston once said, when he wasn't being condescending or predatory towards her, "she paid well and truly for her beauty" . He, along with many of us, seem to have been genuinely fond of this flawed gem and warm, contradictory woman. The following are things about Ava Gardner that I gleaned from this book:

 

Her signs of intelligence:

She was canny enough early on to sense the unbalanced nature of her perennial suitor and sometime friend/nemesis, Howard Hughes. Miss Gardner had the good sense to keep him pretty much at arm's length throughout the years that they knew one another.

 

She maintained a long, affectionate, and chaste friendship with the gifted writer Robert Graves, about whom he could have been writing when he wrote the lines:

"She is wild and innocent, pledged to love / Through all disaster"

 

 

Films she turned down to pursue, oh, way too many trivialities...for better or worse:

 

Cass Timberlane (Her part was played by her fellow MGM stablemate, Lana Turner. Oh, but what might Spencer Tracy have brought out in Gardner?)

 

Sister Carrie (Dreiser's destructive heroine was eventually played by Jennifer Jones. Well, if anyone's ever seen this film, you probably understand that Miss G. could've made Laurence Olivier's abandonment of hearth, home, security and sanity much more credible).

 

Sombrero (the part was filled, quite admirably, by Yvonne de Carlo, though I think that Gardner would've been an ideal choice for the Cyd Charisse part).

 

and, most, regrettably, perhaps:

St. Louis Woman : you've probably never heard of this Broadway hit of 1946 w/ words and music by Johnny Mercer & Harold Arlen, which was proposed by Frank Sinatra as a possible co-starring turn for himself and Ava. Wouldn't it have been lovely to hear her sing Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home, (I Had Myself a) True Love, or Come Rain or Come Shine? What might have been. But by that time Miss G. had endured a humiliating experience by having her singing for the role of Julie in Showboat dubbed by the studio and, given the volatile nature of her relationship w/ Mr. S., it was probably just as well.

 

The Pink Panther (A part given to the lovely Capucine, during one of Ava's more volatile periods when work might've helped a bit.)

 

Did she care about the career path and the bad reputation that sometimes followed her?

Not really, I don't think. She liked and needed the money, but grew to loathe fame, even though she was prone to misbehaving publicly trying to coast through situations on that pass. Interestingly, when someone took the trouble to really call her attention to her bad behavior at times, she was genuinely, and profusely sorry. Though some who knew her too well, such as Mitchum, later avoided accidental meetings with her, acknowledging that "she'll be the ruin of me".

 

The role of the MGM Studio in her life:

I think that it gave her a structure that she needed, though she probably didn't realize it at the time. She also gained companions who assuaged her fears from behind and in front of the camera, perhaps most notably, hair stylist Sidney Guilaroff. The studio also taught her to move regally and to adopt that breathy MGM way of speaking that, for once, suited Gardner's naturally husky voice. More and better roles in house might've helped build her fragile self-esteem, but MGM never seemed to know what to do with her, and she did much of her most notable early work at Universal and on loan out. Predators within the studio were numerous, beginning in her first week at the studio. She seems to have evaded them fairly well on her own, but one wonders if her attachment to a very frenetic, callow, though worldly Mickey Rooney, whom she met during her first days at the studio, might have been in part out of self-defense, more than calculated careerism.

 

Her Regrets:

Most notably, No children.

 

An unfortunate talent for affairs with bums:

Rooney, Shaw, (who was the most consistently creepy), Sinatra, (who was kind to her when they weren't together), many international show biz types, a series of bullfighters, and, perhaps the most destructive choice of all, George C. Scott. Even Scott's near psychotic "love" for her seems to have taken her aback. This aspect of her life actually made my eyes glaze over after a time, since, just reading about it made it seem pretty tedious in a frenzied sort of way.

 

Do I like her?

Yeah, though, she must've been pretty exhausting to know during the manic years, until the period when time caught up with her and she lived in a kind of semi-retirement in London. There, she liked to walk her dog, iron and gently faded away. The lady must've been tired. In her middle years, her self-destructive energy seems to have been monumental. To me, though, she'll always be that vision of rueful loveliness caught by John Ford in a silent moment in Mogambo, walking through the rain and standing alone on a porch with the teeming rain behind her and a faraway look in her eye.

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Thanks for your summation---I really loved Server's book on Mitchum because it made me laugh so much. I hope that he caught Ava's sense of humor, too, because she really had a strong one. But 500+ pages is a bit much, and that's the only reason I've held back this long. I love Ava, and my favorite of her movies is MOGAMBO. No one brought out as many of her subtler qualities as Ford, except maybe Huston.

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Thanks, Mrs. L. Have you read the Lee Server book about Robert Mitchum, since I know that you're a big fan of him?

 

Here's the picture of a teenage Ava Gardner that an employee of MGM/Loew's spotted in the window of her brother-in-law's photo shop in Manhattan. The employee hoped to meet her for a date, (it never happened), but that casual inquiry led to her contract at MGM:

 

 

ava-barret2.jpg

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The name of the book by Lee Server is Robert Mitchum: Baby, I Don't Care. If I may utter one word of caution to you when contemplating your reading this tome, Mrs. L.: Mr. Mitchum did not lead a chaste or particularly circumspect life, though he definitely had his standards, and, as evidenced in the recent airing of the Dick Cavett interview on TCM, the man was a definite, and, at times, charming original.

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Hi Moira,

 

Well, I'm glad you liked her. I know I did.

She was a real person - salty language and honest; she loved to laugh and was always comfortable with the crew - "Come on, guys, let's play poker!!"

She taught me to swear and play poker, "Never mind gin, baby, that's for sissies".....

I don't think she gave a damn about being a movie star and would just wear whatever the wardrobe, hair and makeup gave her. Not like Lana, who agonized over the shoes, underwear and every eyelash.

Ava and Lana were both friends with Sydney Guilaroff - Ava more than Lana; Lana had Del Armstrong, her makeup artist as a better pal.

 

Nobody on the set of "Show Boat" liked Frank Sinatra, least of all me. And, Ava knew full well not to marry him but she did. Duh!!!!!

 

Like a lot of alcoholics, I think she was unhappy and didn't know how to 'get happy' so she drank to forget and then later drank to forget that she'd let it all pass.

Sad!! - but I did love her. I never saw her after 1955, but she did send me a birthday card on my 18th birthday. I still have it..

 

Thanks for the review of the book. I never read star biographies much; I've discovered they're all rehashed lies.

 

Larry

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Moira:

 

I know he was kind of a stinker, but I'm mostly curious about his affair with Shirley Maclaine, I know Mrs. M. gave him an ultimatum about her, which he knew she would carry out, but I have to admit, if he blinked at me, I would have a really hard time ignoring it.

 

Thank you for the name, I will look it up.

 

Anne

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Hi,

 

I was in the movie; I made into the premier showing, but don't look for me now since I was cut out. At the end of the film, Ava watches on a wharf, as the "Show Boat" sails away; a little boy runs out onto the pier and Ava envelops him in her cloak. That part is cut.

 

Frank Sinatra was mean and hit me twice on the head because I was always around Ava. She didn't mind but when he came to visit her, he'd snarl, "Beat it kid" and hit me.

Ava would say, "Run along, baby, Ava still loves you".

Later, Lillian Burns, an MGM powerhouse, banned Sinatra from the set. Lillian always loved me too.

My family always hated the Sinatras - especially Mama Dolly, a truly evil and vile b-i-t-c-h.......... I'm sure she burning in Hell today!!!!!

 

Larry

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Mrs. L.:

The parts of the Mitchum bio about the affair with MacLaine are actually quite touching. They obviously meant something to each other and she still speaks of him fondly, but his wife Dorothy must've had the patience of a saint and the tenacity of a bulldog. In the bio about Ava Gardner, the author recounts one time when Mitchum and Ava were on the town while in mid-affair during the making of that lousy movie they made together. Feeling her oats & being very attracted by the big guy, Ava takes it into her head to call Mrs. Mitchum on the telephone in the middle of the night and suggest that Mrs. M. should give ol' Bob his freedom so that they could be together. After listening politely to Miss Gardner's ideas for her future, she simply replied with one word: "No." End of the affair.

 

Larry:

I'm with you on most star biographies. They're written in abysmal prose and most of them have no decent annotations, indices or primary source material, a part of a bio that the history major in me requires before I can commit to reading something. This tome was written with some style and it has oodles of documentation, citations, many primary sources as interview subjects and an excellent index, so it passed muster with me, (certainly more than Ava's alleged autobiography did, which was actually ghostwritten by three separate people, at least two of whom never met the lady.). Plus, this bio was about someone I've always liked alot.

 

I envy your having known her and I'm not at all surprised that she was kind to you. She adored children and doted on the offspring of many of her family members, friends and acquaintances throughout her life. What a shame in some ways that she didn't have any herself. It really might've helped keep her grounded.

 

Re: Dolly Sinatra.

You'd have liked the sequences in the book describing when the very formidable Mrs. S. met Ava Gardner. It seems that Sinatra's Mama liked Ava enormously but even Ava seems to have been a bit cowed by the wildly blue language that the lady used casually, though it did put Miss Gardner more at ease with her. As to Frank Sinatra, you may not like him, and since what little I do know about the guy ain't good, I stick to enjoying his recordings. The man could sing. The rest I don't want to know. Especially after this book.

 

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moirafinnie6

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Moira,

 

I'm sure Dolly Sinatra was a candidate for Hell long before she and Frank got famous and went 'Hollywood'.......

She was an abortionist in New Jersey and all those mob connections that nobody could pin on Frankie were because they were Dolly's.

My grandmother said Dolly was 'the Devil Doll' and her husband, Albert, was the stupidist man ever given life.

 

Larry

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