Ava Gardner, who had turned 67 a month before she died Thursday in London, was as perfect a symbol as film history has to offer of the Hollywood dream factory at work.
In Gardner, the daughter of a North Carolina tenant farmer, the star-making studio system--still operating at peak power before the erosions of television--created a rags-to-riches story as appealing to its audiences as any it filmed.
Discovered in a photograph, screen-tested in New York where she was trying to be a secretary and fetched to Hollywood, she joined that procession of love goddesses, no two of whom were alike. Ava Gardner was even less alike than most, to coin a phrase.
Her tall beauty was indubitably regal, but, from the start, the impression was that she was impatient and uncomfortable atop a pedestal, as if she had a fear of that particular height. Her appeal was earthier, sexier, more candid and somehow very real. It is frequently said that the movie camera is an X-ray, but so it is, discovering the inner persona without which the looks, however incandescent, are not by themselves enough, but which the audience responds to and embraces. "The Barefoot Contessa" was perfect casting for Gardner: She had no trouble being a contessa, or going barefoot, symbolically at least.
Her counterpart among men was probably Clark Gable. Although Gable was a more intentional film actor than she was, they both gave the impression they were not sure that acting was what grown-up people ought to be doing and that real life lay elsewhere, as of course it does.
Like Barbara Stanwyck, who slipped into history last week, Gardner appealed to the men and the women in the audience. For the men there was the great beauty, and the musky sensual attraction. For the women there was the enviable independence of mind and spirit, the mobility that was such a dreamy contrast to the tethering sameness of ordinary daily life.
For the menfolk the same independence of spirit conveyed itself like an imagined perfume, in an impression that she was most wonderfully uninhibited. It was catnip.
Many starry private lives have been dramatic, even allowing for the amplifications of the gossip columns and the fan magazines. Her marriages to Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw and Frank Sinatra were not buried in the society pages. A story, which received wide currency, told of Sinatra firing a gun during a phone call to her, feigning suicide over the loss of her. Whether it was as fictional as her scripts, the story appeared to confirm her powerful attraction.
But if Gardner was a symbol of the swift and dizzying glories that stardom can grant, she was a symbol as well as of its penalties, frustrations and disorientings. Everything is not quite enough, and the line between screen fictions and life as lived can start to blur. The madcap days in Spain when her pals were bullfighters and the nights were long had a quality of frenzy about them.
Even the good work on screen, it began to be clear, was not fulfilling enough. Living finally in what was evidently a calm exile in London, it must have occurred to her what a long road she had come from Smithfield, N.C.
Ultimately the work remains. And while some of it entraps her in the movies at their most industrial (from "Kid Glove Killer" to "Cassandra Crossing"), there are the roles that evoked her unique persona, her amazing beauty and her sense of inner fires, danger and unpredictability. They are a golden chain running from "The Killers" early in her career to "The Night of the Iguana," which if nothing else changed Puerto Vallarta forever.
The passing of Ava Gardner is another requiem for a Hollywood that has itself ceased to exist, when the gods in the boardrooms could smile upon an unknown and create a legend.
AVA GARDNER ON THE SCREEN
Movies We Were Dancing 1942 Joe Smith American 1942 Sunday Punch 1942 This Time for Keeps 1942 Calling Dr. Gillespie 1942 Kid Glove Killer 1942 Pilot No. 5 1943 Hitler's Madman 1943 Ghosts on the Loose 1943 Reunion in France 1943 Du Barry Was a Lady 1943 Young Ideas 1943 Lost Angel 1943 Swing Fever 1944 Music for Millions 1944 Three Men in White 1944 Blonde Fever 1944 Maisie Goes to Reno 1944 Two Girls and a Sailor 1944 She Went to the Races 1945 Whistle Stop 1946 The Killers 1946 The Hucksters 1947 Singapore 1947 One Touch of Venus 1948 The Bribe 1949 The Great Sinner 1949 East Side, West Side 1949 My Forbidden Past 1951 Show Boat 1951 Pandora and the Flying Dutchman 1951 Lone Star 1952 The Snows of Kilimanjaro 1952 Ride, Vaquero 1953 The Band Wagon 1953 Mogambo 1953 Knights of the Round Table 1954 The Barefoot Contessa 1954 Bhowani Junction 1956 The Little Hut 1957 The Sun Also Rises 1957 The Naked Maja 1959 On the Beach 1959 The Angel Wore Red 1960 55 Days at Peking 1963 Seven Days in May 1964 The Night of the Iguana 1964 The Bible 1966 Mayerling 1968 The Devil's Widow 1971 The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean 1972 Earthquake 1974 Permission to Kill 1975 The Blue Bird 1976 The Cassandra Crossing 1977 The Sentinel 1977 City on Fire 1979 The Kidnapping of the President 1980 Television Knots Landing (series) 1985 A.D. (miniseries) 1985 The Long Hot Summer (movie) 1985 Harem (movie) 1986