Friday, June 9, 2017

LIZ SMITH: The Goddess at Work

by Liz Smith & Denis Ferrara

Celebrating Ava Gardner! A New Book Highlights The Goddess at Work.

“THANK HEAVEN that she had been made immortal on film, so that we will never forget Ava Gardner’s sultry, sensuous look, her down-to-earth persona, her husky manner of speaking, and her vastly underrated talents as an actress.”

Click to order “Ava: A Life in Movies.” 
These words, written in this space upon the passing of Ava Gardner in 1990, leapt out at me as I came to the very end of a new book, “Ava: A Life in Movies.” 

Written by Kendra Bean and Anthony Uzarowski, this is a lush, glossy celebration of Miss Gardner’s sensitive work as an actress and a tribute to her almost supernatural beauty. (In Lee Server’s terrific 2007 biography of Gardner, a friend of hers, who also knew Elizabeth Taylor remarked, “On her very best day, Elizabeth was as beautiful as Ava ... maybe.”)

This book is just packed with info, delivered in an accurate un-sensational manner. Even more impressive is a collection of photos, many rare, that are jaw-dropping. (Lots of diverting on-set candids, along with gorgeous glamour  portraits.  The cover alone, by Milton Greene, is enough to cause an obligatory swoon.)

The authors, well-published aficionados of film, live in London, and look to be rather young.  In the introduction, they state: “It was not our goal to write a definitive biography.  Rather, our book aims to challenge the well-worn perception of her life and work by bringing together a new narrative perspective.”
In this they succeed admirably.  (Ava’s three short-lived marriages — Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw, even Frank Sinatra — seem secondary to what the authors intend — a tribute to Gardner and a closer look at the work she did.)

I’ve always thought of Ava as a fascinating, deeply unappreciated actress. For all her voluptuous allure, her presence onscreen often tended to be touchingly hesitant, vulnerable; a little off-center.  This gave her early MGM femme fatales more substance than they deserved (“The Killers,” “Pandora and the Flying Dutchman,” “One Touch of  Venus,”“East Side, West Side,” “Singapore,” “The Hucksters.”) 
The subtleties of her approach imbued the performances of her maturity with an earthy melancholy that at times is simply breathtaking (“Bhowani Junction,” “On The Beach,” “Night of the Iguana,” “Seven Days In May” “The Bible,” “Mayerling.”)   She brought this potency even to her later TV work, in “A.D.” “Harem” and her acclaimed one-season guest stint on the nighttime soap, “Knots Landing.” 
TODAY, Ava is perhaps best remembered for “The Barefoot Contessa,” director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ overly-talky chronicle of Hollywood and the international scene.  It is the sensual culmination of all the women she’d played up till then, and the touchstone for all the melancholy, drifting ladies of the world she would enact later. 
It is Ava, and Ava alone who lifts the film out of the murky sludge of Mank’s endless monologues.  Everyone — even Humphrey Bogart — appears ridiculous and self-conscious, struggling with the material.  But Gardner, who had not even wanted to do the movie, seamlessly embraces the role of a poor Spanish girl, lifted to stardom but doomed by her childish dreams of perfect love.  Although it’s difficult to get through at times, “Contessa” is likely the best starting point, for a beginner, assessing Ava’s work.  (“Show Boat” suffers from the needless dubbing of her singing voice, and her Hemingway films, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “The Sun Also Rises” suffer from being adapted to the screen in the heavily censored 1950’s although she is very effective in both.)    
Gardner was Oscar-nominated for 1953’s “Mogambo,” an earthy, humorous appetizer to her even earthier, funnier 1964 triumph in Tennessee Williams’ “The Night of The Iguana.” (She just about wipes a very good Richard Burton off the screen!)
But after ’53 there would be no more nominations.  The sensation of her private life, her beauty, the so-called “ruin” of her beauty, seeped into the sensibilities of critics and the film industry.  After Ava left Hollywood (and the mess of her relationship with Frank Sinatra!) and began her nomadic travels, taking more interesting European work, critics tended to look at her films as mere extensions of her own life — home movies, so to speak.   

This judgment was unfair.  But it has lingered. Now, perhaps, with the luscious “Ava: A Life In Movies” a re-thinking, a new appreciation of Gardner will occur.   This is a job for Turner Classic Movies and Criterion! 
“Liz, we have got to stop meeting like this!” 
I “KNEW” Ava Gardner before I had the nervous pleasure of meeting her in 1974, during the fraught production of “The Blue Bird” in Russia.

My assistant, St. Clair Pugh, a native of North Carolina had known Ava when she was just a sensationally good-looking girl with a very un-movie star Southern drawl.  They stayed in touch, and I was always interested in St.’s tales of early Ava.

By the time of “The Blue Bird” I was already a “name” celebrity journalist, although I was still two years away from the column that would bring me much greater recognition.  To Ava, however, journalists were the devil and to be avoided at all cost.  And the great star was indeed wary of me.  But, perhaps a good word from her co-star, Elizabeth Taylor, who I knew well, softened Miss Gardner. Or did she remember we both knew St. Clair Pugh?  Or maybe it was just the hardships of Russia!

So what is my great glamorous memory of this goddess?  Running into each other in a dark hotel hallway; both of us desperately searching for decent food or toilet paper. “Liz,” she said, “We have got to stop meeting like this!” 

We laughed, and she was off.  It wasn’t an interview but it was great, all the same. 

“Ava: A Life in Movies” is worthy of the lady.  I cannot recommend it too highly.  If you’re interested — and I demand that you ARE interested! — visit

Contact Liz here.