By Maureen Lee Lenker
Ava Gardner was one of the studio system’s most iconic bombshells. She was discovered at 18 from her photograph hanging in a window. Her exotic beauty and sultry good looks shot her to instant fame.
Nowadays, Gardner is perhaps best remembered for her “pin-up” appearance and her string of marriages to Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw, and Frank Sinatra. Her tempestuous relationship with Sinatra remains the stuff of Hollywood legend.
However, Gardner was a star for reasons far beyond her glamorous good looks or her gossip-column worthy personal life. Gardner was an MGM star, but she often did her most memorable work on loan-outs from the studio that only prized her for her beauty. She had a fiery and captivating talent, as well as a nuanced natural gift for acting – something she herself overlooked, feeling keenly how her appearance had been her ticket to Hollywood. Gardner is the subject of a magnificent new book, Ava Gardner: A Life in Movies, which seeks to give the movie goddess the biography she deserves. Rather than fixate on her image or her romantic life, it unpacks whom Gardner is as a person – studying and celebrating Gardner as an actress, woman, and true friend.
Here are six Ava Gardner films we love.
6. The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952)
A list of top Ava Gardner films would not be complete without an Ernest Hemingway adaptation (e.g. The Snows of Kilimanjaro). Gardner was a friend of the renowned author and eventually adapted an expat lifestyle much like the ones chronicled in Hemingway’s writing, living in Europe from 1955 until her death. Hemingway reportedly loved Gardner’s performance in The Snows of Kilimanjaro, based on one of his short stories of the same name. Harry Street (Gregory Peck) lies dying after suffering a hunting injury, his mind haunted by memories of his dead love Cynthia (Gardner). Though the film ultimately diverges from this storyline (and the original short story), Gardner creates a haunting and memorable presence as Cynthia, putting her reputation as a screen siren to good use.
5. Bhowani Junction (1956)
With Bhowani Junction, Gardner was given a role she could truly sink her teeth into, and it was made even better by superb direction from George Cukor. She portrays Victoria, an Anglo-Indian woman struggling with her identity in the wake of the endeavor for Indian independence. Gardner often was chosen to play ethnic women (she played a half-black character in Showboat and does brilliantly in the role, even if the casting decision is offensive and absurd by today’s standards). Gardner traveled to Pakistan for extensive location shooting (original plans to shoot in India were derailed when the government insisted on script approval and imposed high taxes). As Victoria Jones, Gardner struggles to choose between three suitors, battling with her own identity and sense of self as a half-British, half-Indian woman. Her character deals with rape, murder, and more in a tour de force performance.
4. The Barefoot Contessa (1954)
Gardner traded on many of the notorious details of her own life to bring Maria Vargas, a fictional Spanish sex symbol and actress, to life in The Barefoot Contessa. Gardner’s own humble upbringings and relationships with powerful Hollywood men, particularly billionaire Howard Hughes, have parallels in the film. However, in actuality, Joseph L. Mankiewicz based much of the film on the life of another screen siren, Rita Hayworth. Anthony Uzarowski, co-author of Ava: A Life in the Movies, cites this as one of his favorite Gardner films for its combined showcase of her acting prowess and her legendary beauty. Gardner traveled to Rome to film, beginning what would become a lifelong love affair with European living. The film which co-stars Humphrey Bogart, has since gone on to inspire much in pop culture, including the name of a popular cooking show on the Food Network with chef Ina Garten.
3. The Night of the Iguana (1964)
Though Gardner never believed herself a strong actress, The Night of the Iguana puts that myth to rest. She takes on a role Bette Davis originated on Broadway and more than holds her own against stage/screen veterans Richard Burton and Deborah Kerr. Gardner’s hotel owner, Maxine, was reportedly based on Tennessee Williams’ own landlady who he believed Gardner played to perfection in the film. The film drew a lot of onset drama due to Burton’s ongoing affair with Elizabeth Taylor, who visited the set during filming. Now, it stands as a testament to the talents of its writer and actors. Gardner plays a bawdy outgoing widow who runs her deceased husband’s hotel. She oversees the drama of a disgraced preacher (Burton) when he strands himself and his tour group at the hotel. The film marked the last truly great film to feature Gardner, as well as Tennessee Williams’ last big hit.
2. Mogambo (1953)
Gardner gives one of her strongest, most scintillating performances as one point of a love triangle alongside Grace Kelly and Clark Gable in Mogambo. A remake of an earlier Clark Gable hit, Red Dust, Mogambo features Gardner in the Jean Harlow role and was one of the rare films where her home studio (MGM) put her to good use. Gardner portrays Eloise Y. Kelly, the seductive American socialite who proves a better match for Gable’s game hunting Victor Marswell than Grace Kelly’s straying housewife Linda Nordley (though reportedly Gable and Kelly had better chemistry off-screen). John Ford shot on location in Africa, with many real-life incidents making their way onscreen, including a leopard wandering into Gardner’s tent and her attempts to cook for the entire crew. Gardner brought her then-husband, Frank Sinatra, along for the shoot and they celebrated their first wedding anniversary there. Gardner bristled at Ford’s legendary gruffness, but he believed her a strong actress and felt she gave an exemplary performance.
1. The Killers (1946)
Ava Gardner’s screen image was created and immortalized when MGM loaned her out to Universal for only her second major film role -- femme fatale Kitty Collins in The Killers. Based on a Hemingway short story, the film co-stars Burt Lancaster in his screen debut as “The Swede,” the man at the center of the shadowy tale, undone by Gardner’s seductive and duplicitous Kitty Collins. It remains one of the most iconic film noir tales – so much so, that Steve Martin and Carl Reiner would later heavily borrow footage from it (and of Gardner) for their noir spoof Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982). Gardner is perhaps still best remembered for this film with Collins’ sultry black satin gown and a wave of black hair falling over her face. Though The Killers came relatively early in her career, it made Gardner a force to be reckoned with – a feisty, beautiful, glamorous screen siren who came to signify the greatest legends and myths of classic Hollywood.
Though Gardner is often remembered more for her scandalous personal life and undeniable beauty, she also left behind a body of work that proves she was a compelling and phenomenal actress.