Ava Gardner served one of the longest apprenticeships in the history of MGM.
That figures since although she never formally trained as an actress, she was one of the most beautiful actresses on the studio lot. (And, she was strong willed, foul-mouthed and brainy to boot.)
Ava later recalled that after an early screen test, the unnamed director exclaimed, “She can’t talk! She can’t act! She’s sensational.”
After her early years spent largely in North Carolina, Gardner was signed by MGM in 1941, groomed and educated and then lent out dozens of times to appear as an extra or bit player to gain acting experience before the studio began using her in supporting and, later, starring roles.
Truth be told: Ava disliked her years at MGM.
Christ, after 17 years of slavery, you can ask that question?, she once responded to a show biz reporter (neither of us!), who inquired innocently if she had any “fun” during her long studio tenure. MGM, she added, tried to sell me like a prize hog.
Her big break came in 1946 when MGM lent her to Universal to star as the femme fatale in The Killers, a huge hit which launched Burt Lancaster’s career. As Kitty Collins, the femme fatale who caused of the downfall of Lancaster’s character, Swede, Ava lit up the screen. Director Robert Siodmak’s The Killers still stands as one of the best film noir dramas ever made.
MGM knew now she was ready for bigger things and cast her in 1947’s The Hucksters opposite Clark Gable (pictured above). The film also introduced to Hollywood a young British actress by the name of Deborah Kerr.
Ava’s private life was by then known by all who followed movie news. She’d wed and divorced Mickey Rooney, a marriage that last all of 16 months. She was pursued by Howard Hughes. She’d married and divorced the much married bandleader Artie Shaw, a union that lasted one year.
Ava’s last and most famous marriage to Frank Sinatra endured a bit longer, just under six years beginning in 1951. “Angel” was Sinatra’s nickname for her her. Despite the tempestuousness of their union, they remained close friends for as long they both lived.(It’s been calculated that Gardner’s trio of famous spouses themselves married a total of 20 times.)
Garder’s taste in high-profile paramours was not terrific either. Director John Huston recalls that during the Italy shooting of his 1966 epic, The Bible, George C. Scott fell madly in love with her. (Scott) was insanely jealous, extremely demanding of Ava’s time and attention, and he became violent when they were not forthcoming.
This very intensity turned her off, and pretty soon she started avoiding him. Scott (was) an on-and-off drinker, and he was on at the time,” Huston wrote. Scott threatened Ava several times, once in a bar. He later broke into her hotel suite, causing a scandal.
Huston recalls then after Ava and Scott returned (separately) to the States, I think Frank Sinatra commissioned a couple of his lads to go around with her. Nine years after their divorce, Ava and Frank (bore) a great affection for each other, and when in trouble, she always turn(ed) to him.
Gardner became more reclusive in her later years, settling in London with her prized pet Corgi and a longtime, dedicated housekeeper. A pair of strokes in 1986 left her partially paralyzed. She died of pneumonia in 1990 at age 67, and was buried in her native North Carolina.
One of Hollywood’s most beautiful stars is remembered today via a 5,000-square-foot storefont museum on East Market St. in Smithfield, North Carolina. It’s said the Ava Gardner Museum does brisk business.