She was signed to a contract by MGM Studios in 1941 and appeared in small roles until she drew attention with her performance in The Killers (1946). She became one of Hollywood's leading actresses, considered one of the most beautiful women of her day. She was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress for her work in Mogambo (1953).
She appeared in several high-profile films from the 1950s to 1970s, including Bhowani Junction (1956), On the Beach (1959), The Night of the Iguana (1964), Earthquake (1974), and The Cassandra Crossing (1976). Gardner continued to act on a regular basis until 1986, four years before her death of pneumonia, at age 67, in 1990.
She is listed as one of the American Film Institute's greatest stars of all time.
Early yearsGardner was born in the small farming community of Grabtown, Johnston County, North Carolina, the youngest of seven children (she had two brothers; Raymond and Melvin, and four sisters; Beatrice, Elsie Mae, Inez and Myra) of poor cotton and tobacco farmers; her mother, Mary Elizabeth ("Mollie") Gardner (née Baker) was a Baptist of Scots-Irish and English descent, while her father, Jonas Bailey Gardner, was a Roman Catholic of Irish American and American Indian (Tuscarora) descent. When the children were still young, the Gardners lost their property, forcing Jonas Gardner to work at a sawmill and Mollie to begin working as a cook and housekeeper at a dormitory for teachers at the nearby Brogden School.
When Gardner was 13 years old, the family decided to try their luck in a bigger town, Newport News, Virginia, where Mollie Gardner found work managing a boardinghouse for the city's many shipworkers. While in Newport News, Gardner's father became ill and died from bronchitis in 1938, when Ava was 15 years old. After Jonas Gardner's death, the family moved to the Rock Ridge suburb of Wilson, North Carolina, where Mollie Gardner ran another boarding house for teachers. Ava Gardner attended high school in Rock Ridge and she graduated from there in 1939. She then attended secretarial classes at Atlantic Christian College in Wilson for about a year.
Gardner was visiting her sister Beatrice ("Bappie") in New York in 1941 when Beatrice's husband Larry Tarr, a professional photographer, offered to take her portrait. He was so pleased with the results that he displayed the finished product in the front window of his Tarr Photography Studio on tony Fifth Avenue.
Early careerLoews Theatres legal clerk, Barnard "Barney" Duhan, spotted Gardner's photo in Tarr's studio. At the time, Duhan often posed as an MGM talent scout to meet girls, using the fact that MGM was a subsidiary of Loews. Duhan entered Tarr's and tried to get Gardner's number, but was rebuffed by the receptionist. Duhan made the offhand comment, "Somebody should send her info to MGM", and the Tarrs did so immediately. Shortly after, Gardner, who at the time was a student at Atlantic Christian College, traveled to New York to be interviewed at MGM's New York office. She was offered a standard contract by MGM, and left school for Hollywood in 1941 with her sister Bappie accompanying her. MGM's first order of business was to provide her a speech coach, as her Carolina drawl was nearly incomprehensible to them.
Oscar nominationGardner was nominated for an Academy Award for Mogambo (1953); the award was won by Audrey Hepburn for Roman Holiday. Her performance as Maxine Faulk in The Night of the Iguana (1964), was well reviewed, and she was nominated a BAFTA Award and a Golden Globe.
Other films include The Hucksters (1947), Show Boat (1951), The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952), 1954's The Barefoot Contessa (which some consider to be Gardner's "signature film" since it mirrored her real life custom of going barefoot), Bhowani Junction (1956), The Sun Also Rises (in which she played party-girl Brett Ashley) (1957), and the film version of Neville Shute's best-selling On the Beach, co-starring Gregory Peck. Off-camera, she could be witty and pithy, as in her assessment of director John Ford, who directed Mogambo ("The meanest man on earth. Thoroughly evil. Adored him!")
Later careerIn 1966, Gardner briefly sought the role of Mrs. Robinson in Mike Nichols' The Graduate (1967). She reportedly called Nichols and said, "I want to see you! I want to talk about this Graduate thing!" Nichols never seriously considered her for the part, but he did visit her hotel, where he later recounted that "she sat at a little French desk with a telephone, she went through every movie star cliché. She said, 'All right, let's talk about your movie. First of all, I strip for nobody.'"
Gardner moved to London, England in 1968, undergoing an elective hysterectomy to allay her worries of contracting the uterine cancer that had claimed the life of her own mother. That year, she made what some consider to be one of her best films, Mayerling, in which she played the Austrian Empress Elisabeth of Austria opposite James Mason as Emperor Franz Joseph I.
She appeared in a number of disaster films throughout the 1970s, notably Earthquake (1974), The Cassandra Crossing (1976), and the Canadian movie City on Fire (1979). She also starred in The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972) with Paul Newman and Jacqueline Bisset, The Blue Bird (1976) with Jane Fonda and Elizabeth Taylor.
Her last movie was Regina Roma (1982), a direct-to-video release. In the 1980s she acted primarily on television, including the miniseries remake of The Long Hot Summer (1985) and the prime-time soap opera Knot's Landing, also in 1985. In 1986 she appeared in her two final projects, the TV movies Harem and Maggie.
Marriages and relationships
Mickey RooneySoon after her arrival in Los Angeles, Gardner met fellow MGM contract player Mickey Rooney; they married on January 10, 1942, in Ballard, California; she was 19 years old, and he was 21. Gardner made several movies before 1946, but it wasn't until she starred in The Killers with Burt Lancaster that she became a star and a sex symbol. Rooney and Gardner divorced in 1943. He later reputedly rhapsodized about their sex life, but Gardner retorted, "Well, honey, he may have enjoyed the sex, but [goodness knows] I didn't." She once characterized their marriage as "Love Finds Andy Hardy".
Howard HughesGardner became a friend of businessman and aviator Howard Hughes in the early to mid-1940s and the relationship lasted into the 1950s.
Artie ShawGardner's second marriage was to jazz musician and band leader Artie Shaw, from 1945 to 1946.
Frank SinatraGardner's third and last marriage (1951–1957) was to singer and actor Frank Sinatra. She would later say in her autobiography that of all the men she'd had - that he was the love of her life. Sinatra left his wife, Nancy, for Ava and their subsequent marriage made headlines. Sinatra was savaged by gossip columnists Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, the Hollywood establishment, the Roman Catholic Church, and by his fans for leaving his wife for a "femme fatale". His career suffered, while hers prospered - the headlines solidifying her screen siren image. Gardner used her considerable clout to get Sinatra cast in his Oscar-winning role in From Here to Eternity (1953). That role and the award revitalized both Sinatra's acting and singing careers. Gardner said of her relationship with Sinatra, "We were great in bed. It was usually on the way to the bidet when the trouble began."
During their marriage Gardner became pregnant twice, but she had two abortions. "MGM had all sorts of penalty clauses about their stars having babies," she said. She said years later, "We couldn't even take care of ourselves. How were we going to take care of a baby?" Gardner and Sinatra remained good friends for the rest of her life.
Luis Miguel DominguínGardner divorced Sinatra in 1957 and headed to Spain where she began a friendship with writer Ernest Hemingway. While staying with Hemingway at his villa in San Francisco de Paula in Cuba Gardner once swam alone with no bathing suit in his pool. After watching her Hemingway ordered his staff: "The water is not to be emptied". Gardner's friendship with Hemingway led to her becoming a fan of bullfighting and bullfighters such as Luis Miguel Dominguín, who became her lover. "It was a sort of madness, honey," she said later of the time.
Final yearsAfter a lifetime of smoking, Gardner suffered from emphysema, in addition to an autoimmune disorder (which may have been lupus). Two strokes in 1986 left her partially paralyzed and bedridden. Although Gardner could afford her medical expenses, Sinatra wanted to pay for her to visit a specialist in the United States, and she allowed him to make the arrangements for a medically-staffed private plane. Her last words (to her housekeeper Carmen), were reportedly, "I'm so tired," before she died of pneumonia at the age of 67. After her death, Sinatra's daughter Tina found him slumped in his room, crying, and unable to speak.
Gardner was not only the love of his life but also the inspiration for one of his most personal songs, "I'm a Fool to Want You", which Sinatra (who received a co-writing credit for the song) recorded twice, toward the end of his contract with Columbia Records and during his years on Capitol Records. ("It was Ava who taught him how to sing a torch song", Sinatra arranger Nelson Riddle was once quoted as saying.) It has been reported that Sinatra attended her funeral, due to the presence of a black limousine parked behind the crowd of 500 mourners. Instead, a hairstylist from Fayetteville, North Carolina, had felt that a limousine was the only appropriate mode of transportation to Gardner's funeral. A floral arrangement at Gardner's graveside simply read: "With My Love, Francis".
DeathGardner died in her London home in 1990, from pneumonia, following several years of declining health. Gardner was buried in the Sunset Memorial Park, Smithfield, North Carolina, next to her brothers and their parents, Jonah (1878–1938) and Mollie Gardner (1883–1943). The town of Smithfield now has an Ava Gardner Museum.
Film PortrayalsGardner has been portrayed by Marcia Gay Harden in the TV miniseries Sinatra, Deborah Kara Unger in HBO's The Rat Pack, and Kate Beckinsale in the 2004 Howard Hughes biopic, The Aviator.
|1941||Shadow of the Thin Man||Passerby|
|H.M. Pulham, Esq.||Young Socialite|
|Babes on Broadway||Pitt-Astor Girl|
|1942||Joe Smith - American||Miss Maynard, Secretary|
|This Time for Keeps||Girl in car lighting cigarette|
|Kid Glove Killer||Car Hop|
|Calling Dr. Gillespie||Graduating student at Miss Hope's|
|Reunion in France||Marie, a salesgirl|
|1943||Hitler's Madman||Franciska Pritric a Student|
|Ghosts on the Loose||Betty|
|Du Barry Was a Lady||Perfume Girl|
|Lost Angel||Hat Check Girl|
|1944||Two Girls and a Sailor||Dream Girl|
|Three Men in White||Jean Brown|
|Maisie Goes to Reno||Gloria Fullerton|
|Blonde Fever||Bit Role|
|1945||She Went to the Races||Hilda Spotts|
|The Killers||Kitty Collins|
|1947||Singapore||Linda Grahame/Ann Van Leyden|
|The Hucksters||Jean Ogilvie|
|1948||One Touch of Venus||Venus|
|1949||The Bribe||Elizabeth Hintten|
|The Great Sinner||Pauline Ostrovsky|
|East Side, West Side||Isabel Lorrison|
|1951||Pandora and the Flying Dutchman||Pandora Reynolds|
|My Forbidden Past||Barbara Beaurevel|
|Show Boat||Julie LaVerne|
|1952||Lone Star||Martha Ronda|
|The Snows of Kilimanjaro||Cynthia Green|
|1953||Knights of the Round Table||Guinevere|
|Ride, Vaquero!||Cordelia Cameron|
|The Band Wagon||Herself|
|Mogambo||Honey Bear Kelly||Nominated — Academy Award for Best Actress|
|1954||The Barefoot Contessa||Maria Vargas|
|1956||Bhowani Junction||Victoria Jones||Nominated — BAFTA for Best Foreign Actress|
|1957||The Little Hut||Lady Susan Ashlow|
|The Sun Also Rises||Lady Brett Ashley|
|1958||The Naked Maja||Maria Cayetana, Duchess of Alba|
|1959||On the Beach||Moira Davidson||Nominated — BAFTA for Best Foreign Actress|
|1960||The Angel Wore Red||Soledad|
|1963||55 Days at Peking||Baroness Natalie Ivanoff|
|1964||Seven Days in May||Eleanor Holbrook|
|The Night of the Iguana||Maxine Faulk||Nominated — BAFTA for Best Foreign Actress |
Nominated — Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Actress - Drama
|1966||The Bible: In The Beginning||Sarah|
|1972||The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean||Lily Langtry|
|1975||Permission to Kill||Katina Petersen|
|1976||The Blue Bird||Luxury|
|The Cassandra Crossing||Nicole Dressler|
|1977||The Sentinel||Miss Logan|
|1979||City on Fire||Maggie Grayson|
|1980||The Kidnapping of the President||Beth Richards|
|1981||Priest of Love||Mabel Dodge Luhan|
|1941||Fancy Answers||Girl at Recital|
|1942||We Do It Because-||Lucretia Borgia|
|Mighty Lak a Goat||Girl at the Bijou box office|
|1949||Some of the Best||Herself|
|1964||On the Trail of the Iguana|
|1968||Vienna: The Years Remembered||Herself|
|Knot's Landing||Ruth Galveston|
|The Long Hot Summer||Minnie Littlejohn|