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Ava Gardner

Updated on August 19, 2016

She was the fabled Hollywood beauty who married Frank Sinatra and helped his career restart. She also married actor Micky Rooney and bandleader Artie Shaw.

But there was more to Ava Gardner than famous husbands.

She gave us many memorable performances during her 45-year acting career and many fans still consider her the most beautiful actress in Hollywood history.

Early Years

Ava was born Ava Lavinia Gardner in Grabtown, North Carolina in 1922.

Young Ava Modelling

Her family lived modestly and Ava grew up happily, without ambitions or pretensions, in a very straight-laced environment.

At age 18, her picture in the window of her brother-in- law's New York photo studio brought her to the attention of MGM, leading quickly to Hollywood and a film contract based strictly on her beauty. Her gawky, unsophisticated demeanor was totally made over by the studio into an image of inaccessible glamour. MGM also provided her with a voice coach, as her Carolina drawl was nearly incomprehensible.

Although she entered the movie business very easily she found it tough going to become recognised and she played in a series of second reelers before she emerged from the ranks of decorative starlets. With zero acting experience, her first 17 film roles, 1942-5, were one-line bits or little better.

Ava in 'The Killers', 1946

Early Stardom

She landed her first starring role in Whistle Stop (1946), then made a splash that same year in The Killers, co-starring with Burt Lancaster. and then The Hucksters (1947). Ava's publicity photographs changed to reflect her roles in both "The Killers" and "The Hucksters".

Previously she had usually been pictured in swim-suits in broad daylight, but now she was photographed in darkened interiors wearing tight-fitting cocktail dresses. Her pin-up pictures also moved indoors. Frequently she was photographed in black underwear instead of swim suits, normally leaning decorously against a pillar, a looking glass or a cocktail bar.

She continued her upward climb in 1948 with "One Touch Of Venus", an uninspired screen version of a hit Broadway musical. Ava conveyed perfectly the liveliness of the liberated Venus, a statue that comes to life when kissed by an inebriated shop-worker (Robert Walker). Franz Planer, one of only two cinematographers sanctioned by Audrey Hepburn brought out for the first time the majestic nature of Ava's beauty. In previous movies Ava had been presented as a slinky glamour girl, but Planer revealed that her beauty was of a higher order.

Planer's work had great influence on how Ava would be perceived. From now on Ava's publicity pictures concentrated on her face, and care was taken to light it expressively. Famous photographers throughout the world, including many who did not usually work with movie stars, were now eager to photograph her, and quickly Ava achieved international recognition as a great beauty.

Her husky voice and seductive personal presence had made her one of the best-known American actresses by the early 1950s and she continued to make successful movies such as Show Boat (1951), The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952)with Gregory Peck, and The Barefoot Contessa (1954) then George Cukor's Bhowani Junction in 1956, The Sun Also Rises (1957), with Tyrone Power, and On the Beach (1959), again with Peck.

It wasn't until 1953, when John Ford cast her in 'Mogambo', with Clark Gable, that her true talent emerged, gaining her one Oscar nomination, for Best Actress. Her sensitive characterizations in such pictures as Mogambo, Bhowani Junction (1956), On the Beach (1959), and The Night of the Iguana (1964) received much critical praise.

Soon after her arrival in Los Angeles, Gardner met actor Mickey Rooney; they married on January 10, 1942 in Ballard, California. She was 19 years old. They divorced in 1943, mainly because Rooney wouldn't give up his partying ways.

Ava and Artie

Her second marriage was to clarinetist and bandleader Artie Shaw from 1945 to 1946 and it was even more disastrous than the first. It was during this marriage that Gardner began to drink and take refuge in therapy.

In 1948 Ava began a stormy and very public relationship with a married man. Already a controversial figure and an incorrigible philanderer, he was egocentric, volatile and undisciplined. He was also extremely talented. His name was Frank Sinatra.

Ava and umm.. some guy

At the beginning of his relationship with Ava, Sinatra's career had dipped for a variety of reasons, but the press was still following him closely. By now Sinatra had proved conclusively that he was nothing like his public image of a shy, romantic dreamer leading a quiet family life, and the press knew that spreading gossip about him would sell newspapers and magazines. As Ava was never one to hide her light under a bushel, there was little chance their relationship would proceed discreetly. The press was not alone in taking an interest. The Catholic Church decided this was a matter for them, and denounced both parties. (Sinatra and his wife were Catholics.) Some members of the church instructed their flock to boycott Sinatra's records and Ava's movies. Sinatra was vulnerable and his record sales plummeted, but Ava's career was blossoming and she suffered little damage. At first, however, there was concern in Hollywood about the impact on her career, and this too was exploited by the media.

Your Great One-Stop Hollywood Site

Later Career

Gardner left Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1958 and became an independent actress. She continued to appear in films through the 1960s and '70s, though usually in less-important roles than before. Gardner's typical screen persona was that of an earthy, free-spirited, and irreverent woman of the world.

In 1968, Ava moved to London, where she would live for the rest of her life. Ava had suffered a couple of strokes which did slow her down somewhat but not for her zest for life. She continued to work on her autobiography entitled Ava, My Story, which was concluded before she died in London, on January 25, 1990 of pneumonia at the age of 67. She never got to see the book in final print. Ava was laid to rest in Smithfield, North Carolina in the Gardner family plot. An Ava Gardner Museum is located there.

Six Actresses from different eras.

Its a tough call!

Who was the most beautiful actress?

See results

Ava Gardner Trivia

- Although famous for her dedicated self-education as an adult, by 1945, Ava had only ever read two books: “Gone with the Wind” and the Bible.

- Ava had to learn flamenco for her role in” The Barefoot Contessa”, and became increasingly proficient, often dancing all night.

- She once met “Lord of the Rings” author J.R.R. Tolkien and neither knew why the other was famous.

- She married Frank Sinatra, Artie Shaw and Mickey Rooney, but all three marriages were childless. She also had an affair with billionaire hypochondriac Howard Hughes.


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