Ava Gardner by Lee Server

A tale of beauty and the bottle
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The seventh child of a North Carolina tobacco farmer, Ava Gardner had the classic rags-to-riches story, propelled to stardom by the powerful effect of her awesome beauty. She was consistently referred to by those who should know (Hollywood moguls, Frank Sinatra, Ernest Hemingway, Man Ray, among many others) as the most beautiful woman they had ever seen.

Her earliest ambition was to be a secretary in New York. With such modest beginnings and a poor education, it's no surprise that her aspirations never scaled much higher than that. Acting was not something she took seriously. A certain emptiness seems to have taken hold of her early on, perhaps the effect of her stunning surface. Lee Server has his work cut out to keep the reader interested in his subject.

On visiting her older sister in the city, 17-year-old Ava had her portrait taken in a photograher's studio. A passing talent scout spotted it and that was that: she was whisked off to Hollywood to become a starlet in MGM's hothouse for hapless girls and boys, groomed to within an inch of any budding individuality or imagination. Mickey Rooney was one of the first men she met and so intoxicated with her was he that they married within a few months.

She discovered sex, and she loved it. She had many, many lovers and a lot of fun. Happiness, however, eluded her. Her relationships were soured by intense sexual jealousy (strange in someone so breathtakingly gorgeous, but Server offers no analysis of her insecurity) and punctuated with unneccessary conflict. One thing Server does convey is that she was the kind of woman it was great to party with. She was unaffected, generous, wild, and funny. Over dinner with the singer Mel Tormé, an unnamed English actor attempted an elaborate and flowery chat-up line. She looked up from her soup and asked him, "Do you eat pussy?" This was 1946 and women didn't say things like that.

So she was a compelling personality with a regal disregard for others' opinions of her. She could be loving and loyal, too. Her films were not of the highest order, but she was. She floated across the screen, the viewer riveted to every casually feline gesture. She epitomised the classic film noir temptress, her physical impact lingering and enlarging her screen space. She was the ultimate screen goddess. Technicolor brought out more florid performances, but it was the consummately controlled teasing of her audience that saved her from over-heated dialogue. Server details her performances dutifully, though at one point his description of her "dark, exquisite image worthy of Vermeer" makes one wonder if he's overstepped his critical acumen.

Still, we get the picture, as far as her life is concerned. Three failed marriages to the immature Rooney, the self-involved Sinatra and the simply nasty Artie Shaw (band leader and pseudo-intellectual) ensured a self-protecting cynicism in turn masking an unacknowledged sorrow and loneliness. MGM's moulding of her screen persona when she was too young yet to know who she really was must be another factor in her headlong flight into the gin bottle.

Her pursuit of a good time, or a distraction from feelings of emptiness, depending on how you look at it, increasingly makes one feel the emptiness at the heart of this book quite acutely. "I don't trust love anymore," she said. "it has led me astray." But she went for it anyway. After tormenting Sinatra and being tormented in return, she turned to Spanish matadors for consolation. She needed excitement in order to feel alive. All her men loved her passionately and enduringly, but she seems to have liked excitement better.

As she got into her forties, by now a voluntary exile from Hollywood, chasing young men who couldn't believe their luck around Europe, the alcohol intake increased and so did the insistent voices of her demons. She was virtually evicted from Franco's Spain after a long residence in Madrid, scandalising the locals by public canoodling with dubious gypsies. She even urinated in the lobby of the Ritz, from which she was then barred, to her astonishment.

Server sometimes attempts Nick Tosches' exquisitely judged wise-guy approach to ironic double-takes and knowing asides, but it doesn't really work for him. He is a meticulous biographer; not stylish, but sympathetic and conscientious. He states the facts of her life and her choices evenhandedly, without any attempt at uncovering her motivation. There's no interaction with his subject, just presentation.

We end up not having a relationship with either Gardner or her biographer. Instead we feel somewhat exhausted by the endless partying, drinking, and dives into the European demi-monde. Rather like the men in her life, one is left to suppose. They couldn't keep up with her either.