Who is the loveliest star of all? In her heyday, Ava Gardner (1922-1990) could ask her mirror that question, confident that it would not answer with another's name. In 1948, when Universal made One Touch of Venus, there was only one plausible choice for the title role. Gardner's face was her fame and fortune, but satisfaction in life and work eluded her - Hollywood, she said, "gave me everything I never wanted". A new biography by Lee Server shows just how turbulent and frustrating was the life of this lonely goddess.
Pure chance - an MGM employee's seeing her picture in a photographer's window - propelled Gardner into another world. A sharecropper's daughter, she grew up in rural North Carolina, where the better-off girls didn't have prettier shoes - they had shoes, full stop. She had read only one book (Gone With the Wind) and was preparing, at 18, to be a secretary. Six months later, she and her husband Mickey Rooney were having dinner at the White House.
By the age of 30, she had also married and divorced Artie Shaw and Frank Sinatra, and had had abortions instead of children. The kind of gal who, instead of leaving the men to their drinking, would stay and keep up with them, she also developed a taste for whisky and a tolerance for men who, when drunk, would beat her. Gardner's strangest relationship was with Howard Hughes, whom, she says in her memoirs, she never slept with, though he pursued her for 20 years.
For all the men in her life, Gardner lacked the most important one to a movie actress - a manager. Too excited at being signed by MGM to realise that a seven-year contract at $50 a week was not that great, she belonged to a company that treated her as little more than a pin-up. She walked through minor parts until she was cast, in 1946, opposite Burt Lancaster in his first movie, The Killers. Taken seriously for once, Gardner profited from the help of an intelligent producer (Mark Hellinger) and director (Robert Siodmak).
After this classic film noir, however, Gardner found memorable roles hard to come by. When she could let her natural high spirits come through, as in Mogambo (1953), fighting with Grace Kelly forwhite hunter Clark Gable, she was delightful. In some films, her part was the tragic mulatto, such as the singer in Show Boat (1951) or the Anglo-Indian woman in Bhowani Junction (1956), who can't be happy with an Englishman, an Indian, or her own kind. A notorious publicity line called her "the world's most beautiful animal".
In 1954's The Barefoot Contessa she played a girl from the slums of Madrid who becomes a movie star but keeps running off to dance with the gypsies and is murdered when her aristocratic husband finds that she has been sleeping with the chauffeur. The following year, Gardner decided to stop making herself miserable playing good-time girls and to have a good time of her own. She had already had an affair with the greatest Spanish bullfighter, Dominguin, and felt an affinity with Spanish culture, so she went to live in Madrid, cheering on the matadors by day, dancing and carrying on with them at night.
Caring by then only about money or a holiday, Gardner took up offers with the same indifference with which she drank or drove fast cars, landing herself in accidents that she was lucky to survive, and inspiring the character of the weary playgirl portrayed by Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita. Whether she was drunk or sober, her flamboyant behaviour eventually wore out her welcome and she left, to spend her last 20 years living quietly in London.
'Ava Gardner', by Lee Server, will be published by Bloomsbury on 3 April. The Ava Gardner series at the National Film Theatre runs from 13 to 30 April ( www.bfi.org.uk)Reuse content