Film Studies: Those curves, those eyes, that temper - no doubt about it, Ava was a vamp

For a few years, she was hailed as the most beautiful woman in the world. This was in the early 1950s, when that title - like heavyweight champion of the world - still meant something. And that comparison is not the worst way to consider Miss Gardner. Just as a generation of boxers practised their slugger's crouch and their mean-as-nails expression (until Muhammad Ali destroyed the game with irony), so Ava Gardner was one of the last of a generation told to get their hair in a state of elegant collapse, double the lipstick, breathe in until the decolletage was bursting and look at the camera with an attitude that said, "Don't you just wish you could have me, or be me?"

Another way of putting it is to say that in the age of Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn, Ava Gardner had the assurance of knowing she was "the most beautiful woman in the world". It was a slender advantage, for the others had a stronger appeal: Taylor could act; Kelly was a princess cut with a tramp; Marilyn had notions of Ali's satirical approach; and Audrey was the patron saint of all flat-chested girls. As for Ava...? Well, it was then, and is now (as she comes up for National Film Theatre retrospect), a fair question as to whether she bothered to act.

She had another advantage - one that I know you'll forgive me for mentioning. The word was out that should you want to find out if Ava was indeed the most beautiful, you could take your shot. Around all the other ladies was the suspicion that vanity, careerism and neurosis had left them a lot less touchable than the photographs promised. But Ava Gardner - a country girl from Grabton in North Carolina - had the reputation of being funny, earthy, generous and good. Long before she really made it in the movies, in that period when she was an MGM starlet waiting for a break, she had entered into marriages with Mickey Rooney and Artie Shaw that built up the inside word on what a great lay she was. Even in Hollywood, those legends are sometimes rooted in fact.

By 1946-47, the word had got around and Gardner on film did nothing to betray it. Her best luck was falling in with the tough-guy producer Mark Hellinger. He saw her in a little picture called Whistle Stop (written by her lover Philip Yordan) and reckoned to cast her opposite another newcomer, Burt Lancaster, in a picture called The Killers, a clever opening up of the Ernest Hemingway short story. The Killers is a great film noir still, and Ava has a terrific part as the femme fatale. A lot of actresses could have handled the break, but Ava inspired "leaks" from the set that the moody animal Burt could hardly keep his hands off her. And vice versa. Audiences still swallowed the hype whole in those days.

Her star was born and it lasted from about 1947 for 10 years or so. Alas, Mark Hellinger died. But Ava was in time for Technicolor. She had been a knockout in the stylised black-and-white of The Killers, but she was made for Technicolor. This produced some pretty bad pictures - The Snows of Kilimanjaro (from Hemingway again), Ride Vaquero!, Knights of the Round Table, The Sun Also Rises. But then there are two pictures - both photographed by Jack Cardiff, the universal master of Technicolor - in which just to behold her is to get the smell of passion: Pandora and the Flying Dutchman and The Barefoot Contessa.

At the time, people reckoned that Pandora was an insane infatuation (directed by the arty Albert Lewin), while Contessa was very serious (because Joseph L Mankiewicz had made it). Nowadays, I think Pandora is not just more fun, but much closer to the dream of great movies. I think it's also notable that Ava acts in much the same way in each film - like someone content to be photographed and certain that her immediacy as a woman is not going to be called for.

One exception to that is John Ford's Africa picture Mogambo, where Ava got an Oscar nomination - presumably for making Grace Kelly seem prudish. She is also appealing as Julie in Show Boat, though it hurt her that the studio refused to use her husky singing voice. Julie is a half-caste - Lena Horne was denied the part - though some people alleged always that Ava had a dash of black blood. She gave just one fine performance, and it's the reason for this NFT season, because the film - Bhowani Junction - is hardly shown otherwise. It was a famous flop, but Gardner is very touching as the Anglo-Indian girl at the heart of the melodrama.

Yes, I have omitted her most famous part and the thing that really defines Ava Gardner: the way she took Frank Sinatra away from Catholic wife and family, and the public brawl that was known as their marriage. It was far sexier than their movies and it may have inspired some of Frank's greatest songs - another reason for being grateful to Ava.

Her looks went. She drank too much, and she didn't take care of herself. Her films got worse. John Huston did his best to look after her - The Night of the Iguana, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, The Bible - and she was washed-up wreckage in some forlorn epics. She lived in Europe a good deal, and she was famous once for having bullfighter boyfriends. But at last she fell on hard times and the world relished the stories that Frank was still slipping her packets of cash to help out.

Ava died in her late sixties, and she'll be a celebrity so long as people buy coffee table books with those glamour shots. Apart from that, you had to be there for those few years when she was a bloom that hadn't faded and when she reeled off the line, "Well, sure, Frank Sinatra is only 110lb, but 10lb of that is ****." You know what I mean. Someone who didn't need a set of scales.

d.thomson@independent.co.uk

Ava Gardner season, 13-30 April, National Film Theatre ( www.bfi.org.uk, 020 7928 3232)

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