Ava Gardner: Love is Nothing
by Lee Server
Reviewed by Alan Rode
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Ava Gardner possessed such luminescent beauty that both sexes experienced a sharp intake of breath and weak knees when seeing her for the first time.
As the ultimate movie love goddess, no film, movie, photograph or publicist’s adjectives could ever do Ava justice. Her life of volcanic excess proved to be similarly elusive until Lee Server’s Ava Gardner: Love Is Nothing.
Server, who perfectly captured Robert Mitchum’s laconic laissez-faire in Robert Mitchum: Baby, I Don’t Care, follows with another captivating chronicle of one of Hollywood’s most enduring stars.
“Love is nothing but a pain…” said Ava, concluding the sentence with an exact anatomical locale. For Gardner, love and pain became a swirling, kamikaze-like froth of high-speed existence before decades of overload finally broke her down.
A literal “Tobacco Road” refugee from Grabtown, North Carolina, Ava’s beauty was instantly recognized in a quickie MGM screen test, and she was signed to a long term contract. Stardom was not instantaneous. The legendary studio’s overstocked production line moved at a glacial pace, and Ava’s southern brogue and total lack of acting experience required considerable polish.
After six years of small parts and loan-outs in dreck such as Ghosts on the Loose (1943) with Bela Lugosi, it finally took Mark Hellinger casting her in Universal’s The Killers (1946) to make her a star.
“It was sex-two-and extra,” wisecracked the fast-talking Hellinger when asked why he chose Ava for the starring role. Gardner’s striking performance as a lethal femme fatale who double-crosses Burt Lancaster remains a seminal screen performance. After The Killers, Gardner never had to glance backwards for stardom, but many of her subsequent films didn’t do her justice.
She shined in several pictures, including Show Boat (1951), Mogambo (1953) and The Barefoot Contessa (1954), when her beauty wasn’t used to hype poorly designed material. Gardner lacked confidence, and acting was always a chore. Only craftsmen directors like John Ford and Joe Mankiewicz were able to bring out her considerable talent.
It is Ava Gardner’s publicly private life that is presented in mesmerizing fashion by Server.
She was a virginal teenager at MGM, until bending to the incessant blandishments of that diminutive superstar and Hollywood sharpie, Mickey Rooney. After a whirlwind honeymoon on Rooney’s terms at Pebble Beach, “…sex and golf and sex and golf,” Gardner’s high octane jealousy was piqued Mickey’s incessant philandering. She moved on to charismatic bandleader Artie Shaw, who quickly became as coldly demeaning as he was with his other seven wives. Ava became more case-hardened, yet increasingly vulnerable, looking for love in all the right and wrong places.
Ava’s craving for sex, booze and wild times quickly rose to tsunami heights, and the wave failed to crest for many years. Although she held off an ardent Howard Hughes, Gardner was forever restless, fearing loneliness over all else. No matter how bored or free of spirit, though, no other relationship in the star’s life rivaled her thermonuclear marriage to Frank Sinatra.
The seismic pairing of both rags-to-riches superstars that pegged the Richter scale of destructive passion became the centerpiece of Gardner’s life. Ava and Frank’s unbridled desire for one another was as unchecked as their inability to coexist without screaming invective and hurled bric-a-brac. Yet it was a love that endured like a flame of pure fire.
If all of this sounds like a prurient show business gossip biography, it isn’t.
Gardner’s life is depicted in an upbeat, attuned style. Polemics and titillation are refreshingly absent from a mesmerizing story supported by superb research. Server fondly brings Gardner to life as a warm, refreshingly unpretentious star whose appetites eventually overwhelmed her spirit.
Whether defining amnesia as “noir’s version of the common cold” or recalling Mark Hellinger placing a censor’s letter about The Killers script in a file labeled”Fuck You,” the author’s ability to imbue cinematic history within the narrative is peerless.
In the end, a desiccated Gardner iteratively listens to Sinatra’s records in her London flat as her health fails. The poignancy of Ava Gardner’s destructive quest for love will bring a lump to your throat.
Ava Gardner: Love Is Nothing is a compelling triumph of a biography.
Alan Rode is a founding member of the Film Noir Foundation, a film critic and a writer living in Los Angeles.
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