Ava Gardner’s acting talent has long been overshadowed by both her intensely tabloid-friendly off-screen life (her relationship with Frank Sinatra still fascinates gossip columnists today) and her striking beauty. Upon seeing her screen test, MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer remarked: “She can’t sing, she can’t act, she can’t talk – she’s terrific!” This notorious assessment has helped to solidify her reputation as a bombshell and little more.
She deserves better. Across a career that lasted over 40 years, Gardner time and again proved the breadth of her acting skills. She could play earthy dames and literal goddesses, heroines and femme fatales, light comedy and heavy drama, all with equal prowess. If there was a connecting link between her characters, it was the strength she brought to those even in the direst of circumstances. Though vulnerability was very much in her wheelhouse, Gardner evinced a toughness and intelligence that illuminated her best films.
These are 10 of them.
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The Killers (1946)
Director: Robert Siodmak
After five years racking up bit parts in more than 20 movies, it was Gardner’s unforgettable appearance as Kitty Collins, the femme fatale who steals the heart and ends the life of Burt Lancaster’s naive ex-prizefighter, that finally catapulted her to stardom.
The Killers delivers the majority of its narrative in non-linear flashbacks, and doesn’t actually grant Gardner much screen time, but she certainly made the best of what she had. In just a handful of scenes, she establishes Kitty as both one of the most irresistibly seductive and dangerously manipulative women in the whole pantheon of film noir. Her callousness in the movie’s final moments remains bone-chilling.
The Great Sinner (1949)
Director: Robert Siodmak
In the first of her three films opposite great friend Gregory Peck, Gardner plays Pauline – a mysterious woman who pulls Peck’s sanctimonious writer Fedja into the hedonistic world of high-stakes gambling.
Pauline recedes in the narrative as Fedja becomes overtaken by his own gambling addiction, but there’s a delicious insouciance to her earlier interactions with him; she knows he’s shocked that a lady could be involved in something so immoral, and (for a while at least) his shock delights her. This swagger – more often the purview of her male compatriots – would become a mark of many of Gardner’s best performances.
East Side, West Side (1949)
Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Gardner was back on femme fatale duty as Isabel, the former mistress of James Mason’s married businessman, who returns to town determined to win him back, despite the anguish of his upper-class wife (Barbara Stanwyck).
Although Isabel is the putative villain of East Side, West Side, and Gardner’s performance is gleefully vicious, there’s an intriguing righteous anger underlining her homewrecking. Whereas Mason and Stanwyck are silver-spoon-fed blue bloods (or so Isabel thinks), Gardner’s Isabel has had to fight for everything she’s ever had, and the delight she takes in unsettling the easy lives of the hypocritical rich makes her surprisingly sympathetic.
Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951)
Director: Albert Lewin
Condemned to an eternity sailing the seas alone after committing a terrible crime, The Flying Dutchman (James Mason) is permitted on land every seven years – if he can convince a woman to give her life for him, then he’ll finally be allowed to die. But Pandora (Gardner), his chosen conquest, is more used to men dying for her…
Gardner’s Pandora is an inadvertent siren, full of sadness and yearning. She doesn’t set out to lure men to their deaths, but their desperation to quench her unquenchable longing leads inevitably to tragedy. Though her beauty is almost mythical, her emotions are recognisably, painfully human.
Director: John Ford
Gardner garnered the only Oscar nomination of her career for Mogambo, and it was eminently deserved.
In essence John Ford’s film is an overheated jungle-set soap opera, which asks us to believe she and Grace Kelly would both fall for decrepit big-game hunter Clark Gable (only 52, but appearing a lot older) the second they lay eyes on him. Yet Gardner brings such immense vitality and nuance to her jaded young war widow that she single-handedly pulls the film through its sillier moments. Whenever she’s off the screen, we’re left counting the seconds until her return.
On the Beach (1959)
Director: Stanley Kramer
An atom bomb has detonated in the northern hemisphere, leaving most of Earth’s sole surviving habitants in Australia, waiting for the lethal cloud to blow their way. Despite having mere months left to live, American naval captain Dwight (Peck) finds himself falling for Moira (Gardner), a lonely local woman.
After nearly 20 years under contract to MGM, On the Beach marked the beginning of Gardner’s career as a freelance actress. Her last and best filmic collaboration with Gregory Peck uses their close connection to draw a convincing, bleakly beautiful portrait of love at the very end of the world.
Seven Days in May (1964)
Director: John Frankenheimer
Colonel Jiggs Casey (Kirk Douglas) suspects his superior officer, General James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster), of being about to launch a coup and depose the president (Frederic March). Desperate to stop him, he turns to Ellie (Gardner), an ex-mistress of Scott’s, hoping to secure old love letters as blackmail material.
Once again, Gardner made the most of relatively little screen-time here. Knowing she’s still fond of Scott, Jiggs tries to flirt the letters out of Ellie; she finds the knowledge of this manipulation humiliating, while understanding the high stakes driving his mission. As she decides whether to help him, Gardner’s textured portrayal of Ellie’s decision-making process is both moving and riveting.
The Night of the Iguana (1964)
Director: John Huston
In this Tennessee Williams adaptation, Gardner is Maxine, the apparently free-spirited owner of a resort in the Mexican jungle, whom Richard Burton’s disgraced priest-turned-tour-guide runs to for help in a moment of dire need. But the recently widowed Maxine is dealing with her own turmoil.
While Gardner’s performance as Maxine is earthy and loud and often very funny – she and Burton make a tremendously entertaining double act – an aching vulnerability colours even those lighter moments. There are few better examples than The Night of the Iguana of Gardner’s deftness at playing women whose surface-level bawdiness masks a world of inner pain.
The Ballad of Tam Lin (1970)
Director: Roddy McDowall
Roddy McDowall’s sole feature directorial project sees Gardner as Michaela, the glamorous older woman who likes to surround herself with young acolytes – her current favourite being Tom (Ian McShane). When Tom develops feelings for the local vicar’s daughter, who’s a similar age to him, Michaela enacts unearthly fury in taking her revenge.
McDowall told critic Roger Ebert he made folk horror The Ballad of Tam Lin as a tribute to Gardner, and it is a joy to see her unleash the full power of her witchy beauty in one of only two horror movies of her career (her part in the other, Michael Winner’s 1977 film The Sentinel, is far less prominent).
The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972)
Director: John Huston
Gardner doesn’t show up in person until the final sequence of John Huston’s idiosyncratic western The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, but her image is seen throughout the movie. She plays Lily Langtree, the obsession of the eponymous judge (Paul Newman), who spends his days doling out his own unique form of justice to those unfortunate enough to cross him; Lily’s picture is plastered all over his ‘courtroom’, and he makes his marshals swear allegiance to her.
Although her role is effectively just an extended cameo, Gardner’s presence is vital in underlining the film’s themes of myth and legend and the enduring power of icons.
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