Four years before she died, I had the good fortune to meet Ava Gardner, albeit only briefly. This happened in London in January 1986, at a memorial for Robert Graves, the extraordinary English poet and author (of "The White Goddess" and "I, Claudius," among many other books). Ava had befriended Graves in the mid-1950's, at the height of her stardom; and like almost all the men she met during her tumultuous life, he was instantly beguiled and bewitched by her. Not simply by her luminous beauty — which no camera could quite capture — but also by her intelligence, easy charm, kindness and steadfast individuality. Graves, unrivaled in his knowledge of the Goddess throughout history, wrote an amusing, affectionate tribute to this Love Goddess of the Screen in a 1958 short story for The New Yorker called, quite sincerely, "A Toast to Ava Gardner."
Like Graves's piece, Lee Server's enthralling new biography, "Ava Gardner," could similarly be characterized as an extended toast to her. For no matter how objective Server tries to appear in detailing the highs and lows of her 67 years — the three marriages, the numerous affairs, the binges, the nightlong cruising of low-life byways and bordellos, the mainly poor movies she was in — he cannot really hide his essential fondness for her. It is the kind of affection virtually every one of the more than 100 people he interviewed felt and spoke of with enthusiasm, the kind a reader too will find hard to resist.
In the space of these pages, we befriend, then fall in love with, then finally mourn a remarkably beautiful woman who was surprisingly shy, yet spoke her mind fearlessly (and often colorfully), who thought little of herself as an actress, who lived in a man's world yet managed not to be fooled into losing sight of who she was. She remained, ultimately, free to be herself, no matter what the price.
The book's subtitle, "Love Is Nothing," is at once deceptive and ironic because what Ava actually said was "love is nothing but a pain." Yet she lived most of her life as if love were everything. Her remark came after the three marriages and a number of affairs had all ended unhappily (though in the case of her third husband, Frank Sinatra, the relationship continued in differing ways until her death). When men said they loved you, she had found, it meant they wanted to possess you, to make you live by their rules. To love, it turned out, also meant to ridicule, to exploit, to hurt, to violate (this was particularly true of her affair with George C. Scott, who twice beat her viciously, according to Server).
The trajectory of Ava Gardner's career would be impossible today. She was a product of the old studio star system that flourished from the teens of the 20th century to the early 60's. She had spent a poor though happy childhood in rural North Carolina; her reserved but beloved father, an unsuccessful tobacco farmer, died when she was a teenager. Her schooling was not very effective. She was a tomboy, even as she became heart-stoppingly gorgeous by the time she was 13, and preferred to go barefoot throughout her life.
One of her older sisters was living in New York with her boyfriend, a photographer, and when Ava was 16 she went to visit them. He insisted on taking her picture, and he put a copy in his Fifth Avenue store window. An MGM messenger who was looking for a date happened to see the picture and called the shop to find out where that girl in the window was. Ava had already gone back to North Carolina, so the messenger forgot about her, but Ava's sister jumped at the inquiry, and her boyfriend took a bunch of Ava's photos to the MGM talent department in New York. Sure enough, young Miss Gardner was invited to come to the big city for an interview.
She was shy, awkward, unpolished, untrained, with a Southern accent thick as tar, but her looks won her a screen test. It was terrible. She couldn't move well or talk. Still, when the veteran test director Al Altman viewed the footage, he was struck by just a few seconds, when Ava looked straight into the lens. There was "a flash of hypnotic fire," Server writes, which was precisely what the old studios were always searching for.
Once MGM officials in Hollywood saw the test, they asked Ava to come to the West Coast for $50 a week. She would be put through their talent factory. After that, they would see what happened. So with her sister as chaperone, Ava arrived in Los Angeles in August 1941. She was 18 — and thanks to her loving mother's vigilance and religious convictions, still a virgin.
The first movie star she met was the No. 1 attraction in pictures: Mickey Rooney, age 20. Mickey decided that she was for him, and since he was already an experienced ladies' man, he thought the naïve country girl would be a pushover. She wasn't. Marriage turned out to be the only way to bed her, and that took a while, first because of her reluctance, then because of MGM's disapproval. They didn't want their all-American boy (Andy Hardy, no less) to marry. But neither the studio nor Ava could resist Mickey.
MGM was the squarest studio in town, and the most successful. But its executives had no idea what to do with Ava Gardner. In her first five years, she made 4 shorts and 22 features, not one of which is worth mentioning. It took a loan-out picture at Universal to turn her into a star. In "The Killers" (1946), playing a femme fatale, she finally came into her own. But only briefly. She was good, and much better than good, in a number of movies (like George Cukor's studio-truncated "Bhowani Junction," 1956), but over her entire career, there was only one film that truly captured the persona we came to associate with her — the good-bad girl, the tough-soft, hard-drinking, straight-shooting beauty who could keep up with any guy. That picture was John Ford's African love story "Mogambo" (1953), with Clark Gable and Grace Kelly, the single time Gardner was nominated for an Oscar. It was her third film with Gable, and she made a characteristically sharp remark about her co-star, whom she had adored as a child in North Carolina, and loved platonically as a friend: "Clark is the sort of guy that if you say, 'Hiya, Clark, how are you?' he's stuck for an answer."
While her movies were usually disappointing, her private life was another matter. Love-making with Mickey seems to have been a major turning point for Ava. She not only enjoyed it immensely, but evidently decided to become proficient in all matters sexual. By every account she succeeded. Eventually Mickey strayed, and thus awakened another Ava trait: jealousy. She dumped him. And so began the most important aspect of Ava Gardner's story — her love life. It was complicated, varied (to put it mildly) and deeply intense.
Server, the author of biographies of Robert Mitchum and Sam Fuller, supplies all the twists and turns without becoming salacious. The funniest is Howard Hughes's decades-long but unsuccessful pursuit. Her second marriage, to the musician Artie Shaw, reveals him as a thoroughly unlikable fellow.
But the central love in Ava's life was, of course, her "romance of the century" with Frank Sinatra. He famously left his wife and three children for her, and made at least one genuine suicide attempt because of their topsy-turvy relationship. Madly in love, both were jealous, independent and hot-tempered — they could go from passionate closeness to fury in a matter of seconds. Ava summed up the relationship in another of her pithy remarks: they had no troubles in bed, she said; the fights began "on the way to the bidet." Server's pages on this storied affair provide many of the most touching moments in his excellent biography (and it's to his credit that he does not milk them unduly). Long after the two were divorced, each continued to carry a torch for the other.
This was clear to me even from the few minutes I spent talking with Ava at the Graves memorial. I had known Sinatra for a while and had almost made a film with him, so I brought his name up. The look in her eyes became distant and sad, very similar to the way Sinatra's eyes turned at the mention of her. Lucia Graves, the writer's youngest daughter (it was she who translated Gardner's posthumously published memoir into Spanish), was 12 when she met Ava, and she told me that whenever she visited Ava's London apartment, Gardner was always playing Sinatra records. Interviewed for this book, Lucia gives perhaps the most moving testimonial of Ava's last days, of her marked diminishment and yet of how "the moment you were with her . . . you saw that nothing had really gone away, nothing was lost, she was still beautiful."
Lucia also told me that Ava had very much wanted her autobiography to be titled after the very first Robert Graves poem she had read. Though Graves would dedicate a couple of later poems to her, the one he initially singled out for her attention — because it reminded him so much of her — went in part: "She speaks always in her own voice / Even to strangers."
Ava had wanted to name her memoir "In Her Own Voice." (It was published as the prosaic "Ava: My Story," except in Spain, where Lucia made good on Ava's wish.)
There was another key phrase from the same poem: "She is wild and innocent, pledged to love / Through all disaster."
This, Graves wrote, was "Ava to the life." He was right.
Publicado originalmente en