Review: AVA: A LIFE IN MOVIES is a feast for the eyes and the mind

Ava Gardner — Grabtown, North Carolina’s Christmas gift to the world — was probably most familiar to me as one of the quintessential femmes fatales, Kitty in The Killers, and as the determined, loyal woman who saved her husband Frank Sinatra’s career by getting him the role of Maggio in From Here To Eternity. She was certainly the former, and she may have been the latter (she certainly tried), but she was much more than these things. My concept of Gardner has been considerably expanded, by a new biography of the star, Ava: A Life in Movies.

Mr. and Mrs. Frank Sinatra. November 7, 1951. Photo courtesy of Running Press

Just as Ava the actress is compulsively watchable, Ava the book is compulsively readable, well-researched, and full of behind-the-scenes details that instill an urge to watch or re-watch all of her films. The authors accomplish their stated goal of “challeng[ing] the well-worn perception of her life and work” by placing both in the context of Hollywood and larger society, with just enough authentic, fascinating detail to be both informative and entertaining. I came away with the impression that Ava Gardner was full of contrasts. The fairy-tale manner in which she was discovered indicated smooth sailing, yet she struggled for many years with insecurities and rocky romantic relationships. When her beauty was harnessed with her intelligence in The Killers, she became a star, but the mismatch with her studio MGM led to typecasting as “The World’s Most Beautiful Animal” long before she appeared in The Barefoot Contessa, which used that phrase as its tagline. The noir temptress, who on film flawlessly manipulated Burt Lancaster, often lacked confidence and needed encouragement from her directors, nevertheless working tirelessly, quietly, even on difficult shoots. The on-screen siren, who could be as bold as brass, valued her off-screen privacy and disliked attention when she wasn’t working. The woman who suffered from feelings of inferiority about what she perceived as her lack of education and acting ability maintained close friendships with writers like Robert Graves, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, and Henry Miller. The Southern girl, from a town so small it wasn’t on the map, whose accent was so thick that her first screen tests had the sound stripped out, eventually found peace in a very big city, London. Maybe these contradictions are what made Gardner such a compelling performer.  To concur with Tennessee Williams, quoted in the Introduction, I’m thinking of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” — the lines

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes)

are no less true of her than anyone else.

Peter Lawford and Ava Gardner, c. late ’40s. Photo courtesy of Running Press.

Instrumental to this book’s achievement of its aim are the photos. From the striking cover image to photographers’ contact sheets, and even a late ’40s selfie, many are rare and/or candid, going beyond stills and publicity photos, although those are well-represented too, and all are beautifully printed. Sinatra family scrapbooks and local NC newspaper files are just two of the sources tapped. I can’t imagine how many hours research and permissions must have taken, and the results are spectacular.


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Also, your reviewer, a recovering graphic designer, who once dreamed of a career in book design, unabashedly admires this volume’s aesthetic details: spot varnish on the dust jacket matching casewrap, custom endpapers, matte paper stock, designer credit (brilliant job, Susan Van Horn), list of well-chosen and properly-set typefaces, harmonious color palette, and well-organized page layout. It is a real treat to read a book that was obviously created with much care by those who value print design. It’s also available as an e-book; I think it’s pretty obvious which one I would choose. Either way and whatever your current level of Ava awareness, there is an abundance of fascinating material in Ava: A Life in Movies to guarantee any reader’s enjoyment and edification.

Ava: A Life in Movies by Kendra Bean and Anthony Uzarowski
(Tons of) full-color and black-and-white photos.
264 pp. Running Press. $30.

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