Translated by Lorraine Mortimer
Ava Gardner, a little shopgirl from Prisunic, an American girl revealed to the world by Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946), was cast in the Hollywood mould, but she will shatter it completely. We can distinguish two stages in her career: the conventional career up until 1952, and the extraordinary career, after 1952.
Throughout her Hollywood career, Ava Gardner, to some extent, plays the role of good-bad-girls—girls who appear bad but who at the end of the film reveal the purity of their soul—, and to some extent, she acts in exotic films. But already, a bit like with Jennifer Jones, an unusual atmosphere, passionate and sensual, a kind of strangeness, surrounds her characters. Her roles are not perfectly innocuous: they don’t have this exact dosage of spirituality and sensuality that Hollywood has perfected since 1942. We can sense it, whether in the erotic spices that are a little too strong, or in a little too much violence of the soul.
She Breaks the Hollywood Mould
In The Great Sinner (Robert Siodmak, 1949), Ava Gardner is the daughter of a Russian general who will marry a gambler, who is none other than Dostoevsky. (1) In My Forbidden Past (Robert Stevenson, 1951), Ava is a daughter of New Orleans of French origin, Barbara Beaurevel, whose passion makes use of the worst means possible. In Show Boat (George Sidney, 1951), Ava-Julia is a singer who has black blood in her veins, drinks, and goes from one dive to another. In Lone Star (Vincent Sherman, 1952), Ava is a journalist of Spanish origin, Martha Ronda, who is opposed to Texas joining the United States. In the end she will line up on the American side because of her love for Clark Gable. In The Bribe (Robert Z. Leonard, 1949), Ava is the wife of an adventurer, so, sexually linked with a bad man. But after the death of her husband, she will leave with the hero.
Thus in all her roles, Ava Gardner in some way tears apart at the seams the perfect Hollywood archetype of the heroine. She is, save for one exception, exoticised, and, most of the time, Latinised, tropicalised, indeed, a little negrified (Show Boat). It seems that this exoticisation may be an exorcising, as if Hollywood wanted to exorcise the latent negritude of Ava Gardner (her thick lips, her brown hair, the brazen and shameless beauty of her face, her animal radiance). But the exorcism is only partial: Ava Gardner isn’t relegated to roles that are secondary, vamps. Because she also has a presence of soul which is sovereign, towering. She is as much purity as sensuality. And that is why, no doubt, Siodmak used her again in the Dostoevskian role, both redeeming and noble, of Pauline in The Great Sinner.
Birth of a Divinity
But already, from 1948, Hollywood sensed that there was in Ava’s double sovereignty, a sovereignty of soul and body, this mythic power that creates divinity. So, in One Touch of Venus (William A. Seiter, 1948), Ava Gardner is the goddess Venus, descended from Olympus, with whom all men fall in love. But since Hollywood, for reasons that I have analysed in another study, (2) can no longer situate its divinities at the mythological level of the Golden Years, this film is only a Ludovic Halévy type musical fantasy modernised by Broadway. (3)
The whole problem in the end is here. Ava Garner’s personality presupposes divine roles in the sense that Greta Garbo was divine. These roles are in short supply in present day film scripts. The stars of our epoch (broadly since 1938-40) can no longer shatter the standard ways of doing things that are adapted to the public’s new need for identification.
At the same time as Hollywood smothers the cinematographic potentialities of Ava Gardner, Ava Gardner, the woman, suffocates in Hollywood. From 1951, wherever love takes her, she travels. She becomes cosmopolitan. As a result, most of her films are made outside of the USA. The extraordinary career of Ava Gardner begins with Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, an English film by Albert Lewin, filmed in Spain in 1951.
The subject of this film, by comparison with present-day scenarios, is literally extravagant: it unites the myth of Pandora and the myth of the Flying Dutchman. Pandora, a superb creature, is at once mad of body and mad of soul. All men who go near her become her worshippers. She subjects them to extraordinary ordeals, or they subject themselves to them through love for her. The poet, Reggie Demarest (Marius Goring), suicides upon hearing her sing. Stephen Cameron (Nigel Patrick) pushes his racing car into the sea. Pandora’s lovers succeed one another. This is a woman, who, something exceptional on the screen, loves to make love and seeks out love. But like Don Juan, none of her adventures satisfy her. What she is looking for is absolute love, impossible love, the kind that can only be fulfilled in death. Then she meets a mysterious navigator, who is none other than the Flying Dutchman, condemned to wander for the last three centuries until he finds a woman who is willing to die for him. Pandora will die for love of this phantom.
As Hendrik [James Mason], the Flying Dutchman, says: ‘Pandora should appear as woman in the abstract: bride, mother, the original and generic egghead from which we can imagine the whole human race to have been hatched…the secret goddess whom all men in their hearts have desired…‘ From One Touch of Venus to Pandora, Venus-Ava divests herself of the profaning attributes of the operetta to become the great mother goddess of the De Rerum Natura, (4) who, incredibly, incarnates herself within the realist framework of western film, and explodes this realism with her mythic thrust.
The Total Woman
With Pandora, Ava Gardner at last achieves what was only apparent in a fragmentary, atrophied or allusive state in her previous films. She is revealed in her feminine plenitude, that is, at once plenitude and passion, sexuality and soul. But this plenitude is torn: between sexual needs and the needs of the soul, there is a radical divorce. None of Ava’s lovers brings her love. He who finally shows true love for her is only a ghost.
In other words, Ava-Pandora is for us, spectators, the total woman, who lives totally in accordance with the soul and sex. She is a woman who can at the same time be loved as a sister or a mother, and desired as a lover or a prostitute. But Ava-Pandora lives, for herself, the contradiction between the soul and the body. The satisfaction of one works to the detriment of the other. Or rather, neither one nor the other can truly be satisfied except in death, the supreme symbol of love.
With these qualities, Ava-Pandora appears to us not only as a kind of great mythical Venus, or, if we like, a divinisation of the eternal feminine; she is also the image of the modern woman who looks for happiness, for the combined blossoming of her soul and her body in a world which only half satisfies the one or the other… From here on she radically differentiates herself from other stars: the Hollywood star is sexy, but she does not live according to her sexuality; we never see her erotically moved by anyone other than the hero of the film, even when she is the companion or the wife of a third person (this is the case with Gilda). The star of Hollywood films appeals to the sexuality of men, but remains indifferent to the sex appeal that she arouses. She is uniquely dedicated to the search for a part-spiritual part sexual love that she will find in her final union with the hero. So the Hollywood star is at the same time soul-wise and sex-wise, a watered-down woman, and a little goddess of the home and hearth. While Ava-Pandora is fully spiritual and fully sexual, an authentic woman and a heroine in search of the absolute…
A Long Career
After Pandora, there is The Snows of Kilimanjaro (Henry King, 1952), Ride, Vaquero! (John Farrow, 1953), Mogambo (John Ford, 1954), Knights of the Round Table (Richard Thorpe, 1954), The Barefoot Contessa (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1955), and The Sun Also Rises (Henry King, 1956).
To the extent that these films are more or less Hollywood mass productions, Ava Gardner’s personality is more or less mutilated. Ride, Vaquero! reintroduces Ava in a role analogous to her one in The Bribe. Cordelia-Ava, wife of Cameron (Howard Keel), is in love with Rio (Robert Taylor). She makes advances towards him, but in the end will stay with her husband after the death of Rio. No matter how Hollywood this film is, we find once again, in a weakened and veiled fashion, the theme of the divorce between impossible love and sexual life. The happy ending scarcely conceals the irruption of the anti-Hollywood theme of death knocking at the door,—not the obstacle-husband in The Bribe—but the beloved hero.
Mogambo only showcases Ava Gardner’s sexuality, while Knights of the Round Table only her spirituality. In Mogambo, Kelly-Ava, brunette sensuality, is opposed to Linda (Grace Kelly), blonde spirituality. At the end, the hero, Vic (Clark Gable), will live with Ava. A twist to the Hollywood happy ending according to which the girl with soul must triumph over the woman of temperament. In Knights of the Round Table, on the other hand, Ava Gardner was Queen Guinevere, the wife of Arthur, who vows an essentially spiritual love (of the Hollywood-medieval type) for Lancelot.
Gathering together the fragments of Ava scattered throughout Ride, Vaquero!, Mogambo, and Knights of the Round Table, we can reconstitute the real Ava Gardner: Pandora.
Either screenplays drawn from Hemingway or the loving intelligence of Mankiewicz were necessary for Ava Gardner to find roles which give true expression to her. In The Snows of Kilimanjaro, Cynthia-Ava is once again the deracinated cosmopolitan of Pandora, the fiery girl who is looking for happiness, who knows men (she is pregnant and has an abortion, which is inconceivable in current Hollywood films), who will not be able to find true love… She will be separated from Harry (Gregory Peck), the man who loves her and whom she loves. She will find him again for a moment , during the Spanish Civil War, before being killed by a shell.
The Barefoot Contessa is, with Pandora, Ava Gardner’s finest film. Harry (Humphrey Bogart) discovers a young savage, Maria Vargas (Ava Gardner), in Madrid. He transforms her into a Hollywood star. In the course of her career, Maria will not stop having one-night stands. With Harry, it will always be a question of the deepest of friendship. At last Maria will discover the love that she never stopped searching for: she meets Count Torlato-Favrini (Rossano Brazzi). But he confesses to her on their wedding-night that he is impotent. To give him a child, Maria offers herself to another man. Torlato-Favrini takes them by surprise and kills them.
In The Sun Also Rises, as in The Barefoot Contessa, the same physical impossibility separates Ava Gardner from the man she loves: he is impotent. It is the same need that pushes her towards these men. But this time, Darryl F. Zanuck wanted to leave hope for a happy ending: the two lead players have a glimpse of resigned calm, peace of the senses, and the triumph of spirituality…
It is curious that in the three most Gardnerian films, Pandora, The Barefoot Contessa, and The Sun Also Rises, we find her in the same symbolic situation. Ava Gardner, the total woman, torn between sexuality—represented by the toreador, a hyper-virile mythical character, identified with the bull whom he fights and puts to death, and spirituality—represented by the impotent man (The Barefoot Contessa, The Sun Also Rises) or a phantom (Pandora). At the same time it is not only by chance that the principal action of these three films is set in Spain. Ava Gardner is naturally Hispanicised because it is the Spanish character which best synthesises passion, pride, nobility, grandeur of soul, and sensuality.
Fabricated by the Hollywood machine, Ava Gardner frees herself from it, as superb androids of science fiction free themselves from the men and machines which created them. (5) Like these androids, she is more human than the human, more beautiful, more sensitive, more noble…
Ava Gardner recalls the allure of some of the great stars of the Golden Years. As with these divine ones, the real life and the cinematographic life of Ava are of the same nature. With, on top of that, this fullness of humanity which comes from our mundane era where myth becomes realistic.
So, Jacques Siclier was able to write with justification on the subject of the statue of Ava-Maria in The Barefoot Contessa: ‘Her statue will remain in the cemetery as a homage to her anachronistic beauty. Mythical women are not of this world. The America which has created them undoes them and tramples upon them… Mankeiwicz has given back to Garbo her lost dignity. He has not been able to make her live again’. (6)
In fact Ava Gardner is too great for a shrunken Hollywood. She is now a queen without a kingdom; her subjects are scattered throughout the world… They love in her the beauty of a goddess, the heartbreak of a heroine, the plenitude of femininity.
This essay appeared in an appendix to the 1972 French edition of Edgar Morin’s book Les Stars. Reprinted with the kind permission of the author and the publishers Seuil.
- The Great Sinner is a biographical film about Dostoevsky inspired by The Gambler.
- [Morin is referring to his original version of Les Stars.—Trans.]
- [Ludovic Halévy was a nineteenth century French author and playwright. He wrote operettas, satires, and sketches of Parisian life.—Trans.]
- [De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) was a first century BC epic poem by Titus Carus Lucretius, a Roman poet and proponent of Epicurean philosophy. It opens with an invocation to Venus, who represents reproductive power. Arguing against common superstition, and fear of divine punishment after death, Lucretius tells us we need have no fear, since the soul and the body live and die together.—Trans.]
- Cf. Time and Again, by Clifford D. Simak, 1951.
- Le Mythe de la femme dans le cinéma américain (The Myth of Woman in the American Cinema), 1956.