Three films, that’s all we need to appreciate the appeal and talent of Ava Gardner. A screen legend, certainly; beautiful and desirable, of course; and underestimated as an actress.
If you only saw her late in her life, you got the remnants of her legend, but unfortunately not the full power of how she commanded the screen.
These three films represent Gardner moving into more mature roles; still very much a love interest, her characters had a worldliness and track record to draw upon. She could be glamorous and sexified as in her MGM studio films, or rely more on her acting chops and trust her co-stars and directors to guide her into deeper territory.
Gardner was 37 years old when On the Beach was released. For a man in Hollywood, being that age was a bonus, virile, confident and worldly. For a woman, that was a tricky time, age was a liability and starring roles were being replaced by supporting characters.
On the Beach (1959)
A somber, end of the world film, taking place in Australia, Gardner plays Moira Davidson, an alcoholic, sad woman who captures the heart of the American submarine captain Dwight Lionel Towers, played aptly by Gregory Peck. Together, they share literally, one last opportunity at love. This was Gardner and Peck’s third film together and they played off of each other as dancers in an intricate ballet.
Gardner is said to have great respect for director Stanley Kramer, and he for her. The film is stark in appearance and downbeat in mood, but Gardner and Peck carve out a small, temporary enclave of passion and tenderness. Their chemistry is intense, two opposite souls connecting the frayed ends of their lives.
Gardner seemed to play a fair number of suffering women: bad men, failed relationships, alcohol, self-esteem issues, family secrets, etc. Here, her character receives a moment of hope and happiness when Dwight briefly enters her life. She lowers her guard to let herself enjoy what she instinctively knows cannot last.
Instead of collapsing in desire, she has the courage to let go of Dwight as he submarine sails one last time, and she watches him boat leave the harbor, waving to him.
Moira could have been a pathetic character, but there’s a bravery in her at the end, she roses above her own sadness to embrace the joy and pain of life, one final time.
Night of the Iguana (1964)
Gardner plays Maxine, a brash, funny and undeniably sexy innkeeper in Mexico. Based on a bawdy, Tennessee Williams play, Gardner takes over the role played by Bette Davis on Broadway. Gardner would play it differently than Davis, a bit more rounded, softer – and definitely more likable.
Maxine does not get walked on. She’s only one of three women in the life of Reverend Shannon, no longer in the religion business, now in the tourism excursion game. Disgraced, but still out to save souls, and flesh, Shannon is up to his collar in trouble. Richard Burton plays the rakish Shannon, and together with Maxine, the innkeeper, make this light comedy crackle with energy.
John Huston directs, another director Gardner trusted. Huston let’s Gardner be playful and bawdy, without becoming a caricature or loose. Maxine does enjoy the company of younger men, but it’s her way.
Seven Days in May (1964)
A political thriller directed by John Frankenheimer, Gardner plays Eleanor Holbrook, a one-time mistress of General James Mattoon Scott, Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, played by Burt Lancaster.
Eleanor is the holder of an important secret from her affair with Gen. Scott. A stack of letters can be used to blackmail the General by the President, if Col. “Jiggs” Casey, played by Kirk Douglas, can get them from her. Eleanor is fond of Jiggs, but disappointed that he’s there for the reason he is, and not to see her. She’s aware the letters will help destroy Gen. Scott, who she’s still in love. She vents her anger at Jiggs, but turns over the letters.
Gardner is quite good in this small role. Her character is a mistress, frequently in love, but never loved back the way she wants. She is disappointed in love, but not a scorned lover. Giving up the letters is difficult, but in the end, the President cannot force himself to use them and Jiggs returns them to a grateful Eleanor.
This was not one of Gardner’s favorite films, disliking the director and her co-star, and the unforgiving and grim black & white photography. That is too bad, she’s marvelous in the film and was hardly unflattering to her, even though she was now in her early 40s.
Ava Gardner had relocated to Spain in these years, and London later on. Frank Sinatra was a memory as she moved on to bullfighters and other interesting characters. Making films seemed a way to make money, she looked elsewhere for excitement and relevance. What you saw on the screen was a woman who seemed comfortable in her own skin and ready to take chances if she felt supported by her director and other actors, or if she could find a common bond with that character.
Gardner is said to have deeply regretted turning down the role of Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate. The frankness of the material bothered her enough to decline the part. Instead she accepted some safer, but much less successful films. What might have been if she had embraced the changing nature of films, and taken more roles like Maxine. We are left to wonder.