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Ava Gardner (Bloomsbury Lives of Women) Paperback – 18 Jan 2010
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'An extraordinary life of an extraordinary woman ... Gardner's genius was not her work, but, as this book proves, her life' Observer 'Server gets movie stars, and he gets movies ... That's quite a trick for a biographer to pull off - both to immerse himself in his subjects, yet make them utterly his own' Sunday Times
About the Author
Lee Server is a writer, biographer, and chronicler of popular culture and author of the highly acclaimed biography Robert Mitchum: Baby, I Don't Care. His latest biography, Ava Gardner, was published by Bloomsbury in April 2006.
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It provides a real insight into the Hollywood studio system of the time, where stars were contracted for many years and were closely monitored and managed by the big movie studios. In many ways, this seems like a more magical time for movie-making, when movie stars were actually movie stars. The modern trend of actors being political activists appears tremendously phony and false in comparison.
A chance encounter with a photographer in New York gave Gardner her first real exposure, as the resulting photographs were spotted by a movie studio talent scout. Gardner's break into the studio system occurred in bizarre fashion when MGM head Louis B. Mayer sent a telegram describing her "She can't sing, she can't act, she can't talk, She's terrific!". On the basis of this, Gardner entered the movie business.
Her breakthrough performance in "The Killers" (1946) was followed with a run of popular movies, including "The Hucksters" (1947), "Show Boat" (1951), "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" (1952), "Mogambo" (1953), "The Barefoot Contessa" (1954), "Bhowani Junction" (1956) and "The Night of the Iguana" (1964).
To say Gardner had a colourful private life is a big understatement. Her rather bizarre relationship with wealthy businessman Howard Hughes is humorously documented. Also, she developed a surprisingly strong friendship with Ernest Hemingway whilst she was in Spain. Server manages to paint Gardner as being wild and out of control in her dealings with men - fun, energy and hedonism were her guiding lights. But at the same time, the author paints a picture of Gardner that many people will recognise - a decent vulnerable woman who just wanted to be accepted.
The colourful nature of Gardner's life is matched by Server's spicy use of language. It gels with his subject, as you get the impression she would have used many of the rude words deployed by the author. And by adopting a warts-and-all approach from the start, Server avoids the classic pitfall of writing a hagiography - this book is certainly not that. You cannot help but admire the individual way Gardner led her life - she did it her own way.
But for all her adventures, wildness and debauchery, she was a really good actor. The camera loved her, of course, which made her a movie star, but she really could act too. There was substance to the style. Sadly, some poor career choices followed in her later years; turning down Mrs Robinson and choosing TV. Maybe she needed a good strong manager.
Like any other man, I fell in love with Ava very early on - the first grown up woman to make me feel strange about myself. I fell harder in my 20s when I saw her, older but somehow more sexy and earthy, in The Night of the Iguana. I visited Mexico because of that film.
There is something of the failed screenwriter and noir novelist in the sometimes tortuous prose of Lee Server: "her eyes like Andean emeralds" ..."the existence of the mediocre nagged at him like a bleeding ulcer"..."love was a trick, a double cross"...."she lived now without plan or purpose, escaping the past"..but it's an entertaining romp through a kind of life that is no longer lived. Hollywood feels cold, calculating, sanitised and clinical now. There's little drama or artistic flourish, and none of the great characters like Ava Gardner or anyone in her orbit. Movie stars now trot out well rehearsed publicity anecdotes on chat shows. Ava comes from a lost world, and she will forever be that elusive goddess on the silver screen. She belongs to that past. She belongs to the stars.
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