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Ava Gardner: the name conjures timeless elegance. She was a North Carolina sharecropper’s daughter whose beauty gave her the regal bearing of a goddess. Beyond the glamorous aura, she is most often recalled for her stormy personal life, and especially her marriage to Frank Sinatra. But this is only a partial vision of one of the greatest female stars of the 1940s and 50s. Even the most devout cinephiles often overlook her unique contribution to post-war American cinema.

Ava Gardner: A Life in Movies, the latest in a long line of lavishly illustrated books on classic film from Running Press, weaves together these diverse threads. It is co-written by Kendra Bean, biographer of Vivien Leigh, and Anthony Uzarowski, who has written for numerous publications and maintains an excellent Facebook page about Ava Gardner.

Ava in Hollywood, 1942

In 1941, Ava was eighteen years old and studying at secretarial college, when a trip to New York changed her life. Her brother-in-law, who owned a photographic studio, placed her portrait in his window. After a failed audition to sing in a big band, Ava was ready to give up on her dreams. But then a clerk for Loew’s Inc. noticed her picture, and a screen test in Hollywood followed. This was an opportunity she couldn’t turn down, but during her early years at MGM, Ava spent more time posing for cheesecake shots than honing her acting skills. Her stunning looks, party girl lifestyle and high profile marriages to Mickey Rooney and Artie Shaw kept her in the public eye, though they brought no lasting happiness.

Her first great role was in Robert Siodmak’s noir classic, The Killers (1946), establishing her reputation as a femme fatale, though in reality, Ava was neither duplicitous, nor a kept woman. When she began dating Frank Sinatra in 1949, Ava was a rising star, while his career was in a slump. The years of her greatest successes were also marked by notoriety, as she was widely blamed for Sinatra leaving his wife and children. Interestingly, the authors have interviewed Frank’s youngest daughter, Tina Sinatra, and she remembers Ava with deep affection. Although their marriage was over by 1954, Ava and Frank remained close until her death and many believe they never stopped loving each other.

‘Bhowani Junction’ (1956)

After filming 1951’s Pandora and the Flying Dutchman in Europe, Ava shot most of her films abroad, including The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952), Mogambo (1953), The Barefoot Contessa (1954), and Bhowani Junction (1956.) By 1955, she was living permanently in Spain. As the authors note, MGM specialised in ‘a kind of manufactured artificiality’, which did not altogether suit Ava. She was frustrated by the studio’s decision to dub her singing voice in Show Boat (1951.) One of her favourite directors, George Cukor, noted that she was dismissive of her talents. Nonetheless, her portrayals of independent, sexually confident women who lived on their own terms were striking in an era better known for its conservatism.

‘Night of the Iguana’ (1964)

By 1957, Ava’s studio contract had lapsed, and while she relished her autonomy, the industry itself was changing. Now in her late thirties, she faced stiff competition from younger actresses. But further glories were still ahead, in On the Beach (1959), and Night of the Iguana (1964.) Unlike some of her contemporaries, Ava matured with relative ease, and continued playing small parts in film and television until a few years before her death.

Her relationships were often chaotic, but after settling in London in 1966, she found a measure of stability. She remained close to her family and friends, who remembered her salty humour, and short temper. Always a heavy drinker and smoker, she was more insecure than many realised; but to movie fans Ava was a grown-up sex symbol, the embodiment of a smart, sensual Hemingway heroine. Filled with glamorous portraits, film stills and candid snapshots in sepia and colour, Ava Gardner: A Life in Movies offers a thoughtful, detailed overview of her adventurous life.