When you hear the name Ava Gardner, perhaps you envision an image of her in a black satin dress, her hair falling across her face in a sultry fashion. Or maybe you conjure snapshots of her painting the town red with Frank Sinatra. Their tempestuous relationship, which ended Sinatra’s first marriage, was — and still is — the stuff of Hollywood legend.
Gardner came to Hollywood at 18 and married Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw and Frank Sinatra in relatively quick succession. She starred in films including The Killers, Mogambo and Show Boat, but is best remembered for her image as a screen siren with a hard-drinking, hard-living, hard-loving off-screen life.
With their new book, Ava Gardner: A Life in Movies ($30, Running Press), Kendra Bean and Anthony Uzarowski present a compelling, photograph-rich portrait of a complex, talented actress. “She was more than just a sex symbol or Mrs. Frank Sinatra or this crazy hard-drinking person,” Bean says. Bean’s co-author Uzarowski echoes this sentiment: “She was a real person, and she was an actor as well. There is a legacy there that needs to be looked at. It’s not just image.”
For Gardner, image and glamour are central to her identity; after all, it was a photograph that first earned her a ticket to Hollywood. The authors compare her to Marilyn Monroe in this regard, with Uzarowski noting, “There exists this very one-dimensional view of her as just this unbelievably beautiful person.” Bean adds, “When we were going through all the biographies [of her], a lot of them focused on her sex life, her relationships, her marriages, Frank Sinatra and that bit.”
For that reason, the pair set out to write a new type of Ava Gardner biography — an in-depth account of her life and her films that's part traditional biography and part coffee-table book. Their book mixes the largest collection of Gardner images ever assembled with a heavily researched biography that includes interviews with her contemporaries and a close study of her personal correspondence and papers.
Bean and Uzarowski describe how fascinating it was to come to know Gardner intimately through this process. “She just had a really keen sense of humor. She didn’t take life too seriously,” Bean says. They hope readers will discover a relatable figure rather than an untouchable movie goddess.
Uzarowski was most astonished to find that a woman so associated with scandal and sensationalism in her public life was beloved by all who knew her. “We spoke to quite a few people and we went through different papers and letters and all sorts of things, and I can’t think of anyone who had anything horrible to say about her or anyone who disliked her,” he says. “Even people you think could have or should have didn’t — even Sinatra’s children from his first marriage.”
By merging the image of a woman renowned for her physical beauty with a nuanced study of her life and career, the book forces readers to look beyond Gardner's exterior star persona. “It puts her in a wider cultural context, and that was very important for us,” Bean says.
This is the second book of this nature that Bean has written; she previously penned a photo-heavy biography of Gone With the Wind star Vivien Leigh. For Bean, the juxtaposition of image and story is crucial to unpacking the lives of screen legends. “With people like Vivien and Ava, there is such a visual element to who they were as stars,” she says. “It really adds another layer to text-heavy [books], because it’s one thing to read about it but it’s another thing to be able to see what’s going on at the same time.”
Uzarowski first discovered Ava Gardner when he was still a young child. She'd been his grandfather’s favorite movie star, and she became a link to a man he never met. Seven years ago, Uzarowski started an Ava Gardner Facebook fan page, which he still maintains. In contrast, Bean knew very little about the actress when they first conceived of the project. The two met in graduate school in London (where they studied film), and Uzarowski was the one who prompted Bean to learn more about Gardner.
Bean and Uzarowski both live and work in London; the former is originally from California and the latter grew up in Poland and the U.K. The authors' own origin stories are indicative of Gardner’s reach and influence. During the second half of her career, Gardner participated in numerous co-productions and took up residence in various parts of Europe, adopting an expat lifestyle not unlike Ernest Hemingway (a close friend).
Still, Gardner belonged to an era when stars were groomed and constructed by studio publicity machines. Counseled on how to become a star, her acting was never given a second thought, which reinforced Gardner’s low self-esteem about her abilities. “She had this career because she was beautiful. She knew that’s what her meal ticket was. She didn’t think her talent was anything,” Uzarowski explains. “Unlike someone like Katharine Hepburn or Bette Davis, who came from the theater; that’s what they were signed on, not the way they looked. But with Ava it was definitely the way she looked, so she always was aware of that.”
Though Gardner didn’t believe in herself, Bean and Uzarowski hope their book encourages people to reassess her films and skills as an actress. Uzarowski points to her performance in Tennessee Williams’ Night of the Iguana — in which she starred alongside renowned actors Deborah Kerr and Richard Burton — as evidence of her skill. “She not only is not overshadowed by that but she steals scenes from them,” he says. “For someone who said she couldn’t act, that’s an incredible testament to her talent.”
Despite her insecurity, Gardner railed against the star system. “She defined it but also defied it,” Uzarowski notes. “On the one hand, she’s like a typical studio-made movie star … she was this cookie-cutter star, but on the other hand, she was so interesting and independent.”
That's the Gardner they hope readers find in the pages of their book: an independent, free-spirited, paradoxical talent with a softer side that's often obscured by her sultry, enigmatic screen presence. Uzarowski sums up her appeal beyond her movie star status as a simpler, more homespun charm: “She really was loved, as a friend — not as a sort of star but as a friend, as a woman. She was really appreciated and people still remember her with this great fondness.”