The Art of Glamour #8 - Ava Gardner, An 'Exquisite' Face
Ava Gardner’s striking looks and magnetic gaze made her one of the world's most celebrated stars, and she is still considered by many to be the most beautiful woman to have ever graced the screen.
She was born on Christmas Eve, 1922, in Grabtown, North Carolina, a town so small it wasn’t even on the map. The seventh and last child of a poor tobacco farming family, her fortunes would change in 1941, when she was eighteen years old. Ava went to New York to visit her sister, who happened to be married to a professional photographer. The photogenic teenager had her portrait taken by her brother-in-law, and the result was so eye-opening that he decided to display it in the front window of his Fifth Avenue studio. Soon, men from all over Manhattan were stopping by for a glimpse, and one of those men was an employee at MGM. Inevitably, the portrait photo made it into the hands of the studio’s screen test director, Al Altman, who’d tested hundreds of beautiful girls, but thought Ava ‘the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen’.
For Gardner’s test, Altman asked her to walk towards the camera, turn, walk away, and then arrange some flowers in a vase.
On seeing this brief film, the head of MGM, Louis B Mayer, sent a telegram to Altman, stating that:
‘She can’t act. She can’t talk. She’s terrific. Sign her!’
Quickly inked to a seven-year contract, Ava Gardner was sent to the MGM grooming school to start an intensive program. Their first order of business was to provide her with a speech coach, so they might remove all traces of her strong southern drawl. When it came to her appearance, however, the instructions from above were not to change her too much. Publicist Greg Morrison summed it up:
‘Do the hair - clean it, but don’t touch the face. Everybody and every camera is drawn to that face. The town is jammed with pretty, but not like that - the eyes, the mouth, are from another world.’
Her flawless complexion and feline-green eyes helped define her as a natural beauty, so Gardner was given an unusually, for the time, light make-up look. Designed by Max Factor (the Max Factor), it consisted of sculpted cheekbones, arched eyebrows, and strong lips; so pretty standard stuff, and nothing like vast transformations seen by some other Hollywood stars. They did experiment with disguising her distinctive cleft chin with mortician’s wax but, thankfully, abandoned the idea.
‘I couldn’t believe it when I saw her for the first time. She had this face that was so beautiful, this extraordinary pale skin, like marble. I had loved seeing her in the films, but it was nothing like seeing her up close. The films gave you no idea that she was so exquisite.’
- Imogen Wheeler
While she was being coached in acting, poise, and elocution, Gardner appeared mostly in decorative bit parts. She filled in the time by getting married, divorced, and married again. Having been cast in minor and uncredited roles for the first five years of her contract, at the age of 24, she finally had her breakthrough. She was cast as the sultry, double-crossing femme fatale Kitty Collins in the 1946 film The Killers. It was adapted from Ernest Hemingway’s short story, and would be the first of three movies based on the author’s work that Gardner would star in. When she arrived on set the first day, the director ordered her to wash off all her make-up, as it was felt her beauty was being masked. She was only allowed her to wear lipstick and Vaseline throughout the entire film. The success of The Killers led to bigger and better roles for her at MGM, who began promoting her as ‘The world’s most exciting animal’.
During the 1950s, Ava Gardner was established as a leading lady and one of the era's top stars, even if she never quite believed she was a talented actress. One designation she was happy to apply to herself was that of party girl, and she was often out with the great and the good of Hollywood, drinking and smoking into the early hours. Her ability to still look fresh-faced and ‘camera ready’ after a night out drinking became legendary:
'I could dance all night, go straight to the studio at six. After a nap in hair and makeup and a glass of champagne, I’d be ready for my close-up at nine'
- Ava Gardner
Gardner was blessed in the looks department and was famously low maintenance, though even she had some help, from none other than Erno Laszlo. Laszlo was a skincare pioneer who launched his line of products in the 1920s. A Hungarian-born dermatologist, he believed that ‘beauty has no age,' and in 1939 opened his institute, Scientific Cosmetology. It was located on 53rd Street and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, and dubbed the ‘House of Silence’. It was a place where the beauty secrets of the top stars were kept hidden away. Clients included Greta Garbo, Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Jackie Kennedy, and Marilyn Monroe, who had unwittingly and tragically promoted Laszlo when a jar of Active Phelityl Intensive Cream was found next to her deathbed.
‘Beautiful skin requires commitment’ was another of Laszlo’s expressions and, as such, he treated only 3,000 members at any one time. Each was prescribed a tailored regime, ranging from personalised facials to targeted creams to help preserve natural ‘youth assets’. No one bought their way in because Laszlo’s products were not for sale to non-members. In fact, in order to become a member you had to be recommended by at least two people. It was the most exclusive of clubs. Laszlo would also refuse to continue to treat clients if they didn’t follow his advice. He famously chastised Gardner for not following his instructions and then lying about it. ‘Your skin tells me,’ he informed her and, as the story goes, a blazing row broke out between them, with Gardner refusing to leave his office. Of course, she relented and finally agreed to go back to the routine.
Known to have a fiery temper, which was made even worse by her drinking, she once said:
‘When I lose my temper, honey, you can't find it any place’
In 1957, after her third marriage had failed and now disillusioned with Hollywood, Gardner moved to Madrid. There she began a friendship with Ernest Hemingway. They had a lot in common – both were heavy smokers and even heavier drinkers, and both had seen their share of broken relationships. She enjoyed living in Spain, enjoyed the culture of flamenco dancing, the bullfights, the bullfighters, and of course the late nights of drinking. She got herself a Spanish teacher but never quite managed to learn the language. There were, one assumes, too many distractions.
By 1958, Gardner left MGM to become an independent actress. She said:
‘Not MGM, not the press, not anyone can tell me what to do’
She spent her later years living, for tax purposes, in London, and passed away in 1990 at the age of 67. It had been a life lived hard - men, smoking, booze, late nights, had taken their toll, but at the end she was still unmistakably the face in the Manhattan studio window.
A humble country girl to a wealthy jet-setting superstar – it was a role Gardner played to the hilt. Her looks defined her life, but her bold spirit epitomised all the vibrancy and glamour of Hollywood’s golden age.
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