I have two vivid first impressions of Ava Gardner, both remembered from the time of her arrival on the set of “A.D.”, a thirty million-dollar, made-for-TV barn-burner with a biblical backstory, filmed on location in Tunisia in 1983.
Nº1: Despite a film crew already jaded by an all-star cast, I witnessed this woman suck the air out of a soundstage when she walked on; from buzzing with activity to complete quiet on the set. She stopped clocks within the radius of her charisma. Attention spun her way like a compass needle. She still had it, the star quality recognized by the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer mavens who groomed her for consecration as a Hollywood deity. In 2013, New Yorker film critic David Denby described Gardner as having been “the most astoundingly beautiful of forties bad girls.” Forty years on, in her early 60s by now, “A.D.” would be her first role with meat on the bone after years of walk-ons and cameos. I was on hand to memorialize the extravaganza, NBC’s earliest miniseries, hired by the producers to shoot stills for magazine and newspaper distribution.
Nº2: Later that same evening, back at Hotel Monastir — modern digs surrounded by date palm trees on a Mediterranean beach but otherwise isolated from the twentieth century — I saw an honest-to-goddess Technicolor movie star step out of her limousine, grab the wig off of her head and throw it to the ground, cursing at no one in particular as she stomped into the lobby waving a lit cigarette. She once said, years earlier, “When I lose my temper, honey, you can’t find it anyplace.”
Everyone on the film crew was awed by Ava Gardner. She was a diva, a glamour puss. And she drank. She could put it away. She was also used to getting her way, just because she could. Apparently, just before skulking into that limo, she had told an increasingly impatient director, Stuart Cooper, and Vincenzo Labella the producer, that she was unwilling to sit for a “gallery,” a photo session in costume. She hadn’t posed for publicity pictures in fifteen years and said she had no intention of doing so, now. It was an at-my-age, vanity-versus-the-camera issue. But they needed to promote this very expensive production by trumpeting Ava Gardner‘s participation. They wanted high-resolution photographs with studio lighting. It would be unsatisfactory to grab still photos during rehearsals or to shoot over the cinemaphotographer’s shoulder while filming a scene; far worse (for the sake of image quality) to snip a motion picture frame to be used as a still.
The screenplay was written by Anthony Burgess, the author of A Clockwork Orange. It chronicled the internecine political drama that was unraveling the Roman Empire in the years 39 through 69 Anno Domini — hence the “A.D.” title. Ava played Agrippina, the scheming mother of Caligula (played by Anthony Andrews, having just come off his celebrated role as Sebastian Flyte in the PBS drama “Brideshead Revisited,” the “Downton Abbey” of its day). Many other stars of stage and screen shone in the “A.D.” firmament, hailing from the U.S.A., Great Britain, and Spain, including Susan Sarandon, James Mason, and the “French Connection’s” Fernando Rey. But Ava Gardner was special. Her supernova had once illuminated Hollywood’s most glorious epoch. She had appeared in sixty films, with starring roles in “The Killers,” “The Night of the Iguana,” “Show Boat,” “Mogambo,” “Barefoot Contessa,” “One Touch of Venus,” “The Flying Dutchman,” “On the Beach,” and “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean.” She received a 1953 Academy Award nomination for best actress in “Mogambo.” (Audrey Hepburn won the Oscar that year for “Roman Holiday.”)
Ava was as glamorous as the company she kept. Although, it may have been the case that it was her glamour that rubbed off on the men who only thought they had kept her. She had been been the paramour of Howard Hughes (yesteryear’s Elon Musk but two orders of magnitude sexier) and the wife of Frank Sinatra (think Justin Timberlake, John Legend, and Johnny Depp rolled into one, and then some), with myriad tabloid-headlining relationships in between. It’s said that Ernest Hemingway admonished the staff of his Havana estate, “The water is not to be emptied!” after Ava swam naked in his pool. She was a leading lady to Bogart and Gable. Add Paul Newman, Kirk Douglas, Tyrone Power, Errol Flynn, Richard Burton, Gregory Peck, Charleton Heston, and Burt Lancaster to a long list of illustrious leading men. She was directed by John Ford, John Huston, John Frankenheimer, and Stanley Kramer. I’m sure she gave no quarter to Louis B. Mayer and his MGM minions. It seems to me she had the intellectual chops to hold her own with this crowd, both in business and in fun. But it was, after all, the movie business. Despite her own quips like, “Deep down, I’m pretty superficial,” her reputation as a man-eating femme fatale, along with her wits, made her a force to contend with when it came to getting her way in Hollywood. So, I don’t know what gave the big guns in Tunisia the idea that I could be more successful than they were in persuading Ava to step in front of a stills camera. I suppose, having failed all previous importuning, asking me was their version of a Hail Mary pass.
Incidentally, unbeknownst to the producers of “A.D.”, a similar situation presented itself to me four years earlier on the production of “The Wiz.”
The “A.D.” soundstage was itself on location, constructed inside of a full-scale replica of the ancient Roman Forum plonked down in the North African desert. Canvas tents were set up outside, all around like satellites. They served as stables for on-camera animals and their wranglers; makeshift workshops where artisans sewed extravagant costumes and dyed them different colors in bubbling hot cauldrons; armorers and blacksmiths forged weapons for a “cast of thousands;” coopers and cartwrights hewed and sawed, and some of these wigwams were dressing rooms for the principal actors. It looked like an encampment from the age of Classical Antiquity. In fact, it doubled as just that on camera. And so, with a large leather portfolio of prints under my arm, examples of work I brought with me to Tunisia, I trudged through the ranks of a Roman legion and “knocked” on Ava Gardner’s tent flap by announcing myself out loud over the clamor. Yelling back, she invited me in.
Friendly enough but cynical, she began our conversation by guessing the reason for my visit, cutting short my rehearsed and mumbled supplication. I asked if I could just go through the motions of showing her my portfolio, so I could report back to Stuart and Vincenzo, with honesty, that I had given this thankless task my best effort. She chuckled indulgently and said, “Go ahead. Let’s see what you’ve got.”
Flipping through my loose-leaf black-and-white prints at a pretty good clip, with a desultory quip about this person or that whom she knew amongst my portrait subjects, she came to one photograph and stopped. Her voice modulated to a whisper, reacquiring the Carolina lilt she elided when working in character, “You knew Mick?” she asked, lingering on my portrait of Mickey Rooney. She looked up, damn near misty-eyed. Maybe it was the scotch. But Rooney was her first husband. Right then and there, that did the trick. The next thing she said was, “When do we shoot?” Who knew!
I was golden. Even better, Ava had such a good time posing in costume, she found further courage to confront the camera in late-middle age. Given that she hadn’t done a proper photoshoot in more than a decade, it was my privilege to be invited this time to London to photograph her again, but in her own element after “A.D.” wrapped.
I already had jobs lined up back home in Los Angeles. I had to fly from Tunis via New York to L.A. for a pit stop, to coordinate my schedule before doubling back overseas. In the meantime, I booked makeup, hair, and wardrobe stylists in London. Despite that, arrangements were relatively impromptu because, as far as wardrobe and props were concerned, I didn’t know anyone in London. Iwouldn’t have a chance to interview anyone in advance. I’d have to arrive on location, shoot pictures, and leave immediately. I was booked on a turn-around flight to New York. But this was huge. There would be magazine covers and spreads. My agent, Sygma, was all over it. I felt pressure to do a bang-up job. This was a rare opportunity.
I arrived at Nº 34 Ennismore Gardens, Ava Garder’s posh London flat, where she lived with her housekeeper, Carmen Vargas, and a beloved Welsh corgi named Morgan. The decor was a mishmash of Chinoiserie. “Oriental,” she called it: tall painted screens; big vases; and chests of gilded and lacquered drawers with marble tops. The place was bright and spacious, with off-white wall-to-wall carpeting under high ceilings, but cozy with comfortable chairs facing a fireplace. Bookshelves lined an entire wall in the den. I brought flowers.
Ennismore Gardens was part of the grand terrace of a Palladian-inspired mansion built in the mid-eighteenth century by a duke to shag his mistress. A duke is top dog, just short of a king in British peerage lingo. But it was named for a viscount. That’s above a baron but below a count; a no-account if you’re keeping score. Sub-divided over the decades, its initial residents were aristocrats, bankers, government statesmen and foreign diplomats. In the twentieth century, they were joined by artists and actors. The average price for one of these flats, purchased as a condominium today, is roughly four million bucks American. It’s rumored that a Russian oligarch paid close to fourteen million recently for one of the larger digs.
A London tradition, dating back to 1863, calls for the installation of a blue plaque at places of historical interest. There’s one on the wall outside Nº 34, commemorating Ava’s time in residence. A commemorative urn was placed some years earlier in the adjacent public garden.
Ava, having endured a decades-long bombardment of attention as one of the most beautiful women in the world, with a tumultuous history of love affairs, enjoyed a relatively anonymous life in London. When she went out and about, mostly alone, neighbors spotted her heading for the nearby Imperial College pool with a towel tucked under her arm, or to the ballet, or the Ennismore Arms Pub.
After setting up my lights in the living room I moved some furniture out of the way and we got to work. Sort of. It wasn’t going as well as I had planned. This was supposed to be Ava’s camera comeback. But she was getting self-conscious. She wanted to talk. I listened to her tell a stream of stories — her manner of distraction, I think— particularly about Frank Sinatra. All the while she carried on an affair in real-time with Johnny Walker. It was entertaining. I had a few myself. What else was there to do?
We weren’t getting much shooting done. We listened to Sinatra records for a good long time. She affirmed, as it was widely believed, that he was her greatest love and theirs the rockiest romance of her life. She left him, though, for a Spanish bullfighter. After they divorced, and he remarried twice, Sinatra continued to support her financially. But there was an undercurrent of exaction. Some stories needed to be swept under a rug until one or the other’s clock ran out. She didn’t think it would sit well with Sinatra to read about their escapades in a memoir. Ava was keeping her powder dry and her poison pen away from paper for the time being. But I was learning all about the juicy stuff while making what amounted merely to snapshots; hardly alluring portraits or magazine covers.
Ava was intrigued by the fact that I play the clarinet and that I was a devoté of 1940s clarinetist and bandleader Artie Shaw. He was husband number two, between Rooney and Sinatra. Shaw was the 1940s equivalent of a rock star. It was way before my time but Artie Shaw fans vied with Benny Goodman fans over who led the better Big Band, just like fans squabbled a generation later about the Beatles versus the Rolling Stones. So we played Artie Shaw records too. But, to my disappointment, listening to Ava, his brilliance was overshadowed by a psychologically abusive nature that ended their marriage after one year.
What was to have been a three-hour shoot turned into — I don’t know, eight? I let the stylists go. I was working without a photo assistant, so it would take me a long time just to pack up my lights. I knew I’d be too hung-over to make my flight back to the States early the next morning, anyway, so I booked my hotel room for an extra night and postponed my flight home.
I continued to shoot some okay pictures. But just okay. There was too much whiskey between me and what I could see through my lens. By the time I had already put away most of my photo gear and most of a bottle of scotch, Ava had already retired to change into her casual sweats and come back into the living room to smoke and drink some more.
Bingo! There was the shot: the Barefoot Contessa herself, wistful and whiskey-full, getting comfy in her chair, cigarette in hand, in front of the French doors that looked out on a darkening and dreary London. Thank goodness I had a loaded camera in hand and a strobe head still plugged in on a light stand. Done.
It turned out to be Ava’s final photoshoot. Her health was sliding downhill. Soon, she needed money. To get some she had two choices: “I either write the book or sell the jewels. And I’m kinda sentimental about the jewels.” So she told Peter Evans who ghost-wrote parts of her autobiography. She may have known she was running out of time. She couldn’t have known Sinatra would outlive her by eight years. It’s been reported that he was devasted when she died.
Some of my photographs were published in that autobiography. Then, about four years later, in January 1990, already having suffered a stroke and a fall, she succumbed to bronchial pneumonia at the age of sixty-seven.
Burt Lancaster was my mother’s favorite movie heartthrob. His first starring role paired him with Ava in the 1946 film noir classic “The Killers,” based on a 1927 Hemingway short story. My sister had foresight and a sense of humor, and apparently the juice when our father passed away, to have him buried next to the small cemetery plot Lancaster had reserved for himself. By the time our mother died, four years after Lancaster, she was, of course, interred with my father; but less than an arm’s length away from Lancaster — practically in the middle.
If I had had less to drink by the end of my photoshoot with Ava, maybe I could have staged a silly picture of us together looking something like “The Killers” poster, instead of the snapshot made by Ava’s housekeeper, with me looking drunk, or smug, or both. It would have given my mom a chuckle.
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