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Beneath the Stars

Ava Gardner Trust
Ava Gardner in the photograph that her brother-in-law, a photographer, put in his display window in New York in 1941, which was spotted by a clerk from MGM and led to her screen test and move to Hollywood

Both Stanwyck and Gardner knew Hollywood for what it was. Gardner kept the cheap coat she wore when she first arrived to remind herself where she came from. She preferred to hang out with nonprofessionals and lived as simply as she could. (“I’ll go on living according to my own standards,” she said.) Stanwyck, a disciplined professional who was friendly with her film crews, made similar statements: “It would be the same with me if I were a waitress in Peoria or a chambermaid in Oshkosh instead of a film actress in Hollywood.” Both women knew that fame was transient. “Movie stars write their books,” said Gardner, “then they are forgotten, and then they die.” Stanwyck warned Robert Taylor, when he first saw his name in lights, “The trick is to keep it up there.” She was coldly realistic about the world she lived in. “When you are up in Hollywood, you are accepted; when you are down, it is as though you do not exist.”

Ava Lavinia Gardner was born in North Carolina on Christmas Eve, 1922. Her father was a farmer who lost his property, and after cooking and cleaning in a girl’s dormitory, her mother opened a boardinghouse. Contrary to popular belief, Gardner was neither desperately poor nor uneducated. (“I’m tired of reading about how Ava grew up in poverty working in the fields,” said her sister, Inez. “We were poor, it’s true, but…actually we had a fairly good life.”) After graduating from high school, Gardner attended the Atlantic Christian College in Wilson, North Carolina, where she studied to be a secretary.

Her life changed forever when, in the summer of 1941, she went to New York to visit her older sister Beatrice (“Bappie”), who had married a photographer. When he placed a photo of the young Ava in his display window, it was spotted by a clerk in MGM’s legal department who called it to the attention of his superiors. Within no time, Gardner made a screen test that was by all accounts terrible. One of the Hollywood studio bosses who saw it was said to have exclaimed, “She can’t act! She didn’t talk! She’s sensational!” George Sidney, in charge of new talent at MGM, said, “Ship her out here. She’s a good piece of merchandise.”

On August 23, 1941, with a $50 per week standard contract, Gardner arrived in Hollywood on the Super Chief accompanied by Bappie as chaperone. She was eighteen years old, had one pair of shoes, carried a cardboard suitcase, and spoke in an unintelligible southern drawl. MGM fed her immediately into their star-making system. She was given lessons in how to walk, talk, sit, and stand. Her hair was done and redone. She posed in countless cheesecake photos, wearing bathing suits, filmy nightgowns, pirate outfits, tutus and tights, and Santa Claus hats.

She worked up the ladder from extra to bit parts to supporting roles, and within less than six years, she had married and divorced twice (actor Mickey Rooney and bandleader Artie Shaw), dropped her southern accent, and learned to use her natural sexual magnetism for the asset it was. In 1946, wearing a tight black dress with one strap over her shoulder, she sat at a piano and crooned “The More I Know of Love” to Burt Lancaster in The Killers. Suddenly, she was a star. Although Gardner adopted an “I don’t care” attitude toward her success, those who observed her during those years saw it differently. One said, “Her indifference was a pose. Her drive was extraordinary and ruthless.”

Barbara Stanwyck was born Ruby Stevens on July 16, 1907, in Brooklyn, New York. As a child, Stanwyck was farmed out to friends and relatives, her mother having died when she was four. (A drunk had caused her mother, pregnant with her sixth child, to fall from a trolley. A few months after her death, the father deserted his family.) Stanwyck dropped out of school at the age of fourteen. Unlike Gardner, she really was poor and uneducated. Needing to work, she followed her older sister Millie into show business, and began dancing in chorus lines at a young age. By the time she was sixteen, she was touring in the Ziegfeld Follies.

Her life changed when she was cast in a dramatic role in a Broadway play, The Noose, in 1926. She brought the house down as a desperate girl pleading with the governor to spare the life of the man she loves. With her name changed to “Barbara Stanwyck,” she opened spectacularly on Broadway in Burlesque in 1927, and by 1929 she was offered a contract to come to Hollywood to make a movie called The Locked Door. In 1928 she had married Fay, famous for his wit, his charm, and his alcoholism.

Mr. and Mrs. Fay arrived in Hollywood together in 1929, also on the Super Chief, but under different circumstances from Gardner’s. The Fays were already successful, posing on the back of the train with Irving Berlin and movie mogul Joe Schenck. Stanwyck, leaning on her husband, carried a fur coat, was stylishly dressed, and had a contract to star in a Warner Brothers sound motion picture for $1,500 per week. From the first day of her decades-long career in movies and television, Stanwyck was recognized as a leading actress. No cheesecake photos or experimental hairdos.

Wilson wants to define who Stanwyck was on screen across four decades in a myriad of roles, and also seek out the facts of her reclusive private life. Evans presents a one-dimensional Gardner, but Wilson, an unabashed admirer of Stanwyck, describes, but doesn’t analyze, some apparent contradictions in Stanwyck’s life. Stanwyck is the orphan who so badly wants a family that she lets Frank Fay bully her adopted son, Dion. She herself ultimately banishes the boy to military school, instructing him to refer to her as “my mother, Barbara Stanwyck.” She’s down-to-earth and democratic on the set, but yells at her brother, Byron, who wants to wed a woman she doesn’t like, “You’re going to marry some dumb little extra?” Most inexplicably, she remained doggedly loyal to Fay, whose drunken binges and abusive treatment of her were well known, until she finally sought a divorce for “grievous mental suffering” at the end of 1935.

Do we really care who someone slept with in 1940? What matters about Ava Gardner and Barbara Stanwyck is to be found on the screen, not in their diaries. They were early career women, ending up alone and self-supporting. They are “alive” today because their onscreen images represent a peculiar type of female power.

Gardner’s manufactured image was so much a part of the culture that she didn’t even have to appear onscreen to be palpably present. In The Barefoot Contessa, she “enters” with a click of castanets, a swaying beaded curtain, and a moving spotlight, but she’s not seen. Her dance around the nightclub floor is depicted only by its impact on the close-up faces of the male spectators.

Stanwyck became one of the greatest interpreters of female vulnerability the movies ever had. In Clash by Night (1952), she plays a former good-time girl trying to do right by her stolid husband, but she’s tempted by a sexy and knowing Robert Ryan. Alone in her kitchen, feeling the heat, she tries to pour herself a cup of coffee. Her hand starts to shake, the cup starts to rattle, and she just can’t do it. Finally, she gives up and breaks down weeping, the hardbitten woman showing the audience who she is, and doing it with nothing but a coffee pot.

Both actors could be dangerous on film. Gardner destroys men through sex and by being beautiful enough to drive them mad, but Stanwyck lifted male destruction to an art form. In Double Indemnity (1944), with nothing but an ankle bracelet and a blond wig, she lures Fred MacMurray to murder her husband. She’s both comic and cruel in The Lady Eve (1941) as she reveals past amours on her wedding night to the hapless Henry Fonda, and horrifically cruel in The File on Thelma Jordon (1950) when she jabs a cigarette lighter in Richard Rober’s eyeball. Late in life, when most stars had long since retired, she played a steely matriarch in The Thorn Birds (1983) on TV, and was unafraid to enact an older woman’s sexual desire.

I met both Ava Gardner and Barbara Stanwyck in the 1980s. Both were tough and wary, but vulnerable in different ways. Gardner was past her prime, a bit puffy around the eyes. She walked toward me with feline grace, and despite everything, she was nothing short of spectacular. Stanwyck showed no sign of age whatever, other than her white hair that she had been refusing to dye for decades. She had the body of a teenager and she was swathed in a sequined bright red sheath. Both women wanted to make it clear that “I’m still here.”

Gardner and Stanwyck died within five days of each other in January of 1990, Stanwyck at age eighty-two and Gardner at sixty-seven. Evans furthers the legend of Ava Gardner as the woman who liked sex and booze and did it her way. (To paraphrase John Ford, when the image becomes legend, print the legend.) Wilson, in the first of her two volumes, tries to see Stanwyck objectively, tracing all the facts about her she could find. But no one will ever know who they really were. They were too good at playing roles, both on and off the screen.

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