The Magazine

Thing of Beauty

Ava Gardner as metaphor.

Sep 30, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 04 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
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In 1941, a girl climbed off a train in Los Angeles. She was the daughter of a North Carolina farmer and a housekeeper, had grown up bitterly poor, and had few prospects in life. But her older sister had married a man who owned photo shops in New York City. He had taken a picture of the girl and put it in the window of his Fifth Avenue store. An MGM office boy spotted it; she got a $50-a-week contract at the studio and a train ticket to the West Coast. 

That photo appears in a strange new book called Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations, which has a joint byline from the afterlife—the titular movie star, dead these 23 years, and a writer named Peter Evans, who passed away last year. The book is Evans’s account of an aborted effort to ghostwrite Gardner’s memoirs in the late 1980s. (Evans speculates that she was handsomely paid by her ex-husband Frank Sinatra to give it up.) Like that project, The Secret Conversations is unfinished, because Evans died in the midst of it.

Ava Gardner was 18 when her photo was taken, and she was garbed as an 18-year-old in 1940 would have been—in a floral dress and straw hat tied under her chin. But she doesn’t look like any 18-year-old beauty today would, which is something that can be said as well of most starlets from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Their glamour shots were explicitly designed to convey mysterious sensuality, and the message is unmistakable: Sexuality is a womanly thing.

The subjects of the pictures may have been barely out of their teens, but to the 2013 eye, they look much older. And they sound much older as well. Listen to them speak in YouTube clips and on Turner Classic Movies, and you will notice that (under the tutelage of vocal coaches at the studios) their voices shaded toward deeper tones.

Girls they may have been in fact, but this was not what Hollywood wanted audiences to see. Girls were cute: They wore pigtails and had loads of goofy energy and spoke with squeaky voices. Women had had a few go-arounds with life: They knew things; their mature faces and mature bodies and mature voices testified to that. They were people to reckon with. Girls were pre-sexual; women embodied sex.

Ava Gardner wasn’t in Los Angeles 24 hours when she found herself being introduced to the biggest (and smallest) star in Hollywood—Mickey Rooney, all 5-feet-2-inches of him. Rooney tracked her down that night, and, partly because she would not sleep with him otherwise, they were married within a few months. Their nuptials came over the objections of the tyrannical head of MGM, Louis B. Mayer, for whom Rooney’s box-office value came from the public impression that he was a cute, hyperactive, desexualized boy. Marriage endangered that image, because marriage would mean Rooney was a man, not a boy. Marriage meant sex, especially when your wife was someone as implicitly womanly as 19-year-old Ava.

Today’s starlets, from Miley Cyrus twerking on an awards show to the casts of shows on the CW network and ABC Family, convey a sexuality of their own—and the contrast to Gardner and her contemporaries is striking. They are Humbert Humbert’s fantasy gone viral; Humbert, who finds the 35-year-old Charlotte Haze revolting in his obsession with her 12-year-old daughter, the “nymphet” whose body has yet to manifest the womanliness that so repels him, whom he calls “Lolita” even though her real name is the very plain Dolores. Today’s starlets are encouraged by the culture to associate their girlishness—high voices, open faces, giggly personas—with sexuality. Even Vladimir Nabokov, with his great satirical eye, could not have imagined it coming to this.

Another difference between the pop-culture conception of beauty and sexuality of Gardner’s halcyon days and Miley Cyrus’s booty-shaking times has to do with scarcity and abundance. If you were knocked out by Ava Gardner in a movie in 1946, the only way you would get to see her again was to wait. Wait until the next one. She was, by definition, a scarce commodity, made all the more valuable by that fact.

Now, if you develop a thing for Jennifer Lawrence, who is all of 23, you can watch YouTube clips of her all night. You can download her movies and have them on your hard drive. You can put a Google Alert on her name so that every mention of her anywhere in the media comes right into your email. This makes Lawrence more accessible, and also means her fans are going to get sick of her. Stardom, like sexuality itself, needs a little mystery. Ava Gardner always had it. No one can have it today.

This odd, depressing book is really about what happens to someone beautiful and famous when she ends up with nothing and no one—only painful memories that are of value because they involve people about whom the world loves to hear gossip.