With her exotic sultry looks, she was possibly one of Hollywood's earliest 'globalised' leading ladies, playing roles spanning from a Spanish flamenco dancer to a Russian countess to a Biblical matriarch. Ava Gardner also appeared as a half-Indian character in the first Hollywood film realistically depicting India - on the cusp of Independence - then of the maharajas, the Great Game and tiger hunts.
And for good measure, Ava (1922-90), whose 95th birth anniversary falls on Sunday, is also known for a film that gave Bollywood the name of one of its most enduring villains - "Mogambo" (1953), set in Africa and co-starring Clark Gable and Grace Kelly.
With her dark brown hair contrasted by green eyes, her chiselled facial features comprising a dimpled chin and high cheekbones, voluptuous figure and a deep voice, Ava could have been typecast in one particular sort of role. But she was as exceptional - and atypical in her roles as her flamboyant life.
Born on Christmas Eve (which led to her Hollywood nickname) in a tobacco farm in North Carolina and youngest of seven siblings, she came into films in unique circumstances - through her photo displayed in the brother-in-law's New York photo studio which, by and by, led to a screen test at MGM's New York office.
"There wasn't a thing that I could do. I couldn't act... I had no training whatsoever. I was just a pretty little girl. But I loved the idea, because I loved movies," she said later. And after the test, "...the director clapped his hands gleefully and yelled, 'She can't talk! She can't act! She's sensational!'".
Offered a seven year contract by MGM, she left school for Hollywood in 1941. While MGM's first task was to improve her diction as her southern accent was nearly incomprehensible, her first years were scarcely pathbreaking.
Out of her about 70 screen appearances, 25 were in the first five years mostly as an uncredited extra in small roles. As Ava later put it, ".... I played a lot of hatcheck girls, and did mob scenes, extra scenes, dancing scenes, just to have the experience of being on a set.... If the studio wanted a photograph to advertise a film they'd say, 'Who is it that has a good pair of legs and a good pair of breasts and is pretty and not working?' And it was always Ava because she was never working."
She however came to prominence with her depiction of femme fatale Kittty Collins in the crime noir "The Killers" (1946), based on an Ernest Hemingway short story, expanded for the film.
This became a pattern of Ava's film career. She had just read two books till she was 21 - the Bible and "Gone with the Wind" (though she made up for it throughout her life by self-improvement), but ended up appearing in many movies with a strong literary flavour - based on works of Hemingway (who also was a close friend), Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Tennessee Williams, Nevil Shute and John Masters among others.
A string of bigger films followed - "The Hucksters" (1947) with Clark Gable and Deborah Kerr, "One Touch of Venus" (1948), in which she plays the goddess of love, "The Great Sinner" (1949) and "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" (1952) with Gregory Peck, "The Barefoot Contessa" (1954) with Humphrey Bogart and more.
It was "Bhowani Junction" (1956), in which Ava, playing Anglo-Indian girl Victoria Jones, wears a sari - as she has to decide between three men in her life - a British army officer (Stewart Granger), a fellow Anglo-Indian and an Indian railway official. The filmmakers wanted to shoot in India but the government wasn't very accommodating, so they shifted base to Pakistan.
Her last prominent roles were in "The Night of the Iguana" (1964), opposite Richard Burton and "The Bible: In the Beginning" (1966) in which she played Sarah, wife of the Prophet Abraham, though she continued acting in smaller movies and even TV soaps. Asked why she did this, she said: "For the loot, honey, for the loot".
While there is much more about her - her penchant for bawdy language and swearing (one reporter said it seemed like a competition between a sailor and a truck driver), fierce temper and free spirit, her tempestuous relationship with Frank Sinatra which included a spell of marriage and continued relations and more, it is her wit and humour that deserves mention.
Opining that "Deep down, I'm pretty superficial", she was as dismissive of her time in the limelight: "What I'd really like to say about stardom is that it gave me everything I never wanted" and that ".... I never brought anything to this business and I have no respect for acting. Maybe if I had learned something it would be different. But I never did anything to be proud of."
Many of us wouldn't agree.
(Vikas Datta can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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