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Six Definitive Films: The ultimate beginner's guide to Ava Gardner

Regarded by many as one of the most iconic actresses in the history of American cinema, Ava Gardner was a singular presence. Known for her wonderful performances and graceful dramatic capabilities, Gardner successfully evaded the common phenomenon of typecasting and actually managed to make her oeuvre incredibly diverse and fascinating.

Born in North Carolina, Gardner’s entry into the entertainment industry happened when a fake talent scout discovered her portrait in a studio’s front window and asked them to send her information to MGM when the receptionist refused to give him Gardner’s number. MGM ended up offering Gardner a contract, with its chief Louis B. Mayer making this comment about her screen test: “She can’t sing, she can’t act, she can’t talk, she’s terrific”.

Dropping out of school to pursue the opportunity of being a film star seldom ends well for most people but Gardner was able to transform that elusive dream into a reality. Although she started out with insignificant roles in small productions, Gardner rose to the very top of the film industry due to her talent as well as her persona and collaborated with some of the biggest filmmakers and actors of that era.

Check out a list of some of the definitive works starring the enigmatic Ava Gardner.

Ava Gardner’s six definitive films:

The Killers (Robert Siodmak, 1946)

This was the impressive film noir that properly kickstarted Gardner’s career, propelling her towards greater stardom. Robert Siodmak’s 1946 gem stars Gardner opposite Burt Lancaster in a sinister tale of mysterious criminal activities told through slick narrative techniques.

Based on a short story by Hemingway, The Killers was the only adaptation that the famous author liked despite his absolute hatred for Hollywood and what it stood for. Gardner is simply unparalleled as the irresistible femme fatale, delivering a performance that solidified her status as one of the most promising young stars.

Mogambo (John Ford, 1953)

Mogambo might not be one of Ford’s best works but this 1953 adventure film was one of the most memorable appearances of Gardner, starring alongside other Hollywood icons such as Clark Gable and Grace Kelly in Ford’s remake of Victor Fleming’s Red Dust.

Featuring a classic love triangle scenario, Gardner plays the role of Eloise Kelly who travels to Africa to meet an affluent acquaintance but ends up falling in love with a big game hunter (Gable). However, things get complicated when a married woman (Kelly) feels the same way.

The Barefoot Contessa (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1954)

An iconic collaboration between Gardner and the greatest American acting star in the history of Hollywood: Humphrey Bogart, The Barefoot Contessa stars Bogart as a fading artist who is forced to work for an abusive tycoon in order to keep his career going.

Gardner is mesmerising as a dancer named Maria Vargas who takes a liking to Bogart’s character. The Barefoot Contessa is an interesting satire of the insidious machinations of the film industry which explores the structures and operations of power really well.

On the Beach (Stanley Kramer, 1959)

A curious sci-fi film by Stanley Kramer, On the Beach is an adaptation of Nevil Shute’s eponymous novel which chronicles the consequences of a nuclear war. With the Northern Hemisphere completely destroyed, human life only exists in some hospitable regions in the South.

Starring the likes of Gregory Peck, Gardner and Fred Astaire, On the Beach is about confronting the possibility of the extinction of the human species at a time when the planet has been ravaged by the arrogance of human technology and political warfare.

The Night of the Iguana (John Huston, 1964)

Huston and Gardner worked together more than once throughout their respective careers but The Night of the Iguana was their best collaboration by far. Based on Tennessee Williams’ famous play, the film stars Richard Burton as a defrocked Episcopal minister.

He works as a tour guide down in Mexico, battling with his own lecherous urges and the problematic nature of his own masculinity. The film received a lot of critical attention and ended up earning Oscar nominations for its stunning cinematography and art direction.

Seven Days in May (John Frankenheimer, 1964)

Seven Days in May reunited Gardner with her co-star from her breakthrough production The Killers: Burt Lancaster. Frankenheimer’s political thriller envisions the events surrounding a planned takeover of the government of the United States.

Drawing from the omnipresent cultural and political paranoia caused by the Cold War, Seven Days in May is an engaging suspense thriller that manages to use the tropes of the genre very effectively. It was even nominated by the Writers Guild of America for the Best Written American Drama.