Actress Files: Ava Gardner
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(lost the 1953 Best Actress Oscar to Audrey Hepburn for Roman Holiday)
Why I Waited: The John Ford whose work I see on screen is the same one David Thomson describes in his Biographical Dictionary of Film, and if you follow what that means, you'll know why I haven't always made his pictures a topmost viewing priority. Plus, I wanted to see Red Dust before I hit Mogambo, and I only recently got around to it (and, incidentally, thought it was terrific). Plus, well...
The Performance: ...few Hollywood actresses have been as hard on their own abilities and dismissive of their own filmographies as Ava Gardner, who rarely shied away from telling reporters that she had made no really good films and was not a major boon to the ones where she appeared. I'm not sure from what source her IMDb biography has her saying, for example, "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." However, variations on these themes aren't hard to come by in writing by or about Gardner, who rivals this year's victor, Sandra "Did I just wear y'all down?" Bullock, as a varsity-squad self-deprecator, but with more edge and candid disappointment. The question of how much good PR Gardner racked up by performing such egolessness or pre-emptively writing her own bad reviews is a separate question, but my own hunch is that even a better actress would have a hard time prevaricating on that subject for that long.
Fair enough that Gardner's Eloise Kellythe voluptuous escort who shows up in Kenya to "entertain" a departed Maharaja in Mogambo, thus winding up stranded and unwanted in the hunting outpost of Clark Gable's Victor Marswellis not a performance that would have had Elia Kazan calling with Broadway leads on offer. A nomination for Gardner's Eloise would be unlikely if Mogambo hadn't been a hit; if John Ford's gratuitous and widely-reported cruelty toward his leading lady hadn't positioned her as a sympathetic underdog; if Jean Simmons's representation had succeeded in getting voters solidly behind one of her three laureled performances in 1953; and if the field of contenders hadn't felt thin enough that such weak sauce as that ladled out by Maggie McNamara, et al., found its way fairly easily onto the ballot. That's a list of caveats that Gardner herself might have proffered pessimistically to explain her one moment in the Academy spotlight, but from where I sit, she's a vibrant, sensational asset to Mogambo and is also, by several degrees, the salvaging figure in an otherwise dispiriting roster. It must have been cold there in your own shadow, Ada. Here, at last, is your place in the sun.
Still, to claim that Ava Gardner excels in Mogambo is to take a specific stand on what can count as great acting, and to acknowledge how a left-of-center approach to that question is all but forced by the strangeness of Mogambo as a vehicle, an up-to-the-date entertainment in some ways and a half-hearted throwback in many others. On the one hand, it's a color-saturated transplant of Victor Fleming's Red Dust from Indochina to Africa, with a commercial eye on recent adventure tales like the same producer's King Solomon's Mines, the modern affectation of having no musical score, and a seriocomic, self-conscious ironization of the frontier ethos and the theater of local color that Ford had brought to so many pictures, many but not all of them more sober in this one. (Recall that Mogambo follows by one year the natural-light merriment of The Quiet Man.) Then again, Gable's presence feels as backward-looking as Grace Kelly's is an arrow into Hollywood's future, and he seems less than happy about it. Ostensible set-pieces like the tense encounter at a village taken over by insurgent tribes barely feel like they've gotten off the ground, and the jarring discontinuities between the fervid location photography and the brazenly mismatched stock footage of apes and lions feels no more advanced than it did in Trader Horn. Ford doesn't seem all that committed to the material and Gable's increasing dramatic focus on his character's churlish self-interest seems like the only way to countenance his palpable air of peevish boredom as a proper take on the role. All of which might sound like Mogambo is much less fun than it is when, in fact, some second-hour slackening of the pace notwithstanding, it's a pretty juicy diversion, a tangy location-shoot tagalong, erected around a boilerplate romantic triangle among Gable, Gardner, and Kelly that occasionally springs to lurid life. Gable whipping the handkerchief off of Kelly's head after carrying her in from a highland rainstorm, while she gazes back at him in outraged but pleading arousal, is as potent an emblem as you'll get in mainstream 50s cinema of surging erotic desires (for which the Swahili word, incidentally, is "mogambo").
To no one's surprise, Gardner extends some automatic provisions to the film's exploration of eroticism. She makes an entrance showering behind a low bamboo wall, her bare shoulders nearly upstaged by her sexily insolent facial features. Watching her case out the grounds with the giraffes, the elephants, the leopards, the and rhinos is like seeing one exquisite, improbable specimen take a loping tour of fellow creatures that God designed while in the same buoyant, slightly absurd mood. Mercifully, Gardner doesn't gild the lily by doing anything to play "sexy" in these scenes; her figure and her costumes do that work for her. Her bigger accomplishment, the kind of thing that is perennially under-rewarded as good acting, lies in asserting her ease so quickly in what is nonetheless an uncomfortable locale. Neither in terms of her gender nor her carnality nor in any other respect does Gardner belabor Eloise's incongruity amid this scrappy, masculine, member's-only environment, even as the story and the direction take pivotal note of her flamboyant, temperature-shifting unexpectedness. All the guys around Gable, and eventually Victor himself, take a shine to the globetrotting gal as one of their own, not by any metaphorical association with her vocation but as people who don't require a lot of pillows or pretense. They're generally easygoing adults who know exactly who they are, despite their harsh, competitive, rough-and-tumble context. Leaning neither on an overdone masque of femininity nor on a strategic performance of "masculine" hardiness, gauging herself somewhere between a woman who's obviously out of her element and one who is pretty hard to unsettle, Gardner gives the movie swing, lightness, and personability, resisting all the typical routes for selling some generic persona of oneself to the audience or the other characters. She's witty, whipsmart, and confident of her attractiveness, but in a refreshingly rounded way that doesn't break a sweat flaunting any of those traits, or privileging one as her signal calling-card. She doesn't compete with Gable or with anyone to be the spitfire, the party-gal, or the wisely nurturing influence. She presumes her complementarity with him rather than figuring out how specifically to pitch it to him and to us, despite simultaneously suggesting that Eloise is more instantly drawn to Victor than he is to her.
All of that speaks wonderfully to Gardner's presence and discipline in Mogambo, but what really distinguishes her work here is the saucy, showmanly comedienne that she turns out to be. For sure, she is pushed in that direction by the delicious dialogue that the script affords her, and at times, she is too grandly, incessantly sarcastic or too smug about how handily she's stealing the film from Gable and Kelly, from Africa, and from the animals. Still, the loose, limber physicality she finds for Eloisewhether swinging onto to a moving flatbed truck, or comically scrambling up a ladder from a low river, or dropping to her cot in loose-limbed relief after a cheetah skulks through her tentfinds an even tastier corollary in the spry, mordant, adaptable sense of humor that Gardner furnishes the character in almost every interaction, either with her friends or in teasing rebuke of her one, icicle-assed enemy. I love how flippantly Gardner reacts to the phrase "Dark Continent" as if it's the dumbest thing she's ever heard, and as much as I felt that Gardner wasn't playing an Eloise who's so sheltered as to be stumped by what a "marsupial" or an "anthropologist" is, she manages to be perplexed, annoyed, and self-mocking when Victor tosses these words at her, expecting her to be at a loss. "Excuse me," she responds, "I left my cap and gown at the cleaners," fessing up without embarrassment to what she doesn't know but hitting a return bull's eye at his priggish arrogance, laughing at herself and at him.
Gardner persists with this kind of sporting, fetching personality performance, making the first hour of Mogambo such a plummy and borderline-camp delight that the movie sails past what would otherwise be the obstacles of rather indifferent assembly and technique, a familiar story, and pretty hidebound clichés of frontier masculinity. I hooted at how she was just being herself but also deliberately offending the well-heeled sensibilities of the Grace Kelly character in their first conversation. Sauntering onto a porch after a long day outside, Eloise sighs, "I haven't walked that far since some palpitating halfback told me he'd run out of gas," grinning at herself and also at Kelly's ill-concealed retraction from such earthiness. I clapped at Eloise's annoyed indulgence of Gable's wishes that she go easy on the visiting innocents, pretending that she and he haven't just been enjoying each other's company for a few hot nights in the encampment: "I'll just act like your sister, down from Vassar for the holidays," she drawls. There's a lot more where that came from, across a spectrum of willful provocation, ungenerous needling, justifiable defense of herself, and a kind of baseline pleasure at tickling the ribs of social niceties. Then again, even at her cattiest, Gardner never loses that facet of Eloise that palpably does believe in a very square myth of romance. She looks suspicious that she's running out of time to find real companionship, though she's not the kind of gal who's going to humiliate herself running after it.
Gardner's not quite sure what to do with some of the scenes where the script backs her into an expository monologue about her past, and there are stiff close-ups and amateur gestures here and there that reveal her jitters, or her lack of training, or Ford's spiteful withholding of interest. (He wanted Maureen O'Hara.) Plus, as I've mentioned, she eventually has to wean herself of being the snarky showboat, after a midfilm safari sequence in which her performance teeters on the edge of canned schtick. Still, she had amassed so much good will from me by that point in Mogambo that she could more than withstand some shaky scenes. In a larger sense, Gardner seems to know when it's time to background herself a little. Of the three headliners, she's the only one who is capable of punching up what could otherwise be a slow and obligatory hour of exposition at the campsite, and boy does she come through with some home runs. Eventually, she passes the baton to Gable for the second, more sour, and more action-driven second hour. Yet Gardner is nobody's non-entity, even in that latter half of the film, and especially when she nails one of her strongest, most maturely played scenes, trying to extend an olive branch and to offer some feminine insight and understanding to the Kelly character, who predictably wants nothing to do with her. Gardner plays Eloise in these and the neighboring sequences as though the character truly believes she has lost Victor, an avowedly dubious catch, to this swannish blonde society girl, veering hopelessly far from her caste. When things come through for Eloise at the eleventh hour, partially through her own athletic leap to seize a lurid opportunity, it's almost as gratifying as when Shirley MacLaine earns her first, full blast of blissful satisfaction after putting up with all the sludgy middle-class constipation of the other characters in Some Came Running. Gardner's character is more emotionally guarded than MacLaine's, and as an actress, she's working with a much less compassionate director. Ford abjures dialogue and holds almost entirely to a mile-off long shot during what should, by rights, be Eloise's big, triumphant finale. But then, not only is Eloise not the kind of gal to require a big brass-band parade at the moment of getting something she wantsespecially as she appears to know what a flawed prize she has actually wonGardner's is not the kind of performance that a stingy camera angle and an unsympathetic director can wipe away. She's a joy and a pro in Mogambo, playing her tricky hand as nimbly and patiently as Eloise plays hers.
The Best Actress Project: 1 More Down, 15 to Go