Ava Gardner Knows How To Kiss

Ava Gardner and George raft in Whistle Stop ('45}. The kiss that made her career.

Ava Gardner and George Raft in Whistle Stop (’45). The kiss that made her career.

In 1988, only two years before her death, Ava Gardner, living in semi-seclusion in London, unable to get work, and running dangerously low on funds, asked the late British author Peter Evans to ghostwrite her autobiography.

Deadpanned Gardner: “I either write the book or sell the jewels, and I’m kinda sentimental about the jewels.”

Only now, years after Ava and Evans’ death, has this frank memoir been published. Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations is a sad and intimate book about the fate of a great Hollywood star. Born poor in rural North Carolina, Ava was given a Hollywood screen test thanks to a radiantly innocent photo of 18 year-old Ava, displayed in a shop window.

After meeting with Ava in her London flat, Evans realized that the aging star was deeply conflicted about publishing an honest memoir. He also realized that she was a hopeless drunk. But the lure of working with one of Hollywood’s legendary stars trounced the author’s common sense. Already, in the preliminary stages, Gardner, drunk, depressed, and lonely, was calling Evans in the middle of the night, and rambling on, quite candidly, about the glorious, yet often sordid past. Evans, a solid, if sleep-deprived pro, faithfully recorded her reminiscences in a notebook he parked on his night stand.

Here, Ava explains how she got the star-making role of Kitty Collins in the noir classic, The Killers (’46).

whistle stopposter

“I did one film in ’45, a loan-out: Whistle Stop, with George Raft. MGM got five thousand dollars for me that time. I didn’t mind. I liked George. He was coming to the end of his career, and mine still hadn’t got started, but we dated a few times. He was a wonderful dancer—for his age! He must have been in his late forties at that time but he still had a good figure. I had to slap him down a few times to keep him in line. He still thought of himself as a lady-killer, a bit of a Casanova; apart from that he was okay. We had some laughs together. I told you, I first met him with Mickey [Rooney] when we used to go to the Friday night fights in L.A. He was going steady with Betty Grable in those days. They were a hot item for a while.

Whistle Stop was my first leading role. I was very nervous, and I wasn’t very good. I still didn’t know my ass from my elbow acting-wise. But there was one scene that got me noticed. I kissed George with my mouth open! It was a mistake, I shouldn’t have done it. It was forbidden by the Breen office, but it had the guys in the audience hanging on the ropes. [“With the dynamics of Gardner and Raft in it, Whistle Stop is certainly not a dull place,” Variety noted.]

“Fortunately, it slipped by the production Code people. They were very hot on what they regarded as lustful kissing in those days. But John Huston spotted it. He said it was the scene that got me the role in The Killers, my breakthrough movie as they call it today. It made me realize you didn’t have to be an actress to sell tickets at the box office!”

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  1. Bill Brandt
    Posted December 12, 2013 at 11:30 pm | Permalink

    Robert – there is so much sadness in so many of these stars who were the pinnacle of Hollywood – and the world – living out their days destitute.
    Marlene Dietrich had a similar life.
    To have had it all – at least on the outside – and to end one’s days like Ava.
    There were a lot of silent film stars in a similar position.

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    • Barry
      Posted December 13, 2013 at 10:04 pm | Permalink

      I’m sorry but neither Marlene Dietrich nor Ava Gardner were strictly speaking, destitute. Marlene had a considerable estate plus a Paris apartment. As for Ava Gardner, she was reduced, but we all are as we age, earn less, and require more. If you want to feel sad for these people, fine, but there is no escape from age,  although Gardner didn’t quite get into that stage. As for being destitute, Mae Murray could have been. Veronica Lake. Not these people.

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  2. M.R. Smith
    Posted December 12, 2013 at 11:06 pm | Permalink

    How could Evans tell the if stories were true and not the ramblings of a drunk old woman?

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    • kishke
      Posted December 13, 2013 at 6:27 am | Permalink

      Maybe he couldn’t tell. So?

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    • Barry
      Posted December 13, 2013 at 9:39 am | Permalink

      Not just that — but these so-called public musings filtered through a third parties eyes have to be treated with some scepticism. Over time people alter their own perceptions for the past, and present. Health, mood altering drugs, and time play a part in this. Public figures that you do not know personally need to be judged by their actions rather than words.

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  3. Barry
    Posted December 12, 2013 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    Further re Olivier. The only intelligent comment I’ve ever heard or read about screen acting and its essential component was Sir Larry’s. “Physical strength.”  When some unknowing and  pretentious journalist asked him to  identify the most important quality.

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    • Bill Brandt
      Posted December 12, 2013 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

      FWIW I would rate Olivier as one the top 10 of the 20th century. That would be ian interesting list – but top 10 actors or stars?

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      • Barry
        Posted December 12, 2013 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

        No difference. Stars are actors. Not all actors are stars, though.

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        • Bill Brandt
          Posted December 12, 2013 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

          I disagree with you there. Unless you consider anyone in front of a camera to be an “actor”. It’s all about selling tickets and audience

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          • Barry
            Posted December 12, 2013 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

            Yes, of course. And what do you think they are buying?

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            • Bill Brandt
              Posted December 12, 2013 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

              Simply reciting lines does not make one an actor in my book. But we can agree to disagree.

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              • Barry
                Posted December 12, 2013 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

                And how long without craft or intelligence would this imaginary career last? The audience determines ongoing value, so if you think you are smarter…? Then producers, directors, studio heads, bankers…?  And, we do not agree to disagree. Your position is just awash with personal preference masquerading as value.

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  4. Bill Brandt
    Posted December 12, 2013 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    That last sentence said so much.
    It isn’t necessarily about being an actor/actress. it’s about selling tickets.
    Which reminds me of a famous quote about Olivier and Monroe [and what they wanted from each other] on their motives in the making of The Prince and The Showgirl:
    “Monroe wanted to learn how to act and Olivier wanted to learn how to be a star.”

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  5. Barry
    Posted December 12, 2013 at 9:11 am | Permalink

    A good story about Whistle Stop, but…George Raft may not have been at the pinnacle, still he had ten more years before the cycle ended. Getting big money at Universal is not the same as a bargaining chip for some cheap European outfit of the time and Lippert. Second: What has John Huston to do with The Killers?

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted December 12, 2013 at 10:38 am | Permalink

      Huston was an uncredited writer on The Killers. He was struck by Ava’s performance and strongly suggested that she get the role of Kitty. Of course, Ava was being groomed for stardom and the momentum was already there. 

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      • Barry
        Posted December 12, 2013 at 10:48 am | Permalink

        Robert, I did know that Huston did some work but did not know he had clout re casting  on this.  As for the final comment, Bill alludes to it, I believe these people who parse  acting have just fallen for a line of garbage. A compelling presence goes to acting as well as pretending you are something that you are clearly not. Stars, for the most part, and certainly in the classical era, play themselves, and that supplies a kind of authenticity. There are lots and lots of attractive people working the town who fail. They just don’t project. That is technique and talent.  So, if Ava thought playing a lot of fat,unhappy people living in Russia constitutes great acting, I think she , and Marilyn Monroe, were not only wrong but being destructively influenced. As for Olivier wanting to be a star. It was handed to him and he walked away. Next time around, it had to some degree passed him by.

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