Sunday, January 14, 2018

Ava Gardner Faces 50 in Style with 'Roy Bean'

John Huston w/favorite leading lady, Ava Gardner: "The Life & Times of Judge Roy Bean."

The opposing anecdotes ahead are about Ava Gardner, on location for 1972’s The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean. They have always stuck in my head, from an excellent book, The Hustons: The Life and Times of a Hollywood Dynasty, by Lawrence Grobel, published in 2012.
The first is by Dallas’ Victoria Principal, talking about her film debut as Roy Bean’s (Paul Newman) wife. The second is by screenwriter/director John Milius, and this film was his first big screenplay.
#1: “We had a small dinner for her (Ava) and she was over two hours late,” Principal recalled. “She arrived in white jeans and a white shirt that fit her magnificently. And she didn’t walk into the room, she came in like a cat. I have never seen a woman move like that or have that kind of presence, before or since. I have never seen a woman electrify a room sexually like she did. You were aware that she was on the prowl.”
#2: “She (Ava) got drunk,” Milius said. “and got angry at everybody, broke some glasses and stormed off into the desert. I was to go get her and bring her back but I didn’t want to deal with this predatory woman. Looking back, I wish I had. But she was old. There is something about people when they age and look like they have been rebuilt. It was very unappealing.”
Ava was near the end of her partying days, as was
Newman. Remember when the press bragged how
he drank a case of beer a day and still looked great?

These memories are about a film from over 45 years ago, but the quotes are recent. They point up the basic difference between the way men and women view female desirability, but also how older women are still viewed in Hollywood. Look at the pictures that go with this piece. Yes, the film stills are flattering and the artists did a great job recalling Ava’s famed beauty. Now look at the candid shots on the set. Does Ava look awful? To me, she looks like a beautiful middle-aged woman. I’m constantly shocked when watching 40-something female stars in ‘50s and ‘60s movies—they always seem to look a decade older. I mean, Angela Lansbury looked older in Manchurian Candidate than she did 20 years later in Murder, She Wrote! Why? Aside from differing lifestyles, classic era actresses didn’t have the option to indulge in modern cosmetic surgery and fillers starting at age 30!
It’s ironic that young hotshots like Milius, some who openly bragged they were going to bury the old cigar-chomping, starlet-squeezing moguls, turned out to be just as ego-driven, sexist, and ageist as the previous generation. And I guess we’re finding out that decades later, things still haven’t changed all that much. I also wonder if Milius knew that Roy Bean’s Paul Newman was only three years younger than “old” Ava.
Ava at her MGM magnificent.

When I was going for my bachelor’s in the mid-90s, I was in a Spanish class taught by this outrageous woman who grew up in Spain. We had to create a sentence to say, describing something or someone as beautiful. I used Ava Gardner as an example. A young girl piped up, “Who’s Ava Gardner?” And my teacher answered that Ava was a very beautiful actress and had run through many bullfighters, and they had run through her! Touché!
Hollywood’s original wild child, Ava Gardner made more headlines than movies from the mid-60s on. In a long-ago Ava biography, I remember how “concerned” everyone was over what kind of shape she was in, for her role in The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean. Gardner’s figure was in good shape and pal Edith Head designed a lovely early 20th century frock for the star. But her face… had… wrinkles! Ava used the usual temporary tricks for film work, but never went the plastic surgery route, from what I’ve read. Artfully made up, the cinematographer used the same special lens on Ava that was recently used on Mae West in Myra Breckinridge—who was 30 years older! Let’s just say the results were a bit more successful on Ava.
Ava makes her entrance at the end of 'Roy Bean.'

I recall thinking, reading about Ava as a ‘70s teen, did studios freak out about what kind of shape aging male boozers reported for on a picture? William Holden comes to mind, as does Lee Marvin. How about Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, Richard Harris, and Oliver Reed? Weathered faces or no, their leading ladies faces were still young and pretty. Rock Hudson told a story about how intimidated he was to work with John Wayne on The Undefeated—until he saw the Duke getting smeared in tan makeup, and fitted with his toupee and girdle. Do you think anybody worries about how Sean Penn is going to look when he shows up for a work? Is there an actress today who likes to work hard, play hard, and doesn’t care about wrinkles? If she exists, I can bet she’s not an American movie star!
Terry O'Neill took still photos on 'Roy Bean' & photographed Ava several times, declaring she was his kind of woman!

Ava was 50 when she agreed to appear in a cameo as theatrical star Lillie Langtry, as a favor to director and admirer John Huston. The movie’s title character is obsessed by the great beauty and his bar is a shrine to Langtry, though he never meets her. Gardner appears in the film’s final scenes, visiting the town named in her honor, 20 years after his death. This would put the real Langtry at 67 if she actually made the pilgrimage. Gardner shows what a natural actress she was, when Ava felt secure. Huston had previously directed Gardner in her greatest performance, as Maxine in Night of the Iguana. Ava has a great light touch here, amused, charmed, wistful, and worldly.

I finally got to see Ava’s five minute guest role in Roy Bean today. But I knew all the behind the scenes scuttlebutt around the film for decades. And it’s the kind of double-standard drama that’s still being played out in Hollywood today.
Today, Ava would be a sexy cougar. Back then, some young hotshots thought she was just old!


  1. Interesting read! I think Gardner looks amazing in 1972, though I can't deny she seems older than 50 to me. Probably because I am now 50 myself and can hardly believe it! LOL Somehow people just read older to me (and others) back in the day than they actually were. Case in point, Olivia de Havilland was 23 when she made
    "Gone with the Wind." TWENTY-THREE!!!!! It just seems impossible somehow. Lighting has more to do with the way a person looks in a photo or movie than even makeup as far as I'm concerned. Usually the more the better, but the angle is also important. Oh, as for an actress of today who doesn't seem to give a shit? I have to put forth Frances McDormand, though I confess she is the only exception to the rule I can think of. She always looks as if she just got done with a load of laundry or mowing the lawn, even at awards ceremonies. It's just who she is (and her right), though I like my stars all "done up." (That doesn't mean by a surgeon's knife, however!)

    1. Hell, they all aged faster back then...everybody smoked and drank like crazy. Also, people married early and had kids earlier back then, too...

      Think of this: Bacall was only 19 when she made To Have and To Have Not. Liz was only 23 when she did Giant! Linda Darnell and Loretta Young were teens when they started playing leading ladies. Different times, people grew up faster!

      Now, everyone wants to be a perennial teenager!

      Cheers, Rick

    2. Maybe add Meryl Streep to that. I don't think she cares much about how she looks, and she certainly doesn't dress in a glamorous manner.

  2. Wonderful think-piece, Rick! I to marvel at how "old" young actors looked in the old days, but I'm old enough to remember that before the 60's "youthquake" in clothes and appearance, the general aesthetic was to look mature as fast as you could. To the teenagers in The Mickey Mouse Club, Leave It To Beaver, etc., the height of sophistication was to look like your parents! (My mind goes to how Sandra Dee was made up to look like a mini-me Lana Turner in "Portrait in Black." Now everyone wants to retard the aging process. I'm as sick of the frozen-faced 20 somethings (botoxed beyond recognition) as I am of the 50 something actors and directors going around in baseball caps and sneakers. As a society we've always stressed that beauty was a woman's currency. What a waste that we fail to see or appreciate what an actress like Ava Gardner (who actually lived a life, not constructed a career) could bring to a movie beyond her looks. A bigger waste that we seem to have not progressed very far past the attitudes you cite here. I really enjoyed the biographical bits and the current social context you brought to looking back at one of Gardner's last roles. And isn't Poseidon's reference to Frances McDormand just perfect? I couldn't think of any actress today not somehow married to the idea that her looks are of a chief concern. Thanks for leading me to this piece. Enjoyed it immensely!

    1. Thanks, Ken! You actually crossed my mind when I wrote this!
      Great point on the goal to look "older" back in the day. Elizabeth Taylor once commented on how she tried all the superficial things to look older and more sophisticated when she was a starlet.

      Remember how much abuse was heaped on Taylor when she dared to not care, and look middle-aged in her '40s? Although our culture is more mean-spirited than ever, I don't think the kind of "humor" that was hurled at her by Joan Rivers and others would fly today.

      Glad you enjoyed, and thanks!

    2. That's another interesting point you make. Even though we seem to be nurturing a culture of cruelty these days, Joan Rivers' style of bash/humiliate comedy that trashes a person for gaining weight or looking their age I think is a thing of the past. Is Kathy Griffin the only one still doing that?

    3. Yeah, and even before her run-in with Trump, Griffin's career was on the wane. As for Rivers, I always thought she stopped being funny when she went from making fun of herself to mocking others...

  3. I met Ava Gardner in an elevator in Beverly Hills in the year 1973 or 74. I was leaving the doctor's office with my daughter. She was in the elevator with her older sister. When she saw my little girl she started talking to her in a very sweet and kind voice. She had no make up on and she looked absolutely beautiful. She looked so natural, she was dressed very simply with a pair of slacks and a white blouse. I never told her that I knew who she was because I felt that she did not want to be recognized. She was a REAL beauty. I was over the moon because she was my favorite actor.

    1. How wonderful for you! I think she was pretty private off-camera, so you were probably correct in not identifying her. And I've read that she loved kids, and regretted not having any. I always felt she was a great, real beauty at any age, so I'm glad to read this. Thanks for writing, Rick

  4. People Magazine got it right when she passed away and made Ava the cover story titled "The Last Goddess". Although she did age rapidly from her wild life there was no denying her beauty. No wonder Frank went crazy. In George Jacob's book (the valet to Sinatra) he writes when FS sent him to the airport to pick up Ava. He couldn't wait to meet this woman who made Frank go crazy like no other woman could. She gets into the backseat. No makeup with thick black hair, creamy complexion with cat like eyes. He understood now - "Now that's a woman you would kill for" plus she was so down to earth. If Ava were alive today i would hope she would not have given in to the horrendous cosmetic procedures and ruined her magnificent beauty. Even with aging it still shone through.

    1. Hey Bizz, well Ava lived to nearly 70 and didn't go the plastic surgery route. I think in her later years Ava settled down a wee bit and wasn't adverse to the magic of movie makeup to look her best on guest spots like "Knot's Landing." It's cool to see that Ava is well-remembered as film star. Cheers, Rick