|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!