Scandals of Classic Hollywood: Ava Gardner, the Second-Look Girl

By Anne Helen Petersen

Ava Gardner knew how to pose for the camera. She’d slit her eyes, throw her head at an angle, and the photographer would somehow catch something about her — not elegance or grace, exactly, but something that was strong, sexual, and almost animal, as if she were zeroing in on you, weighing your merits, and readying to pounce. And for most of the ’40s and ’50s, she was Hollywood’s most alluring femme fatale, an image solidified both on and off the screen.

Gardner was the youngest of eight children, raised in near-poverty in North Carolina, where she acquired a “Pure Tobacco Road South” accent and a predilection for drama. She was beautiful but without talent, always “picked last” for the school plays the same way that I was “picked last” for every team that didn’t have the word “math” in its title.

While visiting New York, Gardner’s brother-in-law, an established photographer, had her sit for a session. He was so pleased with the results that he put it in the front window of his shop, all senior-picture like. (Do you think Ava was posed with her pick-up truck and rifle the way people did for senior pictures in my town? HOTTT).

Some tool who worked for the local movie theater had made a practice of posing as an MGM talent scout in order to procure phone numbers from pretty girls. He tried the same on Gardner, but all she and her family heard was “she should call MGM.” The tool didn’t get Gardner’s number, but her photo, now in the hands of the New York MGM office, was raising eyebrows.

Realizing that Gardner couldn’t act and couldn’t speak in a way that people North of the Mason-Dixon line could understand, the New York office arranged for her to shoot a silent screen test. She looked to the left, she looked the right, then she walked around just enough to show off a spectacular pair of legs, purportedly prompting the MGM bosses in Hollywood to exclaim “She’s can’t act; she didn’t talk; she’s sensational! Get her out here!”

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