People’s harsh criticisms and a difficult home life only intensified her dedication to hard work, shooting her to stardom.
We often fear that difficult times may sink us or prevent us from reaching our full potential. But pearls teach us that the opposite is true. Oysters work for months on end to fix a big problem in the safety of their tiny shell – a grain of sand or an implanted bead – and what emerges is a pearl. We believe that people are like oysters, and that hard times can help us channel our energies in such a way that we leave our own pearlescent legacy. In honor of this unique human quality, we have started a series to look at some of the women who have lived their lives like pearls. This is the first part of the Living like a Pearl series.
When you hear the name Ava Gardner, the first thing that comes to mind might be her classic beauty, her acting talent, or perhaps her marriage to Frank Sinatra. But don’t think that Ava and her ‘perfect face and perfect body’ as she was often described, had it easy on her road to the top. In fact, even when she had reached stardom, she continued to face challenges in her home life.
Ava was born in North Carolina as the youngest of seven children. When she was still young, her family lost everything in a housefire, forcing her mother and father, who had been a tenant farmer, to go searching for other work. Her father died a few years later when she was only fifteen. It was in 1941 when she was visiting her sister Beatrice and Beatrice’s husband, Larry Tarr, in New York, that Larry took a picture of Ava. He was so proud of it that he displayed it in the window of his photography studio. And this is where the legends like to say she was ‘discovered’ by a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) movie studio scout. It is true that someone from the studio noticed her and got her an interview. But while she was offered a contract, the screen test didn’t exactly go down as successful. Her North Carolina accent was so strong that they could barely understand her and as a result, they told her to do a silent screen test. Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM, sent a telegram afterward to Al Altman, head of MGM’s New York talent department, saying: “She can’t sing, she can’t act, she can’t talk, she’s terrific!”
The young actress spent the next five years learning more about acting, working on her accent with a speech coach, having her appearance – hair and clothes – changed, and doing bit parts, some of which weren’t even credited. She married a fellow actor, Mickey Rooney, but it ended in divorce two years later. The day the divorce went through, her mother died from cancer.
She couldn’t have been in a good place then: on top of her huge losses, she still didn’t know if she was good enough to make it in the movie industry. Friends say she suffered from lifelong insecurity, never feeling that she was a good actress, no matter what movies she eventually starred in. Nevertheless, she continued working – and her hard work and perseverance were rewarded in a big way.
It was in 1946 that she landed a big role in The Killers, and people started noticing her. She got more big parts and soon shot to stardom. “The camera just loved her,” said one commentator. “Once she came into the frame, you couldn’t take your eyes off her.”
After The Killers, she went on to star in 38 more films, becoming one of the top movie stars of the 1950s. In presenting the 1949 Documentary Oscars, the host introduced her as a ‘young actress of considerable skill.’ When she got a big part in One Touch Of Venus, they described her as ‘the most beautiful girl in Hollywood.’ Even now, decades later, one can’t help but notice her grace when you look at old clips of her.
Her home life never got much better. Gardner was married three times, the final time to Frank Sinatra. The marriage lasted only five years, even though they both said they were the love of each other’s lives. But regardless of her home life, she always gave her absolute best. Even when her fame started to decline, she continued working until 1982, four years before her death.
Ava was nominated for an Academy Award, a Golden Globe award, and three Bafta awards. She lived her life like a pearl: she took her difficulties and powered through them with hard work and commitment, leaving a movie star legacy that is a shining pearl of success, a career that many envies.