Ava Gardner was one of Hollywood’s, and by extension, America’s sweethearts of the 20th century. A woman of flawless beauty, Gardner had her high-profile flaws such as highly publicized but failed marriages, including one with Frank Sinatra. Despite those, she went on to have a long, prosperous marriage to the film industry and was also unconditionally loved by the camera. While Ava Gardner’s movies and TV shows are widely acclaimed in pop culture, the road wasn’t all smooth and rosy for the American actress.
A farmer’s daughter, after a not so so childhood with six siblings, she rose to stardom and international fame, in a most unusual way likened to a true modern-day fairytale. She made her acting debut in 1941 after she put pen to paper with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). Gardner appeared mainly in uncredited roles until she had her breakthrough in The Killers (1946) as seductress Kitty Collins. Though she embodies all things femme fatale: mysterious, dangerous, brutally blunt, irresistible, she successfully resisted being typecast as a sex symbol.
Following her breakthrough role, Ava Gardner became a box office go-to girl, was in pin-ups, on the cover of Time and also appeared in movies with some of Hollywood’s biggest hunks such as Clark Gable, Gregory Peck, Burt Lancaster, Humphrey Bogart, and Cary Grant. She subsequently became the star of such unforgettable projects as Show Boat (1951), Mogambo (1953), The Barefoot Contessa (1954), and The Night of the Iguana (1964).
She acted mostly in films for the most part of her career, from the 1940s through the 1970s but appeared primarily on TV in her later career days in the 1980s, including in the miniseries remake of The Long, Hot Summer and Knots Landing (both in 1985). Her last film was Regina Roma (1982). Ava Gardner continued to act regularly until 1986, four years before her death in London, in January 1990, at the age of 67.
Throughout her career, she earned several awards and nominations, including an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. Also, the American Film Institute named her 25th on their list of 25 Greatest Female Stars of Classic Hollywood Cinema.
Ava Gardner Movies and TV Shows: Best To Worst Filmography
1. The Killers (1946)
It’s only appropriate that this list of Ava Gardner movies opens with The Killer (1946), being that it was her passage to stardom. Her sensational performance as the femme fatale Kitty Collins in the film noir classic provided her with a long-awaited breakthrough coming from years of going unnoticed in a string of minor films, thus, launching her into unparalleled fame and remains one of her best performances.
Directed by Robert Siodmak, it co-stars the then screen newcomer Burt Lancaster, alongside Edward O’Brien, and Sam Levene. Garner played Kitty, a memorably sultry and duplicitous femme fatale and the glamorous girlfriend of the Swede (Lancaster, in his film debut), an ex-boxer turned criminal who she wooed to his ruin. After he takes the fall for her, she ended up double-crossing him.
The film was both critically and commercially successful. It grossed $2.5 million at the box office and had a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 34 reviews. Also, it received 4 Academy Award nominations, including for Best Director.
2. Mogambo (1953)
Set in Africa and directed by John Ford, Mogambo follows Ava as Eloise “Honey Bear” Kelly, a bit of a golddigger who is stood up in Africa by a potential conquest. She ended up sparring with big-game hunter Victor Marswell (Clark Gable) who is going on safari with married couple Donald Nordley (Donald Sinden) and Linda (Grace Kelly). Romantic complications ensue.
The film was nominated for two Oscars, including one for Gardner for Best Actress, as well as a BAFTA Award for Best Film. It also won a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress (Kelly). Additionally, it was a massive hit, making $8.3 million against a budget of $3.1 million and holds an 83% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 12 reviews.
3. Seven Days in May (1964)
The 1964 political thriller is about an attempted military takeover of the US government in reaction to the president’s negotiation of a disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union. Ava Gardner portrayed a prominent and strong-willed Washington socialite, Eleanor Holbrook. She is also the former mistress of Gen. James Mattoon Scott (Lancaster), Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, who plotted a coup against the U.S. President (Fredric March).
Kirk Douglas produced and also starred in the film. Seven Days in May was released to rave critical reviews, with a score of 96% on Rotten Tomatoes. It was nominated for two 1965 Academy Awards and several Golden Globe Award nominations.
4. The Night of the Iguana (1964)
This Tennessee Williams’ play film adaptation cast Ava Gardner in the role of an earthy widow Maxine Faulk who runs a hotel alongside a disgraced minister T. Lawrence Shannon (Richard Burton) turned tour guide in Mexico where he herds in tourists to Maxine’s hotel. Her performance in the film got her her first Golden Globe nomination and her third BAFTA nod. The film also received three Oscar nominations. Furthermore, it grossed $12 million against a budget of $3 million, making it one of Gardner’s biggest box-office hits.
5. The Barefoot Contessa (1954)
Ava Gardner appeared as Maria Vargas, a free-spirited dancer in this romantic drama. The film, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz follows Maria, a fictional Spanish sex symbol as she is cast by has-been movie writer/director Harry Dawes (Humphrey Bogart) in a Hollywood film that makes her a star. However, with her launch into stardom came a downward romantic spiral that yields tragic results. It also starred Edward O’Brien in a supporting role.
The Barefoot Contessa was a critical success with Ava Gardner dubbed as one of the most breathtaking creatures on earth by one review. It grossed more than $3 million at the box office, sweeping awards and nominations in the process, including Golden Globe Awards and Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor (O’Brien), as well as an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay for the director.
6. Show Boat (1951)
Show Boat, made by MGM, is one of the best Ava Gardner movies you need to see at least once. Her role in the romantic musical as show-boat star Julie Laverne remains one of her best to date and made her an even bigger star since The Killers. It is the third film adaptation of Edna Ferber’s 1926 novel of the same name and arguably the best version.
Produced by Arthur Freed and directed by John Lee Mahin, the storyline, also based on the stage musical (1927) of the same name, follows the lives of performers, stagehands, and dock workers on the Cotton Blossom, a Mississippi River showboat. Stars who also featured in the film include Kathryn Grayson, Howard Keel, Gower Champion, William Warfield, Robert Sterling, Agnes Moorehead, and Leif Erickson.
Upon its release, Show Boat was met with rave critical reviews and was equally a commercial success. It made over $7 million at the box office against a budget of $2 million, making it the most financially successful of the film adaptations. Moreover, it became one of MGM’s most popular musicals, as well as the third-most profitable film of that year.
7. Bhowani Junction (1956)
Gardner teamed up with director George Cukor in what may be her best and most praised screen performance. She portrayed Victoria, a half-caste Anglo-Indian heroine who is torn, not only by love but also between two cultures.
The film also stars Bill Travers as Patrick Taylor, Stewart Granger as Col. Rodney Savage with Abraham Sofaer. It holds a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and made more than $4 million at the box office. Gardner received her first BAFTA nomination for her performance in the film.
8. Earthquake (1974)
In the 1970s, Ava Gardner took home large paychecks for starring in successful disaster films including Earthquake (1974) which remains her top-grossing movie to date. The plot follows Los Angeles, California dwellers and their struggle for survival after a catastrophic earthquake destroys most of the city. It made a whopping $79.7 million at the box office against a budget of $7 million, making it the third highest-grossing film of the year.
Despite critics praising it for its use of an innovative sound effect known as Sensurround which created the sense of actually experiencing an earthquake in theatres, it made a paltry 36% on Rotten Tomatoes and an average of 4.7 out of 10 based on 24 reviews. It was nominated for two Golden Globe Awards and four Academy Awards, winning one.
This Ava Gardner movie features a large all-star cast including Charlton Heston, George Kennedy, Geneviève Bujold, Richard Roundtree, Marjoe Gortner, Victoria Principal, and (under an alias) Walter Matthau.
9. 55 Days at Peking (1963)
This is one of Ava Gardner’s movies that showed the actress as a rare talent as she easily glided from a high placed woman to a hospital volunteer. The movie is an epic retelling of events set during the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900, wherein Chinese nationals sought to drive out foreign legations Beijing (Peking) whom they believed were undermining the country’s independence. Gardner portrayed Baroness Natasha Ivanoff, a Russian aristocrat turned volunteer. It also starred Charlton Heston and David Niven.
Released in 1963 by Allied Artists, 55 Days at Peking received mixed reviews and was a box office flop but would later become a cult film in the following years. Nevertheless, it was praised for its acting, direction, music, action sequences, and production design and was even nominated for two Academy Awards.
10. The Cassandra Crossing (1976)
This Ava Gardner movie, even with a star-studded cast which includes Burt Lancaster, Sophia Loren, Richard Harris, Martin Sheen, Lee Strasberg, and O. J. Simpson, was severely panned by critics. The disaster thriller follows a Swedish terrorist infected with a plague and infects a train’s passengers as they head to a derelict arch bridge. It has been described as profoundly, offensively stupid, as well as an unintentional parody of a disaster film.
Rotten Tomatoes rated the film 29% with Gardner’s role as Nicole Dressler described as awful. Despite being a huge critical disappointment, it still made money, grossing over $15 million against a budget of $3 million.