The real and reel Ava Gardner: What price celebrityhood?
Elizabeth McGovern in ‘Ava: The Secret Conversations’ / Jeff Lorch

LOS ANGELES — As a film historian, when I heard a bioplay was being mounted about silver screen siren Ava Gardner at one of L.A.’s finest theaters, the Geffen Playhouse, it was “Westwood Ho!” for moi. I strapped on my running shoes and said, “Feets, don’t fail me now! Feets, do your thing!” to go see a play about The Barefoot Contessa. All the more so when I learned that Ava: The Secret Conversations was not only starring, but written by, Elizabeth McGovern.

One of the delights of L.A. theater is that our hamlet’s vast talent pool includes big and little screen talents. What a treat to see McGovern—who was Oscar- and Golden Globe-nominated for 1981’s Ragtime, plus Emmy and Golden Globe-nommed for Downton Abbeytread the boards live and in the flesh. (At my last foray to the Geffen in 2022 I had the pleasure to see Bryan Cranston act in person in Power of Sail.)

However, in addition to satisfying one’s craving for stargazing, the fact that this play about Ava Gardner’s life on- and off-screen (and in and out of bed) is dramatized by a woman who, like Gardner, has experienced stardom in the Hollywood firmament, enhances the authenticity and insights into what it may have been like to be ballyhooed by the studio dream machine as “The World’s Most Beautiful Animal” for 1954’s The Barefoot Contessa.

In this fact-based two-hander, the 66-year-old Gardner, who has fallen off her perch as a Tinseltown sex goddess, is (like the rest of us mere mortals) in need of a transfusion of hard currency. To cash in on her often titillating memoir, Ava invites the younger Peter Evans (Aaron Costa Ganis), a UK journalist and author of unauthorized biographies, to ghostwrite her autobiography. Through this prism, McGovern reenacts her life and loves, which included numerous affairs and stormy marriages to actor Mickey Rooney, musician Artie Shaw and crooner Frank Sinatra. In a sly bit of casting Costa Ganis adeptly assumes the personas of Rooney and Ol’ Blue Eyes (although his orbs aren’t the portion of Sinatra’s anatomy that Evans’s offstage avaricious agent, Ed Victor, voiced by Ryan W. Garcia, keeps pressing his client to exploit in the tawdry tell-all he is penning with Gardner).

The mercurial Ava, who has suffered a stroke as well as alcoholism and possibly other forms of substance abuse, is a difficult collaborator with Evans. There is a frisson between this fading sex symbol far past her prime and the younger wordsmith. Their relationship is reminiscent of Gloria Swanson and William Holden in another drama about an over-the-hill Hollywood legend, 1950’s Sunset Blvd. As for Ava and Peter—do they or don’t they? Inquiring minds want to know! In any case, Costa Ganis holds his own up against the force of nature that is Ava/Elizabeth.

Projection designer Alex Basco Koch enhances the production, which mostly takes place in the London flat that Ava-in-exile presided over in the late 1980s, by projecting imagery of the actual Ava onto the Geffen’s walls and ceiling. The pictures remind older theatergoers and acquaint younger ticket buyers with what a truly radiant enchantress Gardner was. I believe critic Rex Reed, whose first interview for Esquire was with Ava in 1967, put it best. As I recall, he “accidentally” walked in (perhaps in her dressing room?) on the 45-year-old voluptuously topless Ava, and wrote that it was the most beautiful sight he’d ever beheld in his entire life (or words to that effect).

Ava: The Secret Conversations reveals how the movies discovered the preternaturally gorgeous Gardner and brought the North Carolina-born teenager all the way out to Hollywood, based solely on her looks. There is a line of spot-on dialogue in McGovern’s bioplay that sums up her existential dilemma. McGovern muses in the guise of her sensuous alter ego: “I’ve had only one job in my life: To be the woman that men dream of” (I don’t know if Ava actually said this or if McGovern dreamt them up, but well said, either way). Of course, as Mickey, Artie, Frankie and countless others discovered, they all woke up from that dream, which no single female could ever fulfill.

Ava’s beauty brought her a life of incandescent fame, fortune and glamor, but it was also arguably her undoing. McGovern’s portrait of her peer is uncanny, luminous and penetrating. It’s good fun and refreshing to watch a woman boast about how much she loves to “fuck,” to enjoy, be in control and have agency over her sexuality. Ava’s looks and charms brought her many sexual partners, even if they didn’t deliver true love to her doorstep.

Multi-Tony Award nominee Moritz von Stuelpnagel adroitly directs Ava: The Secret Conversations, which paints a very different picture from the woman depicted in Sergio Mondelo’s documentary Ava Gardner, The Gipsy of Hollywood, which aired on Turner Classic Movies in 2017. That unflattering documentary focuses on Ava’s exile in Spain where, according to Mondelo, she was very simpática with Franco’s regime. Although that doesn’t mean that the hard drinking, cavorting Contessa abided by the stringent standards of church and fascist state herself: Rules were for others, but not for superstars!

At the end of this 90-minute tour-de-force, Von Stuelpnagel graphically expresses Gardner’s conundrum: Where do the persona and the person, reel and real life diverge? Ava: The Secret Conversations is for lovers of Hollywood history, gossip, great acting, and dramatizations of women’s issues, rendered in an engaging, entertaining, insightful, humorous one-act drama that may make audiences ponder: What price Tinseltown?

Ava: The Secret Conversations plays at 7:00 p.m. Tues.-Sat., and on Sat. at 2:00 p.m., plus Sun. at 1:00 and 6:00 p.m., through May 7, at the Gil Cates Theater, The Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles 90024. Tickets and info are available here, or by calling (310) 208-2028.  The trailer for the play can be viewed on the Geffen website.

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Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian and critic, author of "Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States," and co-author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book." He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., and other publications. Rampell lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, reporting on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific and Hawaiian Sovereignty movements.