If this were a certain kind of Hollywood biopic, you can just imagine the poster: “Elizabeth McGovern is Ava Gardner.” That may not be the tagline, but it is unavoidably the hook for the new play Ava: The Secret Conversations at L.A.’s Geffen Playhouse, which began previews there last night and runs through May 7. The play, also written by McGovern, is based on Peter Evans’s book of nearly the same name (his includes Gardner’s last name), which had a dramatic gestation in its own right: A British journalist, Evans interviewed the aging Hollywood star in her final years, 1988-1990, but only secured the rights to proceed with the memoir some 20 years later, just before his own death in 2012.
McGovern’s play begins by staging the pair’s thorny interviews, then uses Gardner’s recollections to range freely across her storied life and career as a Golden Age Hollywood beauty who earned fame in a series of iconic films of the 1940s and 1950s (The Killers, Mogambo, The Barefoot Contessa, The Night of the Iguana) and in a series of equally iconic relationships with the likes of Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw, Frank Sinatra, and Howard Hughes.
I spoke to McGovern—whose long screen career includes several roles of both glamor and substance, from Racing the Moon to Downton Abbey, but who also has a lengthy theatre résumé in New York and London—about the parallels between her own life and Ava’s, about the unique challenges of stage acting, and about the writing of her first play.
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: Am I right that the play had a sort of trial run in London?
ELIZABETH McGOVERN: Yes, at the Riverside Studios, a beautiful little place, sort of off the theatrical map in London, which was very nice for me, because it was a real chance to work out my kinks as a playwright.
I know you write songs, but is this your first time writing a play?
Yes. The initial motivation for writing it was that I just want to play a great part. I don’t know if that’s a good motivation for turning to writing, but it was genuine.
In considering you and Ava, I can’t help but think about the difference between the eras in which you both emerged—I grew up watching you, in fact, and I just realized that the length of time between today and your 1980s films is actually greater than the time between that era and Ava’s heyday in the 1950s.
I’m just wondering if you and the cohort of young actors that came up around the same time as you—Sean Penn, Phoebe Cates, Nic Cage, Timothy Hutton, etc.—had those earlier Hollywood stars in mind at all, and if any of you modeled yourself on them, or imagined how you might have fared in the studio system.
What a good question. I think I was actively working in Hollywood before it even dawned on me to ask those sorts of questions, or to be aware of the context in which I was working. I had grown up in Los Angeles, seeing lots of films and loving them, but did not come from a family that had any aspirations to be in Hollywood; that wasn’t a part of the fabric of my upbringing at all. My career almost happened to me before I had any kind of awareness of wanting it or considering that it was a choice, or making any kind of rational decisions about what sort of life I was getting myself into. It was just literally, Oh, I’ll take this job, and then I’ll take that job. It didn’t define itself until suddenly, 10 years later, I was going, Oh my God, look at what I’ve found myself in.
I think writing about Ava has given me an opportunity to reconcile myself to my own past and to try to process it through her story—even though, as you say, I’m very aware that there are big differences between her experience and mine. But there are enough similarities that I can go back and draw from that kind of unconscious thing that happens when you accumulate a history. It’s in the set of drawers that are in your being, and there it was.
Looking at your career, it seems that you did Hollywood films for about 10 years, then consciously ran away from that and went to New York, then eventually ended up in London. Is that the narrative?
It’s so funny how people have tended to put that tag on my life. I really don’t see it that way. I never consciously made any kind of decision to run away from anything—because, to be honest, I never bought the whole thing to start with. My career was always based out of New York, even when I was making a lot of movies. I was living in New York and thinking about doing theatre. I never really lived in Los Angeles, beyond being a child going to high school and growing up there. I’m not quite sure why I didn’t; it just never felt right for me.
That doesn’t negate the fact that I am in love with movies and their potential and their beauty. But for some reason, I had this burning desire always to figure out what it would take to be a good stage actress. I really wanted that from the start. So many people have fantastic careers in Hollywood, and it never even occurs to them to do that. But I just had this gut feeling about myself that it was something important for me. And it did not come easily. Acting in front of a camera seemed like absolutely nothing—I mean, even to this day, I kind of don’t get the big deal. But acting in the theatre was very hard. I felt like I had to really learn it by trial and error, just putting myself out there and then figuring out, why did that go wrong? Over the course of many years, I think I have figured it out. I feel like I’m in a place where the time I put in has got me to where I feel confident as a performer in the theatre.
One thing I’ve read about Ava Gardner is that she had a certain amount of self-doubt about whether she was a good actress. As I think Pauline Kael said, she doesn’t always look like she’s happy to be there, but she’s very much there. There’s a startling vitality to her presence in those old films, even now.
There is definitely something about her ambivalence that I find very appealing; I find it to be so much more charming than with some of those old-time actresses, where you can see their desperate ambition bubbling always underneath. I kind of admire that, but it’s not as appealing to me; it doesn’t seem as smart. The thing about Ava was that she didn’t have the confidence that might have come from being educated, but she was very bright. And she had such a humane, nuanced reaction to the things that happened to her in her life and to the people she encountered. She has an intelligent, humanistic point of view, so that when she looks back at her career or her past, her husbands, or the macho atmosphere on the jobs she had, she kind of sees it all with compassion. My intention is to show someone who was really objectified by her job and by the culture, and in some ways was damaged by that objectification—literally, the tagline in a trailer that promoted one of her movies was “the world’s sexiest animal,” underneath an image of her in a bathing suit—but who doesn’t come away from it with a “I’m the victim, they are the oppressors” stance. She has relationships she was grateful for, and there were things she loved about the people in the business. It was a wonderful adventure for her, and she would say that to her dying day. But it did take a toll. It was complicated and nuanced, and that’s what I’ve tried to capture in the play. What I don’t know is whether, in today’s world of political black and white, people will feel satisfied by that nuance. We’ll see.
Tell me about the choice of telling her story via the Peter Evans book, which adds another level of complication.
For somebody who was a reluctant memoirist, like Ava was, I thought it would be the only way to get the story out of her—to have a character who has something invested in getting it out of her, otherwise it would never happen. Peter’s book seemed to me a perfect way of exploring the whole process of making a memoir out of a life: what you emphasize, what you leave out, who’s in control of it—all these questions that don’t come up when you’re just reading the memoir itself. And the character of Peter is sort of today’s man, in the sense that he’s woke and his heart is genuinely in all the right places, but he’s guilty of the same kind of projection and assumptions and, dare I say, wanting to control her, though in a whole different fashion—I thought, well, that’s very interesting.
You mean that he turns her life into a sort of spectacle, the way the camera once did to her body.
Yeah, it’s a different version of exploitation—I mean, one that Ava would acknowledge she participates in and gets something out of, and that Peter isn’t even aware of.
It’s funny you say he’s projecting on her, because you also have her play off of him as if he’s all the men in her life. I couldn’t tell whether that is just a storytelling device or if we’re inside Ava’s head and she really sees Peter as all these different men.
In my mind, it’s something that they create between them—this kind of fantasy. In the same way that two people who meet and fall in love create a mutual fantasy about who each other are because they both have needs that happen to coincide at that moment in time, and then usually in the course of a romantic affair, about a year in, you start to see the real person, on both sides, and you’re kind of going, okay, now we have to sort of carry on or not. It’s neither in Peter’s head nor in Ava’s—it’s in both, because it’s like a love affair.
Ava died in 1990, after you’d made many of your best known films. Did you ever get a chance to meet her?
No, but it’s amazing, when we did the show in London, how many people came and said that they’d had this chance encounter with her on the streets of London or in the park. She met so many people because she was so gregarious. Everybody had an Ava story to tell me, and they were really fantastic.
It’s an interesting coincidence that she ended up in London, as you have.
Oh my God—I only recently realized that I’ve lived in London longer than I’ve lived anywhere.
I’m sure you’ve told the story many times, but is that how the part on Downton Abbey happened—you happened to be close by and Julian Fellowes was looking for an American?
Oh, no, not at all. I was sent the script and was asked to audition for it a couple of times, and I just kept thinking, “Guys, come on. I’m living 20 minutes away from the studio. I’ve been rehearsing this part for years, having had English daughters. What’s the problem?” Eventually they saw the light.
I’m picturing you as Ava onstage, and I can definitely see it. One thing I’ve always wondered about actors is how you see yourselves—like, do you have an image in your mind of how you look, how certain expressions and postures and moves appear to others, and is this knowledge always influencing what you do in the moment?
I think great cinema actors are very aware of that, and I don’t put myself in that category. I’m not very aware of that sort of thing. The thing that gave me confidence to play Ava—and you know, it’s quite presumptuous of me, because she was considered literally the greatest beauty of all time, which I can’t say is my lot in life—is that you’ve got these beautiful projections onstage, these absolutely wonderful images that she created, that Hollywood created, and then right next to them, in juxtaposition, you’ve got the real thing, which is frail, it’s human, it’s had a stroke, it’s flawed, it’s not perfect. And those two together—that’s a really interesting picture to see. This magnified, glorious image, and then the swearing, chain-smoking, whiskey-drinking person who’s trying to live next to these images and trying to survive as a human being. No human being can really survive if that image is constantly in the background of their mind and other people’s minds when they meet them. Ava was always somebody who came into the room with 1,000 projections of people’s imagination preceding her, and she knew she could never just be—never, ever, until her dying day. She could never be the person who was sick post-stroke, not feeling well and not looking well, without feeling like she was massively letting somebody down.
It reminds me of the Cary Grant quote, “Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant.” Do you have a favorite Ava Gardner movie?
I think it’s Mogambo.
I just watched that; it’s quite something.
Isn’t it the most wonderful movie? I didn’t feel for one second, “I’m sitting here watching an old movie.” It was so fresh and vivid and alive. I really hope that a big part of Ava is just simply an homage to the beautiful things that Hollywood factory gave us as a culture. It was a beautiful, idealized image of romance and character, and I hope that my love for it comes through in the final production.
Rob Weinert-Kendt (he/him) is editor-in-chief of American Theatre. firstname.lastname@example.org
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