Smithfield’s most famous native is still getting recognition years after her death.
Movie star and hometown hero Ava Gardner is on the cover of the March edition of Our State magazine. She was also honored at a movie festival in Spain a few weeks ago.
Why is Gardner still so enduring years after the height of her movie career in the 1940s and 1950s? “That’s a hard question to answer, because if you asked 10 different people, you’d probably get 10 different answers,” said Todd Johnson, director of the Ava Gardner Museum in downtown Smithfield.
Johnson attended the festival in Granada, Spain, called Retroback 2014, which ran from Feb. 21 through March 2. The festival paid for him to travel to Spain to show off items from the museum.
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“Every bus stop, every other block, you would see a poster of Ava,” Johnson said. The festival lined an outdoor mall with a red carpet, and audiences screened Gardner’s many films throughout the city.
About 4,000 people came to look at the museum’s collection, Johnson said. Overall, the festival draws about 40,000 people each year. If she had been alive to see this, “I think Ava would have been very honored and humbled and proud,” Johnson said.
Gardner first visited Spain when filming “Pandora and the Flying Dutchman” in 1950. She moved to Madrid in 1955 after fleeing the United States because of constant media attention. Thirteen years later, she moved to London and died there in 1990. Gardner fell in love with Spain, especially its culture, people and flamenco dancing, Johnson said.
While in Spain, Johnson did some research of his own. He visited Madrid and interviewed Gardner’s former maid and some of the actress’ friends. What struck him most was her loyalty to her friends.
Johnson said he thinks Gardner is enduring for a number of reasons. “Her beauty is just exceptional,” he said. “You just don’t see a human being that has her physical quality.”
Gardner was also personable, Johnson said. “She always seemed to have time for people, no matter who they were, no matter how important or unimportant they might seem,” he said. “That resonates with people.”
As for a sudden surge in popularity, Johnson said part of that is thanks to Gardner’s sense of fashion, which is making a comeback, and America’s ongoing interest in old movies.
Gardner graced the cover of Our State magazine this month for its movie edition. Elizabeth Hudson, editor in chief, chose Gardner because she was looking for a local movie star with grand fame. “She was just this country farm girl, and somebody took her picture that made its way to a Hollywood studio, and the next thing you know she’s one of the greatest Hollywood starlets in this golden age of Hollywood,” Hudson said.
Hudson visited the Ava Gardner Museum about a year ago and fell in love. Featuring Gardner in the magazine meant Hudson could point readers to something tangible and local.
Bryan Mims wrote the feature story for Our State. He thinks Gardner is so enduring because “she just encapsulated that Hollywood lifestyle we’ve come to celebrate nowadays.”
Mims described her as a magnet for the Hollywood pop-culture press. “She was one of the first real tabloid celebrities, and that’s what makes the image endure,” he said. “That’s what makes her story relevant today just as much as it was 50 years ago.”
When researching his story, Mims said, he was struck by how proud Gardner was of her home. “She probably would have been just as content staying home working as a secretary and cooking dinner for the family as she would going to stardom,” he said.
When she would come home to visit her family, “she was like one of them,” he said. “She didn’t want to put on airs, and she really wanted to be like the people she came from.”