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Ava Gardner taught me to play chess, and I’ve never won a game.

This was in Mexico, during the filming of Night of the Iguana. I was five. I remember, even at that age, staring across the chessboard at the lady trying to teach me the L-shaped way the knight moved and not being able to take my eyes off her face. Even a five year old knows transcendent luminous beauty when he sees it. Something about her face was just really interesting.

She was kind to me. Which makes what I am about to do all the harder.

My mother had an Ava Gardner story. It does not reflect well on Miss Gardner. But it happened. Here it is.

When John Huston was filming Iguana, they were on location at Mismaloya, a fishing village on the beach south of Puerto Villarta. Fantastic natural rock arches into the ocean you can pass through in a small boat, but that’s another matter. There was a scene in which my mom was required to have a conversation over the telephone. They filmed this right before a big scene of Ava’s. Ava was on set in full costume, makeup and hair, ready to begin after mom did her bit. She watched from the side as mom spoke into the unconnected prop phone, listened to nothing at the other end, reacted, spoke again, reacted more, and finally hung up. Houston yelled “Cut, Print,” complimented mom and started the setup for Ava’s scene.

Ava came to Grayson and quietly said: “how did you do that?”

Mom wasn’t sure what she meant. “What, the scene?”

“The phone. I really believed you were talking to someone.”

Mom, who up until that point had enjoyed working with Ava, took a deep breath and explained that the night before, when she was studying her script, she had written out the dialogue she was hearing on the other end of the phone. Then, while the camera was rolling, she said her line, played the response that she’d written in her mind, reacted appropriately, said her next line, “listened” to the next bit of her remembered text, reacted again…

Ava’s eyes widened. “Oh, Shit,” she said, “that’s Acting!”

Whereupon she turned, ran down the steps and across the beach and threw herself, in full dress and makeup, into the Pacific.

It took 3 hours to get her out, wash and dry her costume, clean her up, redo the makeup and hair. Mom was upset at the movie-star childishness of the act, and mortified that she might be blamed (She had been warned that Houston could be difficult that way) but more than that, she was mystified that Ava Gardner had been Ava Gardner for as long as she’d been Ava Gardner, and she hadn’t known how to handle a simple on-screen phone call.

I expect when you look like that, nobody bothers to tell you anything. They just assume you know.


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