In 1953, John Ford directed Ava Gardener to her first and last Oscar nomination in Mogambo, a remake of Victor Flemming’s Red Dust, a story about a love triangle in exotic landscapes. Grace Kelly, age 24, took over the part of Mary Astor, age 26 at the time, and Ava Gardener, age 31, got the part of Jean Harlow, age 21 when Red Dust was made. While Ava Gardener’s character grew older, the women were overall kept young and hot. The male character was allowed to grow considerably, as he was played by the 31-year old Clark Gable in the original and then by the 52-year old Clark Gable in the remake. But since Clark Gable was a true legend, a definite movie star and for most people surely still an attractive man, there seemed to be no real reason to doubt that both Ava Gardener and Grace Kelly would start a cat-fight over him.
Ava Gardener’s Oscar nomination came in the same year that her husband Frank Sinatra won Best Supporting Actor for From Here to Eternity. As legend has it, it was her influence in Hollywood that got him the part – but her influence apparently wasn’t grand enough to get herself an Oscar. Or even another Oscar nomination.
On the first look, it is certainly surprising that a movie like Mogambo, which is not more than a soap-opera set in the African jungle, was able to receive two acting nominations but on the second look it becomes clear that Grace Kelly’s and Ava Gardener’s performances are the only redeeming factor in a movie that is often entertaining, but also surprisingly inadequate and sometimes downright laughable. While Grace Kelly and Ava Gardener knew how to craft characters that both inhabit the style of the movie but also kept their own dignity in the process, Clark Gable decided to go for full macho and more than once makes a rather pathetic impression by keeping a stern and lifeless façade in every possible situation. Yes, from this point of view, the female leads certainly deserve some praise for portraying their characters in a manner that made the story entertaining and watchable but not silly. In a way, Ava Gardener has the same problems like her co-nominees Leslie Caron and Audrey Hepburn – weak material that demands a dedicated performance and a lot of star personality to make it work. But Ava Gardener certainly didn’t bring the same sweet and heartwarming charm to her part – instead, her Eloise Y. ‘Honey Bear’ Kelly is the kind of woman a man could romance first and then take to the nearest bar for a beer. Ava Gardener uses her sassy charm and her outspoken personality to create a woman who, as the viewer immediately realizes, is as much a buddy as as romantic interest, a good sport and, like Gable realizes five minutes later, truly alright.
That way Ava Gardener’s Eloise became a lot of things – she’s the movie’s comic relief, its emotional core and its conscience. She doesn’t lust after Clark Gable’s Victor but instead lets things happen, she watches over Linda not only as a competitor but also as a protector of her marriage. Ava Gardener shows Eloise as a woman who is always aware of what she is doing and what’s going on, even if she may appear rather devil-may-care and easygoing most of the time. But Ava Gardener succeeded in avoiding to sell her character short – she is given so much silly and almost demeaning dialogue but she somehow was not only able to survive this by giving Eloise a free-spirted and captivating edge but she actually widened her character to show that, contrary to what the screenplay may suggest, there is actually a much more mature, serious and intelligent woman underneath the surface. That way, Ava Gardener was able to connect the different aspects of an unevenly written character and found the right balance between the sarcastic humor and lack of self-awarness with more quiet moments. When Eloise suddenly talks about her late husband, who was killed over Berlin, the whole scene could have easily felt immensely out of tone with the campy nature of the movie, but Ava Gardener made it work surprisingly well. It’s an unexpected and new side of a character the audience easily embraced from the first moment but unfortunately, these moments don’t last and very soon, everything is back to the level of cheap melodrama.
While Ava Gardener and Grace Kelly not only found the right way to play their characters but also had a wonderful chemistry of dislike and aversion that fitted the style of Mogambo perfectly, their relationships to Clark Gable are unfortunately not so well developed which is mostly his fault since he seems to have absolutely no interest to share the screen with either of the two women. And so, maybe in some scenes, Ava Garderner’s work as Eloise is a little too loveable. For the viewer, it becomes clear after one minute that her down-to-earth and humorous character is a much better catch than Grace Kelly’s snobbish and hysterical Linda and it could have been engaging to see Gable struggle with his feelings until he finally sees what everyone else sees but Gable’s performance is too bored and stone-like for this to work and his chemistry with everyone else, including Gardener, too non-existent. Because of that, Gardener’s interpretation of Eloise could have used a little more strength and independence from Gable’s work. But even though she is not fully convincing in the romantic aspects of the story, Gardener still recognized that the relationship between Eloise and Victor is not traditionally romantic but instead marked by companionship and humor and she was able to create these moments very believable. That way, Eloise is not a typically romantic heroine, but rather even an anti-heroine who makes an engaging and fascinating character nonetheless and believably wins the hero’s heart.
Ava Gardener makes her Eloise very earthy and immediately likeable and she basically meets all the challenges of the script but it can’t be denied that these challenges are set very low. Ava Gardener’s personality fits the part just right but this soap opera never demands of her to stretch her talents but always seems like a warm-up for more to come. Ava Gardener is stuck in the dilemma of being nice to look at, entertaining, charming and doing what she had to do without leaving any impression. She is very often wickedly funny and provides the movie's best moments and basically steals Mogambo but despite that, she doesn’t really make it worthwhile. She may be the best thing about the whole affair, but strangely she’s neither the most interesting nor the most captivating aspect of it. As stereotypical and melodramatic the plot may be, it’s still the only real reason to see Mogambo and that way Ava Gardener is in the curious position of overshadowing the movie and being overshadowed by it at the same time. And while her nomination was surely a nice way to acknowledge that she was more than just an attractive actress, it didn’t turn her into a serious character actress or offered her new possibilities to improve her talents. The reason may probably be that Mogambo, even though it received two acting nominations, isn’t the kind of movie that impresses with its performances and it’s doubtful that Ava Gardener’s sexy but earthy, humorous but serious, but in the end too unremarkable turn would have been recognized by the Academy in a more crowded year. A peculiar and unique turn that gets