The Ava Gardner Museum in Smithfield, North Carolina, traces the story of a local tobacco farmer’s daughter catapulted to international stardom as a film legend and Hollywood royalty.
I was a guest of Johnston County Visitors Bureau, but all thoughts and opinions are my own.
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In this piece, Backroad Planet’s “Traveling Cinephile,” Jim Swilley travels to Smithfield, North Carolina, the hometown of film legend and movie star Ava Gardner.
“Although no one believes me, I have always been a country girl and still have a country girl’s values.”
Ava Lavinia Gardner (1922 – 1990), an Academy Award-nominated actress and singer listed on the American Film Institute’s roster of 25 Greatest Female Screen Legends, was an iconic beauty, the wife of several famous men (Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw, Frank Sinatra), a close friend of Ernest Hemingway, and a country girl . . . .
But mostly a country girl.
Amazingly, Gardner never really sought stardom. It actually came looking for her in her hometown of Smithfield, North Carolina, by way of a Loews Theatre clerk who randomly spotted her photograph in the window of her brother-in-law’s New York photography studio in 1941.
Ava Gardner’s Career
At age 18, Ava signed a standard contract with MGM, and between 1941 and 1986, she appeared in more than 70 motion pictures, including:
- The Killers
- Show Boat
- The Snows of Kilimanjaro
- The Barefoot Contessa
- On the Beach
- Seven Days in May
- The Night of the Iguana
- The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean
Throughout her storied career, she was unable to ever fully take the allure and illusion of Hollywood all that seriously.
And even though the young starlet’s quick rise to fame ultimately took her far away from Smithfield, it never took Smithfield far away from her.
The Ava Gardner Museum
Nothing drives that point home better than a stop at the Ava Gardner Museum in downtown Smithfield.
We recently visited the venue for the unveiling of a new exhibit, Ava: My Real Story, in observance of the annual Ava Gardner Festival. Along with learning a lot, we thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
The museum is beautiful, contemporary, and quite accessible, due to its downtown location. Museum galleries provide valuable context for Gardner’s life and career in a modern, interactive way, and the collection is a visual feast.
Exhibits cover everything from her films, her childhood, her relationships, famous friendships, marriages, and truly honors a hometown girl in a way that makes it obvious the city is proud of her.
Ava Gardner’s Smithfield
When you visit friendly and charming Smithfield—and possibly meet some of Ms. Gardner’s extended family who are still very much involved with the museum—you really get a better understanding of how she could reach such heights in her life, and be so celebrated, and still remain so completely unpretentious and self-deprecating.
The museum pays tribute to her in a way that refreshingly presents the star as a kind of anti-diva.
The museum is not far from Ms. Gardner’s birthplace, as well as her final resting place, for visitors who would like to gain more context to her compelling history and pay their respects. An extended Heritage Tour is available for museum guests who prefer a more thorough experience.
Lodging & Dining
The Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott Smithfield is conveniently located on I-95, just two miles from the Ava Gardner Museum.
Click here to book your stay at the Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott Smithfield on TripAdvisor!
Click here for more Smithfield lodging options on TripAdvisor!
While in Smithfield, visit Mike O’Dowd’s SoDoSoPa restaurant, located just around the corner from the museum, for some southern comfort food. It’s a cool little place with a friendly vibe and good barbecue.
If you’re in the area—or even if you’re not—definitely put the Ava Gardner Museum on your list of places to visit.
It’s a must for traveling cinephiles like me . . . .
More From the Traveling Cinephile
In Confessions of a Traveling Cinephile, Jim Swilley opens up about his passion for travel and the movies.
Jim Swilley explores the motion picture industry in Wilmington, North Carolina, including visits to select sites from more than 500 movies and television shows shot on location in “Wilmywood.” Less than two hours from Smithfield.
We Would Love to Hear From You
We enjoy dialogue with our readers, especially when they share off-the-beaten-path destinations and useful travel tips. Have you ever visited the Ava Gardner Museum? If so, we would love to hear about your experience. We invite you to leave your comments and questions below, and we always respond!
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Since I was a teen back in the 1970’s is when I purchased my first book on movies the title was The MGM Stock Company the book has every movie star that was under contract to MGM with a short biography, a definition of their screen image and a filmography. I just finished reading a well-done biography titled Ava Gardner: “Love is Nothing.” I plan on driving to visit family in New York City while I’m headed there I will swing by since that’s been on my list since I first heard about the museum.
The definition of what “Movie Stardom” can be boiled down to this, “It isn’t what you do, but how you do it. It isn’t what you say, but how you say it. And how you look when you do it and say it.” Over the years, Hollywood amassed a sensible list of informed observations: A star has to possess exceptional looks, outstanding talent, a distinctive voice that can easily be recognized and imitated, a set of mannerisms, and a credible sex appeal. An energy/radiance that comes off the screen. Panache. Having a single tiny flaw to mar their perfection which endears them to ordinary people. Charm. The good luck, “to be in the right place at the right time” has happened to many stars. An exemplary quality that audiences believe is who they really are. The ability to make the audience “know” what they are thinking whenever the camera comes up close. An established type in which they can play the same role over and over again, which could and sometimes lead to type-casting. Possessing a level of comfort in front of the camera helps. There was “she has something” which leads to, “it’s something that you can’t define” which leads me to this variation of Justice Potter Stewart’s famous remake about pornography: “I’ll know it when I see it.”
A good example of how easy it was for audiences to notice this was exhibited by Ava Gardner in the film She Went To The Racers (1945, MGM). Gardner was cast as the second lead actress while the lead was played by the lovely Frances Gifford, who was being heavily groomed for top-ranked stardom at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer that year. Gifford had talent, beauty, charm, everything she needed to achieve it – but she was no Ava Gardner. The audience witnessed the truth in a revealing scene in which Gifford and leading man James Craig are arguing just outside an elevator in a hotel hallway. Suddenly the elevator doors open and out steps Gardner. She moves into the frame, delivers her line or two in her low husky voice, and then walks off. It’s not much, but its everything. From the minute that Gardner appears, she takes it all away from both Gifford and Craig. It’s not just that she’s stunningly beautiful. So are they. It’s no that she’s been costumed and made-up. So have they. It’s not just because of the careful lighting, the framing of her in a medium close-up. No, its the “wow” factor. Gardner’s got that something extra – and alot of it – and its fully on display. Gardner’s got “STAR” written all-over her, and within a year. she was one.
Thanks for sharing. Amazing.