“A gloomy film, but Ava at her best:” On the Beach

By Beth Nevarez

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On the Beach premiered on December 17, 1959 simultaneously in 18 different theaters on all 7 continents. Premieres were held in New York, Hollywood, London, Rome, Tokyo, Caracas, and Melbourne, among other cities, with a screening even arranged at the Little America base in Antarctica and a special premiere held in Moscow, even though the film did not receive a commercial release there.

The stars of the film attended varying premieres, with Ava Gardner attending the Rome premiere, Gregory Peck the Moscow premiere, and Fred Astaire, Anthony Perkins, and director Stanley Kramer attending the Hollywood premiere.

The film received such an international release due to its important and timely topic. Based on the 1957 novel of the same name by Nevil Shute, the film is a post-apocalyptic science fiction drama that follows the effects of nuclear fallout from World War III. Released during the Cold War, the film cautioned the world about the devastation of nuclear war.

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Ava Gardner played Moira, a woman living in Australia awaiting nuclear fallout to spread into the Southern Hemisphere after it had already wiped out life in the Northern Hemisphere. Gregory Peck starred as her love interest, an American submarine Captain in Melbourne, who is ordered to determine if a telegraph signal is a sign of life remaining in the United States. The film also featured Fred Astaire in his first dramatic role and Anthony Perkins in one of his earlier roles.

On the Beach was directed by Stanley Kramer, who was known for his fierce independence as a director and producer who brought important social messages to the screen that most studios avoided. His films tackled taboo topics such as racism (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner), greed (It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World), and fascism (Judgment at Nuremberg).

Ava said of the film’s script:

“Though I’d read the book, Stanley’s script made me weep. You couldn’t say it was marvelous—that was somehow the wrong word. It was compelling, tragic, moving, chilling… Stanley liked to call it ‘the biggest story of our time,’ and who could disagree? It was a fictional scenario, but my God, everyone in the cast and crew knew it could happen. And that added a dimension of reality to the unreal world of filmmaking that none of us had experienced before.” – Ava: My Story

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The Ava Gardner Museum has an On the Beach script signed by director Stanley Kramer in our collection. The script was donated to the museum in 2017 by a fan.

On the Beach was also the third film on which Ava worked with Gregory Peck. The pair previously starred together in The Great Sinner (1949) and The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952). The Ava Gardner Museum has a lobby card from On the Beach on exhibit that Gregory Peck signed. His inscription reads: “A gloomy film, but Ava at her best.” In Ava: My Story, Peck’s contribution to the book recounts how he enjoyed watching Ava grow as an actress, improving with each of the films they made together. The two were lifelong friends. After her passing, Ava’s beloved corgi Morgan went to live with the Pecks, as did her housekeeper and friend Carmen Vargas.

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On the Beach was one of Ava’s favorite projects, and in Ava: My Story she summarizes her feelings on the film: “I was proud of being part of this film, proud of what it said.”

About the Author

Beth Nevarez is the collections manager at the Ava Gardner Museum. She has a master’s degree in public history and nearly 10 years’ experience working in museums. A Wilson, North Carolina native, Beth attended UNC Chapel Hill and UNC Wilmington for her studies, focusing on American history. She now operates Beth Nevarez Historical Consulting and specializes in caring for historical collections and sharing history through collections outreach initiatives. 

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