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Poster - On the Beach (1959)_11

Today is the 55th anniversary of the release of Stanley Kramer’s On the Beach, starring Ava Gardner and Gregory Peck. Based on the novel by Nevil Shute, the film depicts the aftermath of a nuclear war, set in the near-future of the 1960s. With most of the world’s population dead, the film centres on a small group of people in Melbourne waiting for the lethal fallout to reach them.

Most of On the Beach was filmed on location, and a piece of local folklore is that Ava Gardner described Melbourne as “the perfect place to make a film about the end of the world”. Melbourne was a quiet little place in the 1950s, the first day of filming was abominably hot, and the media was horrible to Ava Gardner, so you could forgive her for being a bit grumpy. However, the quote was actually invented by a Sydney journalist with his tongue in cheek – whatever Ms Gardner’s thoughts about Melbourne, she was too professional to broadcast them publicly.

On the Beach made a financial loss, but was praised by critics, and has become a (slightly neglected) classic. The film created a ruckus in Melbourne, which went so crazy over seeing big Hollywood stars in their little city that they positively frightened most of the cast. Even the Australians cast as extras were mobbed as if they were A-listers. The film’s grim message was considered so traumatic that the Salvation Army, who play a small but significant role in the film, were on hand to provide counselling to people in cinemas.

Another of the film’s achievements was to bring attention to Waltzing Matilda, which is used to great effect during the closing scenes of On the Beach. It also opens the film, used to immediately signify an Australian setting. Waltzing Matilda became more popular after the film – not just in Australia, but overseas as well.

I read On the Beach as a young teenager, and found the story utterly compelling because for once the scenes of horror are set in Australia. The book has sometimes been criticised for showing the end of the world happening so quietly, and the characters going about their daily lives as calmly as possible. But I thought it made the story far more chilling, and far more real; many years later, the story is still vivid in my memory.

Ava was a medieval girl’s name, pronounced AH-vuh. It seems to have been a feminine form of the Germanic name Avo, originally a short form of names starting with Avi-. The meaning of it is much debated, but with no agreement reached. One theory is that it meant “desired”, to indicate a long wished-for child, but other ideas are that it came from aval, meaning “strength, power”, or from alfi, meaning “elf”.

In Norman English, the name produced Aveline, which evolved into Evelina, and is the basis for the surname Evelyn, also used as a first name. Another variant was Avis or Avice, which although it looks like the Latin for “bird”, is an elaboration of Ava. Av- names were quite fashionable in medieval times, thanks to Ava.

Two famous medieval Avas are Saint Ava, a Frankish princess who became a nun after being miraculously cured of blindness, and Ava of Melk, an anchorite and religious poet who was the first known female writer in the German language.

While Ava is still said AH-vuh in Germany and most European countries, in modern English it is usually pronounced AY-vuh. Some people see AY-vuh as a modern continuation of the medieval AH-vuh, while others see it as a completely separate modern English name, perhaps a variant of Eva.

While Ava may well have been understood as a form of Eva by some English-speakers, in continental Europe Ava was often understood as related to the Latin word Ave (said AH-veh), meaning “hail, greeting”, as in Ave Maria, or to similar words and names in modern languages. If we discount the English Ava (AY-vuh) on those grounds, then the European Ava (AH-vuh) must also be brought into question.

I don’t think it’s any coincidence that Ava has historically been more common in the United States than other English-speaking countries, because America has had significant immigration from Germany and Scandinavia. You could see the English pronunciation of Ava as the American pronunciation of the name. You’ve probably noticed that Americans tend to pronounce AY sounds rather than AH ones – for example, they often say the name Dana as DAY-nuh instead of DAH-nuh.

Just to add another layer, Ava is also a common Persian name for girls, meaning “voice, sound, call”, and said AH-vuh, making this a very multicultural name.

The name Ava was popularised in the United States in the 19th century by the Philadelphia socialite Ava Lowle Willing, who married John Astor IV (called Jack), from the prominent Astor family. They named their daughter Ava Alice Muriel Astor (born 1902), making this an early celebrity baby name. The Astors divorced, and not long after, Jack Astor was drowned during the Titanic disaster, making him the richest person to sail on the Titanic, and probably the richest person in the world at the time.

Ava Alice Muriel Astor married Prince Serge Obolensky (an admirer of Australian beauty Sheila Chisholm, and her husband’s cousin), and their wedding was the social event of the London season. Ava Astor went on to divorce and marry several more times in both England and the United States; pretty, supremely wealthy, and a patron of the arts, her name was well known on both sides of the Atlantic.

The actress Ava Gardner was born at the end of 1922, not long after Ava Astor had been photographed visiting Tutankhamen’s tomb in Egypt with her fiancé, Prince Obolensky. Unlike many other film stars, Ava Gardner never had to change her name to something more screen-worthy: it was already perfect – glamorous, fashionable, upper-class sounding, and not too common.

Ava Gardner’s film career did not make Ava a popular name in her lifetime. Continuously on the US Top 1000 since the late 19th century, and #751 in 1941 when Gardner first began getting parts in films, it peaked at #376 during the 1950s, at the height of Gardner’s success.

Ava left the US Top 1000 during the 1970s, when Gardner’s career had waned, but returned in the 1980s, after Ava Gardner suffered two strokes and became bedridden. Her serious health problems were widely publicised, putting her name back in the news, and no doubt there was genuine shock and sympathy for the Hollywood star’s condition.

The name Ava began rising after Ava Gardner’s death in 1990, and its popularity was further hastened by celebrities choosing it as a baby name, including Aidan Quinn, Heather Locklear, and Reese Witherspoon – in the last case at least, as a conscious tribute to the late Ava Gardner.

In Australia, the name Ava first ranked in the 1990s at #465, and rose so rapidly that it was in the Top 100 by 2003, debuting at #70. Bad luck to all those parents who called their baby girl Ava in the 1990s because they saw it an an underused name! Or maybe good luck that they jumped on the trend nice and early.

In 2005, Ava made a massive leap forward to #22, as this was the same year Hugh Jackman and his wife Deborra-Lee Furness welcomed their daughter Ava. In 2011 the name Ava joined the Top 10 at #9, the year after Lleyton Hewitt and Bec Cartright welcomed their youngest daughter and named her Ava.

Currently Ava is #3 nationally, #8 in New South Wales, #2 in Victoria, #8 in Queensland, #3 in Western Australia, #17 in Tasmania, #17 in the Northern Territory, and #2 in the Australian Capital Territory. It was one of the fastest-rising names at Baby Center Australia last year.

Ava is highly popular throughout the English-speaking world, being a Top 10 name in the United States, Canada, England/Wales, Ireland, Scotland, and New Zealand. However, it is slightly more popular in Australia than anywhere else, and has so far peaked higher here than in any other country.

Yes, Ava is very popular – so much so that some parents may be wary of choosing it. But it is also boosting the fortunes of other names, such as sound-alikes Ada, Avery, Aria, Arya and Ayla, and has risen in tandem with Eva, Evie, Evelyn and Ivy.

This modern classic has been very influential on contemporary girls’ name trends. Maybe you won’t use Ava because it is too popular, but you might use one of her style-sisters, like Isla or Maeve. Or perhaps something unusual like Alba, Avalon, Avril or Aveley now seems like a good choice, or an older name like Ida or Maida no longer seems fusty, but pretty and fresh.

The power of Ava is such that we will be hearing her echoes for many, many years to come.

Ava received a respectable approval rating of 64%. 25% of people saw it as simple and elegant, but 19% thought it was too popular. Nobody thought the name Ava was ugly or tacky.