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Mary Astor

Mary Astor

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Also Known As: Lucille Vasconcellos Langhanke Died: September 25, 1987
Born: May 3, 1906 Cause of Death: complications resulting from emphysema
Birth Place: Quincy, Illinois, USA Profession: Cast ... actor photographer's model novelist
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BIOGRAPHY

Groomed from childhood to be a star, Mary Astor fulfilled that dream and proved to be an exceptional performer. Beauty contest exposure and an exceptionally camera-friendly face earned her an invitation to Hollywood and Astor gradually moved from supporting assignments to leads in such major silent films as "Beau Brummel" (1924), "Don Q Son of Zorro" (1925), and "Don Juan" (1926). She easily made the jump to sound pictures and displayed her versatility in everything from the sizzling "Red Dust" (1932) to the elegant "Dodsworth" (1936) to the screwball classic "Midnight" (1939). However, she was truly indelible as the deceitful heroine of "The Maltese Falcon" (1941) and gave an Oscar-winning barnstormer of a performance in "The Great Lie" (1941) that managed to overshadow the rarely dwarfed Bette Davis. In between the triumphs, Astor dealt with much adversity, including the money-grubbing machinations of her parents, several failed marriages, infidelity charges, a suicide attempt, and a penchant for alcohol that plagued her for two decades. She publically aired those problems in the autobiography My Story (1959), the success of which helped to launch a new career for Astor as a novelist at a time when her movie career was coming to a close. Thanks to the enduring love for "The Maltese Falcon" (1941), it would almost certainly be Astor's best remembered credit, but her considerable dramatic and comedic abilities were on full view during virtually all phases of a commendable career that spanned four decades.

Mary Astor was born Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke on May 3, 1906 in Quincy, IL. Instructed in piano from a young age and possessing a lovely face, Astor's participation in beauty contests convinced her parents that she might have a chance in show business. When photographs of the striking teenager came to the attention of Paramount Pictures, Astor first stepped before the cameras in the silent "Bullets or Ballots" (1921). Although her association with that company proved short, Astor found work in both features and shorts produced by independent companies. She earned her first lead role in the drama "Second Fiddle" (1923), but her profile was raised considerably after being cast opposite John Barrymore in the Warner Bros. epic "Beau Brummel" (1924). Similarly prestigious assignments followed in "Don Q Son of Zorro" (1925) and "Don Juan" (1926), but Astor was also faced with some significant dilemmas. In the time since she proved successful at acting, Astor's parents had grown increasingly domineering, taking control of her finances and holding her a virtual prisoner in a home they had purchased using their daughter's money.

Meanwhile, follow-up features like "The Rough Riders" (1927) and "Dressed to Kill" (1928) had further cemented the actress' star status and her salary eventually reached $10,000 per month. Astor was able to partially extricate herself in 1928 after marrying writer-director Kenneth Hawks, but the majority of her paycheck continued to be pilfered by her parents. Sadly, Hawks perished in a plane crash in January 1930, seven weeks short of their second anniversary. Astor would eventually succeed in casting off her parental predicament via the legal system, which reduced those financial obligations to a mere $100 per month. In the interim, Astor easily navigated the switch to talkies in productions like "The Runaway Bride" (1930), "The Lash" (1930), and "Behind Office Doors" (1931). Of particular note was the sexy adventure "Red Dust" (1932), where Astor was part of a memorable romantic triangle with Clark Gable and Jean Harlow. She also enlivened the excellent Philo Vance mystery "The Kennel Murder Case" (1933) and proved a good match with opposing leading men Edward G. Robinson and Louis Calhern in "The Man with Two Faces" (1934), where she played a vulnerable actress whose comeback is endangered by her evil, Svengali-like husband. The film was based on the play "The Dark Tower," which was co-written by the celebrated George S. Kaufman, whose presence in Astor's life would inadvertently contribute to more headaches that she could possibly imagine.

Following Hawks' death, Astor wed Dr. Franklyn Thorpe, but it was an unhappy union and Astor frequently saw other men that piqued her interest. A few months after their 1935 divorce, Thorpe took Astor to court to try and gain custody of the daughter they had together. As evidence to back up his claims, Thorpe threatened to introduce Astor's "blue" diary, which contained graphic details of her infidelity, including pages devoted to dalliances with Kaufman. While the document was ultimately ruled inadmissible due to pages having been removed, its existence was widely reported in the highly excitable press who had not had such a field day watching a woman's reputation crash and burn since Clara Bow's secretary had blackmailed the star, revealing her many sexual conquests in court. In the end, Astor was awarded custody of the girl for nine months per year and the public proved indifferent to the scandal, unlike how they had with Bow. In fact, the significant success of the actress' next feature, William Wyler's superb literary adaptation "Dodsworth" (1936), found Astor more popular than ever and she moved on to such notable efforts as "The Prisoner of Zenda" (1937) and "The Hurricane" (1937).

She next wed film editor Manuel del Campo, and did some of her finest acting of the period in the frequently hilarious farce "Midnight" (1939), which reunited her with and former lover John Barrymore. In the picture, she played his patronizing aristocratic spouse, whose infidelity accidentally aids destitute showgirl Claudette Colbert with her scheme to pass as a member of the Hungarian aristocracy. A wonderful, fast-paced comedy well-acted by all, Astor's work on the picture was complicated by the actress' second pregnancy, which necessitated much planning and careful camera placement to hide the accompanying weight gain. As good as she had been in several movies up to that point, it was 1941 that proved to be a banner year for Astor. She essayed her most famous role as the lovely, but decidedly deceitful heroine of John Huston's "The Maltese Falcon" (1941), a masterful adaptation of the Dashiell Hammett novel that ranked amongst the greatest detective films ever produced.

On top of that exceptional bit of characterization, Astor won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her remarkably vivid performance as Bette Davis' romantic rival in "The Great Lie" (1941). It was a very different sort of part for Astor and the vigor with which she tore into it surprised and impressed both audiences and critics - as well as, no doubt, legendary on-set diva Davis, who had the picture stolen right out from under her by Astor. In hopes of rekindling the magic generated by "The Maltese Falcon," Astor, Bogart and mutual co-star Sidney Greenstreet were reteamed for Huston's "Across the Pacific" (1942), though lightning did not strike twice and the resulting film was competent, but disappointingly ordinary. Preston Sturges' "The Palm Beach Story" (1942) offered a much better vehicle for Astor, who provided wonderful support for stars Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea in a sparkling screwball farce. Astor soon joined the contract player ranks at MGM and graced a variety of projects, including the glossy musicals "Thousands Cheer" (1943) and "Meet Me in St. Louis" (1944), in which she memorably played Judy Garland's turn-of-the-century matriarch. She also starred opposite Lana Turner and Spencer Tracy in the Sinclair Lewis adaptation "Cass Timberlane" (1947), and appeared in the superior film noir "Act of Violence" (1948). On the personal front, her marriage to del Campo ended in a cordial divorce after he decided to join the Canadian Air Force and she wed her final spouse, Thomas Wheelock, a union that lasted until 1955.

Although MGM kept her fairly busy, Astor was not especially happy with the sort of roles being offered, and in the wake of playing yet another mother to younger starlets in "Little Women" (1949), she decided to cease relations with the studio. She also finally took steps to end the excessive drinking that had long been complicating her life by checking into a sanitarium, but the road ahead proved difficult. After battling ill health, she attempted suicide with an overdose of sleeping pills in May 1951. In the wake of this trauma, Astor subsequently embraced Catholicism and when she was ready to work again, concentrated on television, appearing on various live dramatic anthology programs. She continued to undertake such parts throughout the remainder of the decade, while also resuming film work with supporting duties in such projects as the glossy CinemaScope mystery-thriller "A Kiss Before Dying" (1956) and the corporate drama "The Power and the Prize" (1956). In 1959, Astor penned her autobiography My Story and was frank about years of familial, marital, and substance abuse problems. Although she began to act again in features like "Return to Peyton Place" (1961) and again in a Bette Davis vehicle, "Hush Hush, Sweet Charlotte" (1964), the positive response accorded to My Story launched a new career for Astor as a writer. Her first novel, The Incredible Charlie Carewe hit bookstore shelves in 1963 and was followed by four more over the next five years. In 1969, Astor penned My Life in Film, which devoted much more time and detail to that portion of her life than the autobiography had. Her days as an actress now over, Astor lived the final years of her life as a resident of the Motion Picture Country Home and succumbed to the effects of a heart attack on Sept. 25, 1987.

By John Charles

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