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The Oscar® for Best Supporting Actress of 1941 went to a Hollywood veteran, Mary Astor, for her performance as a selfish concert pianist who steals Bette Davis' boyfriend in The Great Lie (1941). Director Edmund Goulding, Astor said, gave her the key to the character: "A piano, brandy, and men. In that order."
Astor had begun her career in silent films, at the age of 15. By the time she made The Great Lie, she'd undergone career ups and downs, and survived a major scandal in her private life. Astor was in her mid-thirties, and had finally hit her stride playing a series of brittle sophisticates. The movie year of 1941, in fact, was a good one for her. Besides The Great Lie, she also co-starred with Humphrey Bogart as the treacherous Brigid O'Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon (1941).
The Great Lie was a typical "woman's picture" of the era, a not-very-credible story of romantic travails. Davis had approved the casting of Astor as her rival, not only because she admired Astor as an actress, but because Astor had studied the piano and would be believable playing a Tchaikovsky sonata. In a Bette Davis film, it was usually Davis who provided the bad-girl fireworks, but in The Great Lie, Astor had the more flamboyant part. That would have been fine with Davis, as long as the characters and relationships worked. But Davis hated the script. "It's soap opera drivel and it stinks in all departments!" she complained, and enlisted Astor to help her rewrite the script.
The two women re-worked scenes to add substance and conflict. They gleefully improvised dialogue and situations. Director Goulding was delighted with their inventions, and couldn't wait to see what they'd come up with next. Rumors from the set said that Astor was "stealing the picture" from Davis, but both actresses denied it. "She handed The Great Lie to me on a silver platter," Astor said later. The result was a film that overcame its soap-opera limitations and crackled with wit. When she won her Oscar®, Astor thanked two people: Bette Davis and Tchaikovsky.
Director: Edmund Goulding
Producer: Henry Blanke
Screenplay: Lenore Coffee, based on the novel, January Heights, by Polan Banks
Editor: Ralph Dawson
Cinematography: Tony Gaudio
Art Direction: Carl Jules Weyl
Music: Max Steiner
Cast: Bette Davis (Maggie Patterson), George Brent (Pete Van Allen), Mary Astor (Sandra Kovak), Lucile Watson (Aunt Ada), Hattie McDaniel (Violet)
BW-108m. Closed captioning.
by Margarita Landazari