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Mary Astor Profile
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Mary Astor Profile

Mary Astor's serene loveliness, captured by noted theatrical photographer Charles Albin, who dubbed her a "Madonna-child," got her into the movies in 1921, when she was just 15. But the beauty masked a troubled spirit, and it was talent and guts that enabled Astor to survive heartbreak, scandal, alcoholism, and missed opportunities. Her career spanned 45 years and over 120 films, and encompassed all the types -- ingénue, leading lady, tramp, sophisticate, mother, crone -- but she was never quite a top-tier star. Or, as film historian David Thomson noted, "she never stayed a star for more than one year at a time....She had her best chances playing polite bitches or demure snakes in the grass - above all Hammett's Brigid O'Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon (1941). That picture of chronic lying did not hinder her genuine warmth as the mother in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) and Little Women (1949)." There were more bad or mediocre films than good ones, but the good ones were wonderful, or at least her performances were.

When Astor wrote My Story: an Autobiography in 1959, she was not the first star to write her memoirs. But she was one of the few to actually write them herself, and she was certainly one of the only ones to write so frankly, and so well. Strangely, what she left out was most of the details about her career. That would come in a second book, A Life on Film (1967), a career autobiography with some astute observations about co-stars, directors, and the details of filmmaking.

Born Lucile Langhanke in Quincy, Illinois in 1906, Astor was an only child. Already a beauty at age 14, she was pushed by her ambitious parents into entering a beauty contest, and into the movies soon after. After three years of bit parts, Astor's career finally took off when she co-starred with John Barrymore in Beau Brummel (1924). Barrymore became her teacher, her mentor, and her first lover. They co-starred a second time, in Don Juan (1926), but like that legendary lover, Barrymore had already moved on. He was involved with Dolores Costello, whom he would marry in 1928. Making the film was difficult both for Astor, who was devastated, and for Barrymore, who felt guilty and either ignored Astor, or criticized her performance. He was also drinking heavily. But the film, with its synchronized music score and sound effects, was a huge success, and gave a boost to Astor's career.

She made many films in the late silent era, most of them inconsequential. But there was one standout: Two Arabian Knights (1927), a rollicking comedy produced by Howard Hughes about two World War I soldiers, played by William Boyd and Louis Wolheim, who escape from prison and pose as Arabs. Astor played an Arabian princess, and recalled that she "was mostly a pair of dark eyes seen above the veil." The film won director Lewis Milestone an Oscar® for best comedy direction. The following year, Astor married the first of her four husbands, Kenneth Hawks, brother of director Howard Hawks. Less than two years later, he died in a plane crash.

When talkies arrived, Astor did a stage play to hone her vocal skills, and was soon one of the busiest actresses in town. Few of the films were memorable - Astor mentions Holiday (1930), the first version of the Philip Barry play, starring Ann Harding, as one that was good -- but even the lesser ones gave her a chance to work with directors like William Wellman, and with the top actors of the era, like George Arliss in A Successful Calamity (1932). In most of the films, she played what she called "reaction characters" -- the wife, the love interest, the girl. But once in awhile, she had a complex character to play, and she played it with gusto. One of those was the bored wife lusting after Clark Gable on a steamy jungle plantation in Red Dust (1932). After that, Astor writes in A Life on Film, it was "four years and eighteen pictures" before she had another juicy role.

Those were eventful four years for Astor. Married again, this time to a doctor, she gave birth to a daughter. She also played mothers to Jackie Cooper in Dinky (1935) and Edith Fellows in And So They Were Married (1936). Her marriage deteriorating, Astor took a trip to New York and embarked on an affair with playwright George S. Kaufman, which she wrote about in her diary. In 1935, she and her husband agreed to a divorce, but the custody battle for their child turned ugly, and her husband threatened to use the diary in the proceedings. Astor had just begun working on Dodsworth (1936), based on Sinclair Lewis' novel about the troubled marriage of a Midwestern tycoon, when the diary scandal hit the papers. Producer Samuel Goldwyn was urged to exercise the morality clause in her contract and fire Astor, but he stood by her. Her portrayal of the warmly sympathetic divorcee that Dodsworth falls in love with was a triumph, and Astor was once again in demand.

Several good supporting roles in important films followed. In The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), she played the villain's mistress, a character Astor described as "beautiful, dark and mysterious, and beautifully gowned." In The Hurricane (1937), directed by John Ford, the hurricane was the star of the film, and Astor could only hang on and hope to survive the weeks of shooting in studio-generated wind and rain.

Astor, now in her thirties, was also becoming an expert at playing brittle sophisticates. Midnight (1939) gave her one of the best of those roles, as John Barrymore's faithless wife. She was saddened to see how sick and old her former lover appeared. She skillfully played the woman-of-the-world role for laughs in several other comedies, including Turnabout (1940), and Preston Sturges' sublime The Palm Beach Story (1942). At Warner Bros., she co-starred with Bette Davis in The Great Lie (1941), as a selfish concert pianist who steals Davis' boyfriend. Director Edmund Goulding described the character as preferring only "a piano, brandy and men, in that order." The romantic melodrama was nothing special, until Davis and Astor decided to make it so. They worked together rewriting their dialogue, delighting Goulding with their efforts. The performance earned Astor an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress, and Astor thanked Davis and the composer Tchaikovsky when she won.

1941 also brought Astor another great role, as the scheming Brigid O'Shaughnessy in John Huston's The Maltese Falcon. Astor recalled her pleasure in making the film, Huston's superb script, the repartee and practical jokes on the set, and the effort she made to understand her character, a pathological liar. She would hyperventilate before her scenes, so that Brigid's lies had a breathless quality. The film was a box office success, and Warner Bros. immediately thrust the stars -- Astor, Humphrey Bogart, and Sydney Greenstreet -- into another film to capitalize on that success. A few days into production of Across the Pacific (1942), the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and the production shut down while the script was rewritten to reflect the new developments. Astor, who had become an experienced pilot, joined the Civil Air Patrol as her contribution to the war effort.

In 1942, Astor, who had been freelancing for years, reluctantly signed a seven-year contract with MGM, and entered the mother phase of her career. "Eventually, every actor on the Metro lot called me Mom. I was in my late thirties, and it played havoc with my image of myself," Astor recalled. In spite of her plummeting self-image, she brought great warmth to her mother roles, as David Thomson observed, and MGM's high-gloss productions were usually first-class. Occasionally, there was a small but meaty role that Astor relished, such as the "aging whore" in Act of Violence (1948), directed by Fred Zinnemann. But it was not enough, and Astor, frustrated and bored at work, and dissatisfied with her personal life, was beginning to drink heavily.

Alcoholism, financial and health problems, and a refusal to sign on for another seven-year term at MGM kept Astor off the screen for several years in the early 1950s. She did some theater work, and a lot of live television drama, but she was off the big screen until she returned in another mother role in A Kiss Before Dying (1956). This time, she was the mother of a sociopathic killer played by Robert Wagner. After that, there were many television appearances but just a few feature films as well as her two autobiographies and several novels. Astor's final film before retiring from the screen was Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), co-starring with Bette Davis, which Astor writes, "seemed sentimentally fitting." She also found it fitting that she died in the film. Astor lived her final years in a bungalow in the Motion Picture Country House and Hospital. She died in 1987, at the age of 81.

by Margarita Landazuri

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