Bright Lights Film Journal

Mary Astor (1906-1987) Birthday Tribute: A Lady’s a Lady

A 1931 portrait of Astor by Ernest Bachrach

Mary Astor was born May 3, 1906 and died September 25, 1987. In honor of this superb star, we present Imogen Sara Smith’s profile, which originally appeared in Bright Lights in February 2010.

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“What is it, love trouble or money trouble? I’ve seen them all, I’ve seen all the troubles in the world, and they boil down to just those two. You’re broke, or you’re lonely. Or both.

The bar is almost empty at closing time, no one left but a gruff bartender and a drab barfly sitting forlornly, not wanting to go home alone. When a man comes in she gives him a tired, automatic line: “What are you doin’ down here, handsome — looking for some kicks?” Her voice is flat and sour, her face a weathered memory of prettiness, like a picture in a newspaper left lying in a puddle. She keeps chewing and picking at her fingernails. She cozies up to the newcomer, practiced, pathetic, and obvious. She’s been around the block too many times to count; she’s a two-bit tart; she’s —

Wait a minute, is that Mary Astor? The “Cameo Girl” who matched profiles with John Barrymore? The femme fatale who seduced Sam Spade? The elegant, warm-voiced beauty from Dodsworth? The gracious mother of Judy Garland in Meet Me in St. LouisMary Astor — who was always a lady, even when she was a bitch?

It is. Mary Astor was forty-two when she played Pat, the bone-tired hooker in Fred Zinneman’s Act of Violence. She had just played Marmee in Little Women, with June Allyson and Elizabeth Taylor. She had appeared in more than a hundred movies, playing far too many ornamental love interests and far too many mothers, with a brief interlude of worldly, interesting women in between. She relished the role of Pat, devising the look of this poor, bedraggled alley-cat: an off-the-rack dress of loud-patterned crepe, a shapeless coat, ankle-strap sandals with the high heels sanded so that she would wobble when she walked; dark chipped nail-polish and heavy, slightly smeared make-up, with harsh light to bring out the lines in her face. She stripped away the cello-like richness of her voice to reveal a Midwestern flatness, she shed her graceful poise to fidget nervously. But there is no sense here of overdone, Oscar-baiting deglamorization, and the weariness, the nerves, the bitter experience ground into her pores are plain and real. Off-screen, Mary Astor had love troubles and money troubles, troubles with booze, scandal, her health, her parents, her husbands, her career.

“So you’re unhappy,” Pat comforts the tormented man she has picked up. “Relax. No law says you gotta be happy. Look at me. I’m not happy — but I get my kicks. Gee, I don’t know how anybody could stand it if they didn’t get their kicks.”

Mary Astor doesn’t appear until three-quarters of the way through Act of Violence, a shattering exposure of the aftereffects of war, with Robert Ryan tracking down Van Heflin to avenge a betrayal when they were prisoners of war together. Heflin is driven from his perfect life — a comfortable home in the suburbs, a gorgeous, adoring young wife, and a baby — to the urban wasteland of Bunker Hill in Los Angeles, where in the desolate, windswept shadows of Angels Flight he stumbles into the bar and meets Pat. Like Thelma Ritter in Pickup on South Street, she is a survivor in the lowest regions of the noir city. She has a cheap room, with a wire dangling from the bare light-bulb. She gives Heflin a word of noir advice: “If you’ve got money you can fix anything . . . You’re free, with money.” She’s wrong: no amount of money can erase his guilt, and by introducing him to Johnny, a shark-like, amoral hit man, she seals his doom. The morning after, Pat is hardened and querulous, packing her things to get out of town, running away from the ugliness of what she’s seen and caused. She tries to get a hundred bucks out of her guest, but he’s too consumed by his own problems to pay any attention to her. Her instinctive generosity and compassion are pinched by fear and bad memories. Still, she’ll get along. There’s always another man, another drink — one for the road.

“There are actresses who are sex bombs,” Richard Schickel said a propos of Act of Violence, “And then there are actresses whom the American male quietly identifies asreally sexy. Mary Astor was one of the latter.”

The attractiveness of Mary Astor’s screen presence comes partly from her maturity. Even as a teenager she was too tall and dignified for child roles, and she was always womanly rather than girlish. But she blamed her turbulent off-screen life on her own failure to grow up and assume adult responsibilities. She called herself weak and spineless, but it’s to her credit that she wriggled out from the crushing grip of her parents at all.

She was born Lucile Langhanke in Illinois in 1906. Her father was a German immigrant and a caricature of the Teutonic patriarch, starting with his name. Otto Ludwig Wilhelm Langhanke was an authoritarian, humorless, undemonstrative man who tyrannized his family with an explosive temper and demanded utter docility and blind obedience from his daughter. He was an ambitious, energetic, but impractical dreamer who failed at each of his ventures, including a Kansas poultry farm that gave young Lucile a few happy years in the country. She was a solitary, pensive, nature-loving child, unpopular at school because of the correct speech and superior attitude instilled by her parents. She was rarely allowed to play with other children for fear she would pick up bad manners and common habits. Her father first decided she should be a concert pianist, and forced her to practice for hours every day and submit each night to his criticism of her performances. Her mother (née Helen Vasconcellos, of Portuguese and Irish descent) was completely in thrall to her husband and did nothing to protect her daughter from his sulks and tantrums, his furious lectures, slaps, and obsessive control.

When she was fourteen, on a whim Lucile sent her photograph to a screen magazine beauty contest and was chosen one of the finalists. This small triumph convinced her father that she could be a movie star, and overnight he became the most monstrous of stage parents, abandoning all other plans for the family in a fanatical pursuit of a career for his daughter. They moved to New York and struggled through a few years of dire poverty and disappointments. Lillian Gish took Lucile under her wing and got her a test at D.W. Griffith’s studio, but she was rejected; only decades later did Lillian reveal the real reason. Griffith took one look at Otto Langhanke and said “The man’s a walking cash register. I’ll never be able to develop the daughter into an actress with the father around.” But at one of the fruitless auditions Lucile attracted the attention of a photographer, Charles Albin, who wanted to use her as a model. His gauzy, Pre-Raphaelite studies of the “Madonna-child,” her delicate face framed by a cloud of dark hair (it was actually auburn, not brunette as it appeared in black-and-white films), finally interested a producer at Famous Players-Lasky studio, and she got her first contract.

So in 1922, at age sixteen, Mary Astor — the name bestowed by her new bosses — began working in movies. Years of small parts and love-interest roles followed, giving her little to do but look lovely in different costumes — peasant blouses, Spanish shawls, medieval gowns or flapper frocks. She was used to doing as she was told, so she took direction well. Her life was totally dominated by her parents: she was forbidden to leave the house alone, even to post a letter; her own mail was always opened and read before she received it; she couldn’t even close her bedroom door. What did she need privacy for? Her mother accompanied her to the set every day, fussing over her make-up and costumes; her father mandated piano and singing lessons. It was inconceivable to him that his daughter could have a mind or a life of her own.

In fairy-tale fashion, a knight arrived to rescue the princess from the tower: he was a forty-year-old superstar with a reputation as a philandering alcoholic. John Barrymore saw a picture of Mary Astor and requested her for his 1924 film Beau Brummel. Wasting no time, during their screen test he told the seventeen-year-old, “You are so goddamned beautiful you make me feel faint!” When she wrote about the affair many years later, Astor had nothing but praise for “Jack,” who undertook her dramatic education only partly as a cover for their trysts. He coached and rehearsed her, shared his knowledge of the theater, introduced her to books and music, and tried to free her from enslavement to her parents. They turned a blind eye to the relationship, confident that they wouldn’t lose their daughter — and they were right; she lacked the will to defy them by marrying Barrymore. After a few years of long absences and blissful reunions, secret communications and stolen hours, Barrymore shifted his attentions to Dolores Costello, and the making of their second film together, Alan Crosland’s Don Juan, was miserable for Mary.

She later dismissed the film as having no interest apart from its status as the first to feature a recorded Vitaphone score. In fact, it’s a splendid silent swashbuckler with gorgeous costumes and sets evoking Rome under the Borgias. There are duels, orgies, and torture chambers; Barrymore is a delightful ham, seasoning his perfect profile with touches of self-mockery. Still, it’s no wonder that Astor remembered the film as insipid. Her role, as the pure maiden who causes Juan to declare, “My soul has been asleep — you have awakened it!” is utterly passive and colorless. She is attacked by lustful men; she looks frightened; she watches her lover fight; she looks frightened; she swoons; she’s rescued; she gazes adoringly at her savior. The best that can be said is that in a film overstuffed with pulchritude, her beauty is still breathtaking.

Off-screen, she finally grew out of passivity. In her bitterness after losing Jack, she found the strength to stand up to her parents. She talked back to her father, quit the singing lessons, ran away repeatedly (once actually scrambling down from her bedroom window), and threw off shyness and repression to become a flippant, avid party girl. She got a maid to replace her mother at the studio, and producers finally refused to deal with her father, who had always handled her contracts. But Astor’s entire salary continued to go to her parents, who used it to build and maintain a lavish home while giving their daughter a small allowance, until her second husband finally convinced her to cut them off. They tried to sue her for support, and the resulting estrangement never fully healed. In 1941 she took her ailing father, not long before his death, to see The Great Lie, in which she played a concert pianist. In his weak mental state, he did not realize, or would not accept, that her playing in the film was dubbed, and was proud to see her succeed at the piano: she managed to please him at last. After his death her mother declined into mental illness and had to be institutionalized.

In later years Mary Astor mocked the formulaic stories of her early films, in which everything always came out right in the end. Most of her silent and early sound films were vapid programmers with titles like Unguarded Women, The Price of a Party, and Ladies Love Brutes. The slickness and dishonesty of these films irritated her; she didn’t like being one of what she called “the hope peddlers.” Her early roles were one-dimensional “reaction parts”: she was always someone’s daughter or girlfriend, women to whom things happened rather than women who did things. She got sick of playing nothing but sweet girls, typed by her exquisite features, her big brown eyes with demurely drooping eyelids. (She relished her first chance to be bad, in 1928, as a gun-toting gang moll in Dressed to Kill.) But she never fought for better parts or refused potboilers. She even declined starring contracts to remain a featured player, preferring security over risk, responsibility, and publicity.

Her initial sound test was disastrous, her voice condemned as “dark,” “hollow,” and “almost masculine.” She was out of work for ten months, until a successful role on stage brought five offers from movie producers now enthused about her “low and vibrant” voice. It is a distinctive, unmistakable contralto, like a viola; in unsympathetic roles it can tighten to become just a bit sharp. “A voice that has a trick to it,” wrote playwright Sumner Locke Elliott: “It can make a banal line sound intelligent; it has had experience doing that.”

Experience was her great asset. She saw herself as a pro, skillful and dependable if not always deeply engaged. She knew all about the technical aspects of filmmaking, how to hit her marks, use the lights, keep track of the camera. In her 1971 book A Life on Film, Astor vividly captures the intricacy of movie-making: the countless little steps; the buzz and babble of instructions, corrections, adjustments; the prop men and electricians and make-up girls and wardrobe women; all the fussing and primping and practicing and waiting that surround a few minutes of intense concentration, the distilled drops that end up on screen.

In one of the book’s best chapters, inspired by a bank teller’s eager question about what it was like to kiss Clark Gable, Astor hilariously recounts the filming of their big clinch in Victor Fleming’s Red Dust. There were hours of painstaking set-up to figure out exact positioning and moves, with a stool under Mary’s rear end so that Gable wouldn’t have to support her weight as he pretended to carry her. When it came time to shoot they were doused with hoses to look like they’d just come in out of the rain, and the crew broke up when the hot lights cause the water to steam off their bodies (“It’s a hot scene, but not that hot!”), so the prop man had to pour kettles of warm water over them until finally the cameras were ready to roll. After all that, she can’t remember what kissing Gable was like.

Red Dust is Jean Harlow’s movie: she was never funnier, sexier, or more likable than as Vantine, the friendly prostitute who bathes in a rain barrel, cleans a parrot’s cage (“Whatcha been eatin’, cement?”), and reads the story of Little Molly Cottontail to Gable while his fingers “go hippity-hop, hippity-hop” toward her thigh. Mary Astor has the unsympathetic role of the prim, snobbish married woman who steals Gable, conducts an affair with him while her unsuspecting husband is off in the jungle sweating through a fever, and tries to shoot him when he throws her over. Astor’s main task is to make it remotely credible that Gable would prefer her to Harlow: her loveliness helps, but her main attraction for the rough-hewn plantation owner is that she’s a lady. She may cheat on her husband and recklessly brandish firearms, but she’s never vulgar. She has exactly the kind of cool, refined femininity, provocatively untouchable, that would excite a man bored with blatantly available women like Vantine.

Auriol Lee, an English director and good friend who introduced Mary Astor to her third husband, explained, “Don’t want to blueprint it for you, ducks, but you’re a lady. Don’t care how you were born or how many men you’ve slept with. A lady’s a lady.”

The infamous diary scandal cast Mary Astor as a sex fiend, and her reputation has never fully recovered. The lurid details were mostly invented, but there were a great many men in her life, including four husbands. In 1928 she married Kenneth Hawks, brother of Howard, a gentle and upstanding man whom she loved and respected, though the inadequacy of their physical relationship drove her into infidelity. The marriage might have survived, but in 1930 Hawks was killed in a plane accident while directing a film. She married Franklyn Thorpe, the doctor who attended her after the tragedy; they had a daughter, Marylyn (right), and Astor flirted with the idea of retiring from the screen to become a doctor’s wife. It didn’t work out, and in 1935 during the custody battle over their daughter, Franklyn threatened to produce Mary’s diary, which he claimed would show her to be an unfit mother. The most famous portion of the diary, and the only authentic excerpt published, was an account of an affair with the playwright George S. Kaufman. It is gushily romantic but not explicit, and the rumors that nearly every prominent man in Hollywood turned up in the diary, assigned a “box score,” were based on pure invention. (The ink of the so-called “purple diary” was really brown, and its “scented pages” were plain ledger books.) The brouhaha came to an anticlimax when Astor’s lawyer got the whole thing thrown out of court because the diary was incomplete (Franklyn had cut it up, probably excising references to himself) and a mutilated document can’t be produced as evidence. Custody of Marylyn was evenly divided, and Edward VIII’s abdication and marriage to Wallis Simpson finally drove the story off the front pages. The diary was impounded and later burned unread.

During the trial, Astor was making one of her favorite films, William Wyler’s Dodsworth. Walter Huston and Ruth Chatterton star as a middle-aged couple who, having made a fortune manufacturing automobiles, leave their dull Midwestern existence to take a long vacation in Europe. There the down-to-earth husband watches in dismay as his wife’s terror of growing old drives her into a series of flirtations and affairs. Astor plays Edith Cortright, an American divorcée living in Italy, who falls in love with Sam Dodsworth. In contrast to Chatterton’s pretentious, selfish, and self-deluding wife, Edith is warm, gracious, worldly, and kind: a true lady, unlike the phony version in Red Dust. She’s a solitary woman, lonely but never pathetic (“Drifting isn’t nearly so pleasant as it looks,” she says ruefully.) Her quiet elegance and unaffected good manners are infinitely more appealing than Mrs. Dodsworth’s vain, showy glamour. One wonders why men don’t flock around her instead.

Ruth Chatterton bravely stood by Astor throughout the trial, sitting in the courtroom every day to encourage her. But Astor found even more strength in Edith Cortright, getting through her ordeal by staying in the persona of this unflappable, dignified, confident woman. When Dodsworth was released, Astor’s entrance was greeted by applause in movie theaters, proving her career was not finished by the scandal.

Like a faucet running from hot to cold, Mary Astor could turn Edith Cortright’s graceful warmth into the chic venom of Madame Flammarion, a society snob carrying on an affair under her husband’s nose in Mitchell Leisen’s Midnight. The husband is played by none other than John Barrymore; he is hilarious, uninhibited and oddly touching as the older man scheming to win back his wife. (When his confederate, Claudette Colbert, has to fake a phone call about her nonexistent baby’s illness, Barrymore gets on the extension and informs her, “It was a plain case of alcohol poisoning. The baby had a few too many. She was out all night — we picked her up in the gutter.”) But he was well into his decline, parodying his own image as a drunken, washed-up ham actor, and he would not let Mary remind him of their former relationship. She saw him for the last time a few years later in the bleak hallway of a radio studio, walking alone ahead of her, looking so weary and defeated that she refrained from speaking to him. “He was a man with enormous dignity, and he never lost it,” she wrote. “He occasionally threw it away — for his own reasons. But that was his business.”

The role of the sophisticated bitch was one of Astor’s specialties at this point in her career, and she could be delightfully malicious while keeping a spark of something appealing in her presence. Unlike Gail Patrick, she is never so smugly nasty that we want to see her punished; instead she finds the humor or vulnerability in these felines, even while relishing their barbs. (It is Colbert who takes by far the cattiest swipe in Midnight, when she tells Astor that a hat she’s trying on “does something for your face…it gives you a chin.”)

The pinnacle of this Other Woman phase came in Edmund Goulding’s The Great Lie. It’s the kind of soap opera that gives “women’s pictures” a bad name: female rivals actually face each other down and say things like, “I’m giving you fair warning — I’m going to get him back.” Yet even with lines like this, Astor is marvelous, managing to boost the film from unwatchable to merely dreadful. Poor Bette Davis, stuck with the role of Maggie, the good and faithful country girl, nobly offered Astor the plum part of Sandra Kovak, a cosmopolitan pianist who lives on coffee and brandy and is allergic to fresh air. Tall and soigné (she makes Davis look tiny and more than usually plain), Sandra is sarcastic, vain, spoiled, and witty. It was in this film that Astor introduced her influential trademark hairstyle, cropped short and sleek as a man’s in back with curls piled in front.

The Great Lie is one of those glossy Hollywood productions in which everything is bleached dazzling white, except the crowd of chuckling black servants who live on Davis’s Southern plantation. Maybe news of the Emancipation Proclamation hasn’t reached this part of Maryland by 1940, or maybe the Spanish moss, mint juleps, and musical mammies are just carried over from Jezebel. It’s never explained, but Davis’s Maggie appears to be a wealthy Southern non-belle, a homey girl with chopped-off bangs who “smells of hay and horses and sunshine.” We know she’s the good woman because she wants her ex-fiancé, Peter Van Allen (George Brent), to get a job flying for the government, while Astor’s Sandra Kovak, whom he married while drunk, wants him to be a useless playboy. When he discovers that the marriage was not valid because Sandra’s divorce hadn’t gone through, he has second thoughts and, annoyed because Sandra refuses to cancel her big concert to get married, returns to marry Maggie.

The odd thing about women’s pictures is that they accept the premise that women’s lives revolve entirely around men and children, yet the men — and even the children — tend to be marginal to the films, ciphers who merely provide motivation for the women’s sufferings and struggles. Here Pete, the object of the tug-of-war between Astor and Davis, is typically negligible, sporting one of those pencil mustaches that were supposed to make men irresistible, and he disappears for most of the film, leaving the focus where it really belongs, on the antagonism between the two women. After Pete’s plane is lost in Brazil, Sandra reveals that she is pregnant with his child. In a jaw-droppingly bizarre turn, Maggie begs Sandra to have the child, which she doesn’t want, and give it to her in exchange for a lump sum of money, so that she can raise it as her own. This scenario is outlandish, but weird enough to be interesting: in showing Sandra choosing to have the child the film clearly implies that she might have had an abortion, and the dynamics of surrogate motherhood, much more common today, are intriguingly explored.

The two arch-enemies hide out in an isolated cabin in the Arizona desert so they can pull their switcheroo. This sequence, dreamed up by Davis and Astor, is the only justification for the film. Sandra huddles on the sofa reading fashion magazines and complaining about the loss of her urban comforts while Maggie, relentlessly chipper, strictly monitors her smoking, drinking, and diet. (“Who ever heard of an ounce of brandy?” Sandra whines.) Realistically but surprisingly, the women don’t bond, though their relationship is intimate and mutually dependent. Sandra, the independent, selfish woman, has the physical pregnancy (she even gets up in the night and sneaks into the kitchen for pickles) while Maggie, the wholesome nurturing type, becomes a strange combination of would-be mother — she thinks of the child as hers — and stand-in husband, pacing the floor outside the delivery room.

The last part of the film makes up for this brief gleam of originality by plunging into a morass of sappy clichés. Pete returns after a few years in the jungle, pencil mustache intact, and Maggie lets him think the baby is hers. They settle into domestic bliss until Sandra drops by, having decided, of course, that she wants the child, and still believing she can win Pete back. She is deliciously mean, needling Maggie with references to the Arizona confinement, calling her “the proud mama,” and gloating, “How I love to do things I shouldn’t.” Of course, she gets neither the baby nor the man, and is left with only brandy and the piano — and the Oscar for best supporting actress, which Mary Astor won in 1941. She thanked Bette Davis and Tchaikovsky.

She would have preferred to win for her most famous role, which came the next year in John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon. As Brigid O’Shaughnessy, Mary Astor created the prototype of the noir femme fatale, and her version is unusual in telling ways. When she enters Sam Spade’s office she is impeccably genteel, a far cry from later “sex bombs” like Ava Gardner or Audrey Totter. With her fur piece and little rakish hat, she seems to have stopped in to hire a detective on her way to a cocktail party. But she’s too nervous for a society matron, and she radiates deceit. As she tells her story her eyes dart around, never meeting Spade’s as he watches her calmly and steadily. Her voice is soft and breathless: Astor deliberately hyperventilated before her scenes to create this quality, recognizing how desperate Brigid is to be believed. The only real, unchanging basis of her personality is fear. The truth of the femme fatale is that for all her sexual power and toughness and confidence, she is always vulnerable and has to use her vulnerability, find a man to protect and help her. She is never a woman who can stand on her own, like Edith Cortright.

Even more than her beauty, she uses her weakness to appeal to male vanity: “I’m so alone and afraid . . . You’re brave and strong. You can spare me some of that courage and strength.” It’s a ploy, as Sam realizes: “You won’t need much of anyone’s help — you’re good. It’s your eyes, chiefly, and that throb in your voice.” He always responds to her this way, as someone watching a performance. He appreciates her artificiality, even as he mocks her “schoolgirl manner” (“Do sit down,” she says, sniffing her corsage), simultaneously admiring and despising her. Film noir expects us to respond to the femme fatale the way Spade responds to Brigid: to admire her skill and her gall, to be fascinated by her deceptions and transformations, but ultimately to reject her. Spade doesn’t really care that Brigid is a killer, only that she tried to play him for a sap. It’s his pride, not his moral sense, that is hurt.

She’s a chameleon: Miss Wonderly, Miss LeBlanc, Brigid O’Shaughnessy; her lies are layered like the skin of an onion. As soon as she sees Joel Cairo she becomes harder and coarser (no point trying to seduce him), and she drops the genteel act completely when she barks, “Why don’t you make him tell the truth!” and kicks Joel savagely. Who is Brigid O’Shaughnessy? Is that her real name? Where does she come from? Does she really love Spade? Who knows? There’s genuine pathos when she says, “I’m so tired of lying and making up lies, of not knowing what’s a lie and what’s the truth.”

The nervous intelligence that comes through Astor’s portrayal of Brigid was a constant in her performances. Despite her poise she never really seems calm; you sense that she was too restless and alert to fully relax. Even in parts where she was supposed to be silly, like the Princess Centamillia, a man-hungry heiress in Preston Sturges’s The Palm Beach Story, she never appears dumb. All the frivolity here — the lorgnette and the yachting cap, the slang greetings (“What’s knittin’, kittens?”) and nicknames (calling her brother “Snoodles”) and lines like, “I think my next husband will be American, it seems more patriotic” — seem more like the flourishes of idle intelligence. She didn’t like the part and said she could never please Sturges, but she’s wonderful, and very funny. Her innate dignity takes the humiliation out of the one-joke character. Without deflating the soufflé, she manages to hint at the boredom and bitterness of a much married woman, as when she says that you have to marry people you’ve just met because “If you get to know too much about them you’d never marry them,” or when she tells the uninterested Joel McCrea that he’ll come to care for her because “I grow on people. Like moss.”

In the early 1940s, Astor signed a long-term contract at MGM and settled reluctantly into playing mothers: eventually nearly every young actor on the lot called her “Mom.” These roles bookend her early typecasting as a sweet young ingénue; now her job was to embrace or lecture Judy Garland or Elizabeth Taylor. Meet Me in St. Louismay be a perfect film of its kind, but Mary Astor is relegated to the margins, a pleasant but hardly striking presence; and many of her films were far less distinguished. She grew increasingly bored and tired of the routine; the roles were one-dimensional, since MGM mothers “never had a thought in their heads except their children,” she complained. “Clucking like a hen” in film after film, she regretted, “my femme fatale image . . . went right down the Culver City drain.” In 1950, when MGM offered her another long-term contract with the promise that she could retire on a pension at fifty-five, she turned it down and went to work in the risky and challenging world of early live television.

But first, in 1947, she got the mother of all mother roles in Lewis Allen’s Desert Fury, on loan-out to Paramount. Astor’s character, Fritzi Haller, has nothing on her mind except her daughter, Paula (Lizabeth Scott), but she’s not the selflessly nurturing type, nor the usual stereotype of the domineering monster. Her obsession is complicated, and she’s a fully developed, wrong-headed but sympathetic woman who wouldn’t be caught dead clucking like a hen. Wearing slacks and smoking cigarettes in a long holder, she makes authority chic; she can master others because she has mastered herself. Astor enjoyed playing Fritzi: “I could use all my accumulated bitterness and bad temper and do a little exploding.”

Fritzi Haller owns the Purple Sage Saloon, a casino that recreates the rip-roaring saloons of the Wild West, and she unofficially runs the town of Chuckawalla. Once a factory girl from Paterson, New Jersey, and the widow of a bootlegger, she has reinvented herself as an iron-clad vice queen. She has money enough to buy sheriffs and glamorous clothes but not respectability. She wants her daughter to be accepted by the community and above all to stay out of the dirty, glittering world where she is at home. When her daughter starts falling for a sleazy racketeer who was once her own lover, Fritzi will stop at nothing to keep them apart. Naturally, her draconian measures only alienate her rebellious daughter.

Everyone in Desert Fury craves power and freedom, yet each is enslaved by someone else. They want to be in control, yet are drawn to those who dominate them. Fritzi orders her daughter around, but with the possessive insecurity of a man trying to hold onto a beautiful, much younger woman. Her obsession with the gorgeous Paula sometimes seems more than maternal. She repeatedly slaps her daughter, and offers to sleep with her when she’s upset by a thunderstorm. Somewhat surprisingly, Fritzi turns out to have been right all along (the racketeer is worse than anyone knew), and the film ends with Paula smooching not her handsome fiancé but her mother.

Throughout her life, Mary Astor was torn between dependence and independence. In movies she was most often cast as some sort of adjunct: a wife or mother or wife-to-be. But in her best roles — in Dodsworth, The Great Lie, Act of Violence, The Maltese Falcon — she appears as a woman who can stand on her own if she has to. Even Brigid O’Shaughnessy, behind the bars of the elevator cage on her way to prison, is unbowed; she’ll get along somehow. Off-screen, Astor seems to have been essentially a rather solitary and private person, and she never sustained a lasting relationship, yet for most of her life she couldn’t bear to be alone. Having grown up under her parents’ oppressive control, and starved by their lack of affection, she constantly sought men to love and take care of her.

Her third husband was a handsome Mexican-Englishman named Manuel De Campo, a charming social butterfly with dreams of movie stardom. They had a son, Tono, but by the time Manuel joined the R.C.A.F. at the outbreak of World War II the marriage was over. Thoroughly convinced of her poor judgment in men, and with a heart freshly broken by an aviator who had taught her to fly, she made what seemed a sensible fourth marriage, to Thomas Gordon Wheelock, a solid and devoted military man whom she did not love. It didn’t stop her from sliding into a long physical and emotional breakdown at the start of the nineteen-fifties. Having left MGM, she was off the screen for three years; her drinking steadily increased, and she spent most of 1951 in bed, suffering through a parade of health problems, severe insomnia, and a general nervous, jittery despair. She insisted that an overdose of sleeping pills during this period was accidental, but it was reported and widely believed to have been a suicide attempt. With no money coming in she fell deeply in debt, finally turning to the Motion Picture Relief Fund for money to buy groceries. In desperate need of some foothold, she converted to Roman Catholicism (she finally found a man she could lean on: God), but her struggle with alcoholism continued well into the fifties.

A return to work on stage and in television helped to revive her, and she discovered a new love, writing. She wrote her autobiography, My Story, on the advice of a therapist, and it relentlessly chronicles her troubled relationships with parents and husbands, her emotional and physical weaknesses, and her long, lugubrious affair with the bottle. It ends with a glowing account of her recovery, aided by Alcoholics Anonymous, her Catholic faith, and her psychiatric sessions with a priest named Father Ciklic. It was a bestseller in 1959, and she followed it with A Life on Film, a much livelier book about her career, and five successful novels. As a prose stylist she is no Louise Brooks, but she writes with intelligence and wit. She finally made peace with her lot as a single woman, describing in My Story how she faced down self-pity on finding herself alone for Thanksgiving, cooking and enjoying a candlelit dinner for one.

In 1971 she moved into the Motion Picture & Television Country House, a retirement home in Woodland Hills, California, where she lived until her death in 1987. Anthony Slide described her as aloof and difficult to approach, sitting at her own table in the dining room and speaking little to the other residents. He also found her conversation salty, blunt, and laced with profanity.1 After the self-help platitudes at the end of My Story, this is rather welcome news.

In 1964, Mary Astor came out of semi-retirement to make one last film, with her old friend Bette Davis. Robert Aldrich’s Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte is a Hollywood rarity in which every major character is over fifty (Olivia De Havilland, Joseph Cotten, and Agnes Moorhead were the others joining this old home week.). Set in a decaying plantation in Louisiana, the film is part campy horror, part delicate reverie on old age, loss, and the endurance of memory. Bette Davis ruthlessly exploits her ravaged face, framing it with pigtails and girlish white frocks, shrieking hysterically at the memory of her decapitated lover, who was gruesomely murdered during a garden party in 1927. Charlotte Hollis (Davis) has lived in seclusion ever since; the world believes she was the killer, while she feels sure it was her father. She blames every misfortune that befalls her — from hate mail to the government plan to demolish her home to make way for a highway — on Jewel Mayhew, her lover’s widow.

Jewel is one of those characters who is discussed so much by other characters before her appearance that the build-up gives an actor both an opportunity and a challenge. When we finally see her, she is a little old lady in black being helped down some steps by a servant. Only when she faces the camera head-on do traces of Mary Astor’s familiar face reveal themselves. In a confrontation with Olivia de Havilland, she combines physical frailty with flinty pride and indignant directness that contrast with de Havilland’s plump, sweet-voiced, disingenuous Miriam Deering. (We learn much later than Miriam, a heartless snake in the grass, has blackmailed Jewel into bankruptcy.)

Astor has only one more scene, but it is a perfect farewell to the screen. Jewel Mayhew sits in a serene garden, under allées of trees with arching, interlaced branches, drinking tea with Cecil Kellaway, an insurance investigator who hopes to solve the long-ago murder. Reclining and fanning herself, Astor has all her old elegance and simple refinement. Her quiet candor, in the midst of so much scenery-chewing hysteria, makes her (along with Kellaway’s kind, open-minded detective) the most appealing character in the film. Close to death, Jewel Mayhew speaks of her “ruined finery” and “this long disease my life.” She wants to confide the secret of her past to a stranger, and gives Kellaway a sealed envelope to open after her death.

The letter inside reveals that it was she who butchered her husband with a meat cleaver. Is it really possible to believe that this wise and gracious woman chopped off her husband’s hand and head? It’s here that the film’s blend of good and bad taste is most jarring. (She may have hacked up her husband, but a lady’s a lady.) We’re invited to blame Miriam for everything, since she maliciously told Jewel of her husband’s affair with Charlotte; Jewel tells her that “murder starts in the heart, and its first weapon is a vicious tongue.” Its second, apparently, is a cleaver.

But Astor’s final scene sits like a still pool at the heart of the film, undisturbed by its conflicts and flaws. She illustrates here what she described as her greatest artistic satisfaction: “The wonderful refreshment we feel when even for a moment our attention becomes total.” In one final, moving demonstration of her unadorned, intelligent, lucid acting, she gives us one of the creations most beloved of drama: a woman with a past. A woman without illusions, whose bitter knowledge and spent passions have left her with one lasting gift, an ability to see and speak the truth. She gives us, in short, a life on film.

  1. Anthony Slide, Silent Players (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2002). Slide quotes Astor calling Ann Harding (whom in A Life on Film she described as a good friend and a fine actress whom she respected) “a piece of shit.” []