Bright Lights Film Journal

Mary Astor (b. 5/3/1906) Birthday Tribute: Prisoner of Kicks

The Maltese Falcon

Mary Astor was born May 3, 1906 and died September 25, 1987. In honor of this superb star, who was also a gifted novelist and memoirist and a sexually adventurous free-thinker at a time when women weren’t supposed to do that, we repost Dan Callahan’s wonderful profile, which originally appeared in Bright Lights in February 2010.

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“I always say, keep a diary and some day it’ll keep you.” — Mae West

It’s a long, punishing way from the Madonna-like profile that stared adoringly at John Barrymore in Beau Brummel (1924) to the decrepit tart in Act of Violence (1948), and Mary Astor took no trouble to hide what she considered her own personal foolishness on that journey from ingénue to jaded character player. In both of her memoirs, My Story (1959) and A Life in the Movies (1972), Astor made sure to stress the sheer drudgery of most of her film work, how so much of it was a question of “Where do I stand?”, answered by, “A little to the right, Mary . . . now come in the door and move just a little bit to your left.” Even as a girl in her teens, Astor had the intelligent, sorrowful eyes of a mature woman, and in talkies, her throaty voice made everything she said sound worldly and a touch cynical. In her best work, she hints at the sort of knowledge that can only be acquired through constant exposure to the seamier side of life.

She was made a breadwinner at 14 by her ambitious father, Otto Langhanke, a German martinet who both made her career and lost her most valuable opportunities: “I wish he had transmitted his energy and ambition to me genetically, instead of using me as a channel,” Astor later noted. Lillian Gish made a screen test of Astor for D. W. Griffith, but he didn’t hire her; Gish later told Astor that after Griffith met Langhanke, he saw right away that the man was “a walking cash register,” and he knew he wouldn’t be able to mold Astor while she was still under her father’s tyrannical influence. Similarly, when Astor was made leading lady to John Barrymore in Beau Brummel, the Great Profile fell madly in love with her and wanted her to play Ophelia to his era-defining Hamlet, but her father nixed this idea as non-commercial, and Astor passively submitted to Langhanke’s control until she lost not only a future on the stage but Barrymore himself. “It’s easy and comfortable now to say that it would have been a dreadful, heartbreaking life with this unstable man, great though he was,” Astor later reflected. “It’s easy because we can never know what might have been.”

Beau Brummel

Throughout the twenties, Astor accepted well-paid silent junk while her father took her whole salary and poured it into a white elephant of a house that would later be sold for peanuts. In her more respectable silents, like Brummel and Don Juan (1926) with Barrymore and Don Q, Son of Zorro (1925) with Douglas Fairbanks, Astor already has a quality of wry brunette smarts that belies her age, but in her other silents that I’ve been able to see, she has little to do but stand around and look pretty. Often eye-achingly lovely to look at, she can be anxious and rather severe-looking, as if some inner misgivings were struggling to shake her out of her habitual acquiescence. She failed a talkie screen test, and her father’s bulldozing attitude put her out of a work for a while; her first marriage, to Howard Hawks’ brother Kenneth, ended when he was killed in a plane accident on location. Astor had a quiet breakdown and succumbed to the doctor who treated her, who became her second husband. She finally did get into talking pictures, all the while trying to pull away from her money-grubbing parents, who eventually sued her for maintenance and got a small allowance out of it.

Astor was more than a match for Ann Harding in the first version of Holiday (1930), but it was Red Dust (1932) that signaled her real maturity on screen. It’s a somewhat stiff, creaky movie, but everything about Astor’s work feels modern; when her genteel wife is first stunned by Clark Gable’s magnetism, she does an entirely believable, thunderbolt sexual awakening in just a few seconds. There’s something Lawrencian about Astor in Red Dust, a carnal heat barely covered by the standard motions of propriety; her tiny mouth and nose are 1920s demure, but her big, wide-set eyes helplessly give away her uncontrollable desires. Astor is one of the few actresses of her time that one can imagine going much further with sex on screen, and it’s easy to picture her starring in something like Ecstasy (1933) or even a Lawrence adaptation; she seems like a woman with obvious stamina. Tellingly, she was one of the few players from her era who did not complain strenuously about the new mores of 1970s cinema. “I admire nudity and I like sex,” she wrote, forthrightly, “and so did people of the thirties. But, to me, overexposure blunts the fun.”

Red Dust, with Clark Gable

Astor made eighteen movies between Red Dust and Dodsworth (1936), her own favorite, and not one of them gave her much to do: “I played secretaries, princesses, crooks, the wife of, the girlfriend of,” she wrote. She had a fear of too much responsibility and repeatedly turned down contracts where she would have been given star billing; sometimes she has a large role but is actually billed behind character actors. At other times, as in the bizarre Turnabout (1940), she plays what amounts to little more than a bit. There were movies with titles like Red Hot Tires or Straight from the Heart (both 1935) or Trapped by Television (1936), which neatly predicted her fifties work. Her personal life reached a new low when her second husband stole her diary and tried to use it in court to gain custody of their daughter; Astor later claimed that someone falsified the diary and destroyed parts of it. Whatever the reason or motive, salacious extracts, mainly having to do with her affair with the playwright George S. Kaufman, were regular newspaper fodder. The whole thing could have ruined her career, but it didn’t; instead, the public seemed to feel, eventually, that she had been handed a raw deal.

She was playing Edith Cortright in Dodsworth all during this hellish trial and later wrote that she pretended to be this level-headed woman on the stand when the questioning got too offensive. We first hear Edith as a warm voice in the dark, talking to Walter Huston’s American abroad; she’s swathed in furs, a touch melancholy, a bit badly used, just drifting along with modest hopes, and wise enough to never overplay her hand in any situation. When she zings Mrs. Dodsworth (Ruth Chatterton) about her age, she does it because it seems necessary, not because Edith particularly enjoys catty exchanges. In an instant, she understands that Mrs. Dodsworth is about to cheat on her husband; in the next instant, she faces her and says, “My dear . . . don’t,” in Astor’s dark, sensible voice. That moment is the ultimate in a rare sort of sophistication and fair play that Astor herself has mastered for Edith, a very particular person and also a kind of feminine ideal. The last shots of the film are of Edith when she realizes Dodsworth has returned to her; Astor fills her whole face and body with relief and joy, her left arm raising up, up, up! into the air. “And I was never so happy in my life,” wrote Astor, of this scene. “Me, me — and Edith Cortright, for her happiness and mine had fused.”

Astor was at the height of her beauty in two adventure films, The Prisoner of Zenda (1937) and The Hurricane (1937), and she played her initial mother role in Listen, Darling (1938), which is the first movie where she begins to look haggard, worn out by the grind of what she called “the dull treadmill.” In Midnight (1939), something new emerges in her work, a kind of killer bitchery tempered by the vulnerability of a woman starting to get on in years who wants the kind of romantic love she might have missed. Her husband is played by a ruined John Barrymore, and you would never know they had ever been involved together off-screen; all the fireworks of Beau Brummel aren’t even embers here (once, while waiting between set-ups, Astor impulsively put her hand on his, and Barrymore recoiled and cried, “Don’t!”). The next year, she was unflatteringly photographed in the beyond-strange Mormon propaganda epic Brigham Young (1940), her voice far too knowing for the sort of devoted wife who can afford to ignore polygamy and plagues of locusts.

Then came the classic, the movie she had always been waiting for, The Maltese Falcon (1941). It’s become fashionable to deride Astor’s age and hard-living-has-caught-up-with-me appearance in this temptress part, but her critics willfully ignore the fact that the kind of bombshell called for in Dashiell Hammett’s novel couldn’t possibly act the role, with its dizzying changes of tone and registers and its underlying “I’ve seen everything” gravitas. Astor plays her first scene in Sam Spade’s office with darting eyes, breathless stammering, clipped speech and deliberately artificial intonations, as if her character has rehearsed every line and has set line readings for all of them. It could easily be mistaken for bad acting at first, but Astor soon peels away the first of the many layers that make up her deadly Brigid O’Shaughnessy. She admits that she lied to Spade, but claims “the lie was in the way I said it, not what I said,” which sounds like an apt diagnosis. In her second scene, she lays back on a couch and tries out a Mistress of Monotone approach, blank-voiced, blank-faced; it’s a difficult performance to judge since so much of it is predicated on falseness, and it doesn’t help that Humphrey Bogart’s Spade is continually critiquing her work and sneering at it just when we think we have a read on Brigid.

“I won’t be innocent,” she says to Spade, when he’s sick of her hypnotic act; still another Brigid emerges, a strong, iron-fisted calculator, but is this the real Brigid? At root, Astor plays this part for humor, as the whole cast does with their archetypal roles. “I’ve been bad,” she says, which is certainly true, though her heavy, remorseful tone is hardly convincing. Confronted with Peter Lorre, Astor gets sly and secretive, but when he displeases her, she kicks out at him and shrieks, “Why don’t you make him tell the truth?” in a voice so harsh and gun-mollish that it sounds nothing like Astor or any of the Brigids we’ve heard (did John Huston dub this one line with someone else’s voice, just to keep us off balance?). Then, finally, we see what might be the real Brigid, when her face takes on an amused, impressed look after Spade wildly improvises to get rid of the cops, as if she’s thinking, “Ah, you too? You’re one of us!” In her last scene, Astor’s sweet 1920s ingénue face surfaces one last time, the face of a resentful innocent, the face of Astor herself. Who is the real Brigid among all the masks Astor tries on? Impossible to say, but it will always be fun to try to figure out her mythical character in this mythical movie, and it’s appropriate that Astor’s most iconic performance is so much a parody of acting, which she saw as the vanity of “self-enchanted, look-at-me beings.”

That same year, Astor won a supporting actress Oscar for a threadbare, overlong Bette Davis movie, The Great Lie (1941); as Sandra Kovak, a lusty concert pianist inexplicably in love with the porcine George Brent, Astor plays outright for campy bitchery, slapping her masseur in her first scene and crying, “Get out! You hurt!” like a spoiled brat. As a showcase for Astor, it leaves a lot to be desired, but it does give her a chance to plumb her clearly bottomless ill temper. “I talk a lot, don’t I?” she asks, in a much higher, flutier voice than usual, for Preston Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story (1942), playing a logorrheic Princess as a combination Miriam Hopkins/Mary Boland with a dash of Hedda Hopper; it’s so far removed from her usual sensible image that it lets you see the rock-solid technique Astor had acquired in her two decade film career.

She signed a contract with MGM and soon regretted it: “My femme fatale image of the Diary days went right down the Culver City drain,” she wrote. I’m happy to have her in Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), but Lord knows she isn’t happy to be there as the mother and can barely conceal her impatience with moviemaking; she added some much-needed vinegar to Metro mamas, but there was so much more she could have done at this point. Astor takes on a young Gloria Grahame in Blonde Fever (1944), and they’re evenly matched; no one can sling a sarcastic remark with quite so much force as Astor, even if in off-moments it’s clear that she’s thinking, “Why am I still here?” Her deep-seated anger and weariness are too intense for small films like Cynthia (1947), where she plays Elizabeth Taylor’s mother; she never seems truly maternal in any of the mother roles she played.

Fred Zinnemann gave Astor her best late opportunity as “a sleazy, aging hooker” in his noir Act of Violence (1948). “Lookin’ for some kicks?” she asks Van Heflin at a bar; she’s wearing an obvious hair fall and a cheap print dress, and Zinnemann’s lighting brings out all the lines in her collapsed, softened face. Later, at her apartment, Astor says, “No law says you gotta be happy. Look at me, I’m not happy. But I get my kicks.” Every time Astor brings up these unspecified “kicks,” she makes them sound more sordid, debased, and even unimaginable, as if it took the most highly inventive actions and the strongest substances to get any kind of rise out of her at this point. Yet as she tries to comfort Heflin, we start to see a few instinctive, finer emotions mooching around in her somewhere. In her brief running time, Astor gives us a three-dimensional, complicated, abused woman who can take a drink in the face without flinching; it’s a juicy part, yes, but an even juicier performance.

Act of Violence, with Van Heflin

And that performance was a kind of valedictory; she was moonlighting from the set of the sugary remake of Little Women (1949), where she played another mother to MGM starlets. In her second memoir, Astor tells a harrowing story about a day when Peter Lawford came into a scene and had to say, “You look like a porcupine!” to June Allyson, only it came out “porkypine.” Everybody on the set thought this was hilarious, and he kept going out and coming back in and saying “porkypine”; Astor describes how hot the lights felt (she was going through menopause), and how she didn’t think Lawford’s gaffe was so funny, but she was stuck there listening to it and the laughter over and over again, all day, until he finally got it right, and then she found she couldn’t remember her own line, which brought forth fresh hysterics. This story is so vividly written in her book that it’s like being on the set with her, and you can really feel how deep her unhappiness was to still be doing something she didn’t like to do almost thirty years after her father pushed her into movies.

After that came a big breakdown, severe alcoholism, some comfort in religion, and then check-to-check work on television and in a few films. On A Kiss Before Dying (1956), Astor wrote that she was approached by a starlet on her first day who cried, “Mary Astor! I thought you were dead!” She finished up her lengthy, frustrating career with a small role in Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), one of Bette Davis’s later shockers. Her first scene is awkwardly edited, but her second scene, played on a veranda, is an oasis of restraint amid the film’s general hysteria. “Ruined finery,” she says, staring at her frayed dress. “That’s all I have left.” She then says that she’s “stony broke,” and that was the case with Astor, too, who wound up spending her retirement in the Motion Picture Country Home, writing her second memoir and even some novels before her death in 1987. In Hush . . . Hush, an aged Astor is unrecognizable as the girl of Beau Brummel or even Brigid O’Shaughnessy; at the end, there was no one who looked more tired-out by movies and no one who so richly deserved a rest.