For the past few weeks, I’ve devoured nothing but films with Mary Astor. I developed this hunger from watching her performance in The Palm Beach Story. When I was watching the film, I did a double take. I had no idea that the actress portraying Princess Centimilia with her hats and her high society accent was the same woman who seduced Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon. Truly, I could not believe it was her! After all these years too! It’s not like I hadn’t seen these two movies before, I definitely have but I just took advantage of Mary Astor’s brilliance. I never sought out her work. If there was a film she just happened to be in like Little Women or Red Dust, there she was but I embarrassingly enough didn’t take notice.
When I did my research, I felt like a fool. What a life this woman led! Astor actually began her film career at 16 in silent pictures. Astor is part of an elite group of actors who were able to transition from the silent era to the talkies. It’s incredible to look through her oeuvre. Her career spanned over forty years and she appeared in more than a hundred pictures. She more than holds her own opposite John Barrymore in Beau Brummel and Don Juan. Some of her early roles didn’t require her to do much but look beautiful, however, she transformed and surprised audiences playing unsympathetic characters in Dressed to Kill and later Red Dust. Astor was mainly a supporting actress but she was never wallpaper on the screen. She could make any character two dimensional and highlighted their strengths. She also played a variety of roles from film noir femme fatales, a comedic socialite, and in her later years when she played ‘mother roles’, you recognized there was a backstory to her characters beyond their thick ruffly period costumes (see Little Women and Meet Me in St. Louis).
Astor won an Oscar opposite Bette Davis in the film, The Great Lie. She plays a brilliant but self absorbed concert pianist. Her character Sandra is despicable but Astor dominates this film. Her sophistication combined with a fiery attitude is a perfect foil to Bette Davis’ much more demure character. The two spent a good chunk of the film together and their chemistry is perfect. According to legend, Davis wanted to work with Astor. Astor’s final film role would come in the film, Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte, also starring Davis. It’s a small but significant part and Astor completely stripped away of makeup and confined to a wheelchair makes the best of it.
Astor is a chameleon. You really can’t pigeonhole her as a ‘certain kind of actress’ because she rose to make each character her own. A perfect example of this is in The Palm Beach Story. Astor steals the film right underneath Joel McCrea, Claudette Colbert, and Rudy Vallee when she storms in with her thick accent, boating outfit, and boyfriend as an accessory. She is completely comfortable with the fast-talking, haughty dialogue. A part of you wants to hate Princess Centimilia because she’s so obnoxious but she’s hilarious with her lack of self awareness. Off screen, Astor actually had a tough time nailing the dialogue and that caused some delays during filming. She wrote about this experience in her memoir, My Story, saying:
“It was not my thing. I couldn’t talk in a high fluty voice and run my words together as he thought high society women did, or at least mad high society women who’d had six husbands and six million dollars.”
The film she is most remembered by is classic film noir, The Maltese Falcon. As Bridgid O’ Shaughnessy, she is smart, treacherous and always appears to be ahead of the game when it comes to Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade. With the first rate cast of Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet, it would be easily to get lost in this tough trio but Astor proves herself more than capable. A few years before this film was made, Astor was embroiled in a very high-profile scandal. A diary she kept was made public revealing racy details about her various sexual escapades. This happened during a bitter custody dispute between her and her second husband, he used this to create the argument that Astor was an unfit mother. Her offscreen life was instrumental in her casting for the role of Brigid. It was just many bumps along the road for her.
Her turbulent life included betrayal by her own parents who squandered her earnings when she was a young actress, the loss of her first husband in a plane crash, and a long battle with alcoholism. But it only seemed to make her stronger. Astor seemed to give zero fucks and that could very well have been a facade. She was very frank about her demons in her autobiography. This was a woman who lived a hard life but dealt with the tragedies head on like the characters she brought to life on film.
Don Juan (1926, Dir. Alan Crosland)
Dressed to Kill (1928, Dir. Irving Cummings)
Red Dust (1932, Dir. Victor Fleming)
Dodsworth (1936, Dir. William Wyler)
The Great Lie (1941, Dir. Edward Goulding)
The Maltese Falcon (1941, Dir. John Huston)
The Palm Beach Story (1942, Dir. Preston Sturges)
Meet Me in St. Louis (1944, Vincent Minelli)