Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Portrait d'une Demi-Star

There's not nearly enough shouting about Mary Astor.

Her career places her in an uneasy, in-between sort of place - not one of the great Top Ten or so (Garbo, Crawford, Gish, Davis, Hepburn, Pickford, Swanson, Dietrich... you fill in the rest), but somewhere in with the best of the next tier down, elbowing with the likes of Irene Dunne, Myrna Loy (fabulous, but never quite, despite the "Queen of Hollywood" foolishness, toppest drawer), and Claudette Colbert - possibly falling below those ladies, but still ahead of above-the-title dames like Ann Harding, Ruth Chatterton, or the even my beloved Kay Francis (some still names, and potent ones, some less so).

Still, she worked, a lot - more than 100 films over half-a-century - and turns up in significant places from the high tide of the silents right through the '60s (and opposite fellow Warners survivor, Bette Davis, too, in Hush... Hush,Sweet Charlotte).  She always seemed a little too febrile to carry off lady parts in the style of Dunne (although she was a lovely mother in Meet Me in St. Louis) and yet a little too ladylike to be a totally believable strumpet (which is one of the many things that make her so compulsively watchable in The Maltese Falcon).

Her private life - messy, colorful, and for decades alcohol-fueled - only made her that much harder to pigeonhole. Still - you can't sneeze at a hundred pictures.  Perhaps she's the Louise Brooks that worked - someone unwilling to surrender her individuality, and yet better able than Lulu to play the games required to succeed.  I've been re-reading the masterful Barry Paris biography of Brooks, and it strikes me as it didn't when it first came out how inevitable it was that someone as mercurial and flat-out ornery as Louise would never be a lasting star.  Astor, though, shows it's possible to find a place, if not a particularly comfortable one - given not-exactly-deathless vehicles like Puritan Passions (1923) or The Devil's Hairpin (1957) - without surrendering one's spiky individuality.

And my goodness - couldn't she wear bracelets like nobody's business?


  1. I think of her when I think of female leads in dramas. You know, that group of actresses that never did comedies. Some comedians never do dramas. I think the closet she came to a comedy was meet me in Saint Louis! which had funny moments, but was a musical, and her role, she was a straight arrow anchor type mother.

  2. I think it was the mixture of Madonna and whore in her screen personality that enabled her to convincingly play the warm Anna Smith in St. Louis, that prize bitch Sandra Kovak in The Great Lie, the flighty Princess Centimillia in The Palm Beach Story, the murderous Brigid O'Shaughnessy in Falcon, the worn out b-girl Pat in Act of Violence and that tower of strength Marmee in Little Women sometimes one on top of the other. Someone who when her name pops up in the credits the movie instantly gets a little better.

  3. Bracelets? Bitch is teaching a PhD level class in wearing a tie bar brooch. Lookit the size of that thing! I'm surprised she can sit up straight.

    I first became aware of Ms. Astor at the age of 11 or 12. I got hooked on the cast recording of Coleman & Leigh's "Little Me" and had to find out what Belle Poitrine was talking about in her first big number, The Truth, where she sings about writing her memoirs.

    The verse went:
    With the areas I'll expose,
    I'll annihilate Gypsy Rose,
    As for practically Proustian prose,
    Mary Astor,
    Meet your master.
    Stack me up with all three Gabors,
    I'll reduce 'em to cut-rate stores,
    And Louella, dear, you'll get yours
    With the end-all,
    Casey Stendahl

    1. Fab lyric! I don't know that show nearly as well as I ought.

      As for the brooch, I attribute her balance to the counterweight of her backhair. Altogether it's a remarkable toilette, no?

  4. I love Mary Astor, I really do, but I think she's more akin to a Fay Bainter, Claire Trevor, or Gladys Cooper (for better or for worse): all excellent actresses who were primarily supporting players. Astor had a particularly humorless affect which she used to good effect in movies like "Midnight." Was she ever funny onscreen?

    1. She made a few comedies, sprinkled through her long career. There is, for example, Dry Martini, a 1928 semi-sound society rompt, and she's pretty terrific in Palm Beach Story, too. She's unlike Bainter or Cooper in that she was often a leading lady and even at times above the title. It would be fun to see what she was like in the notorious lost pre-Coder Convention City...

  5. So great in the Maltese Falcon. Layers of vulnerability and deceit bubbling up through this "Who, me?" facade.