Movie Legends: Mary Astor

By: Mike McCrann

Mary Astor was one of the most beautiful and talented actresses from Hollywood’s Golden Age. In a career that went from roles in silent movies with John Barrymore to her final performance as Jewel Mayhew in Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte, Mary Astor made a number of wonderful films. Even in stinkers she was always memorable.

She was also involved in one of the great movie scandals of the 1930s when her husband threatened to introduce her diary into evidence in a child custody fight. News of the diary's contents—which included details of the sexual prowess of a number of famous people—threatened to destroy her career. But Mary survived and her best work followed.

Not as well known as some of her contemporaries, here are six essential films that show her great talent.

Dodsworth (1936)

This brilliant William Wyler-directed version of the Sinclair Lewis book starred Ruth Chatterton and Walter Huston (Angelica's grandfather). Mary Astor plays the young love interest who takes up with the older Huston. Great acting and a great musical score by Alfred Newman make this a truly ’30s classic. with Mary at the zenith of her beauty.

Astor_3 The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Famed director John Huston (Angelica's father) directed this classic starring Humphrey Bogart, and it remains the most famous of all of Astor’s films. She plays the conniving Brigid O'Shaughnessy, and her attempts to double cross Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet are a delight. Does Brigid get her way? All I’ll say is, Astor's final scene will blow you away.

The Great Lie (1941)

Mary won the 1941 Best Supporting Oscar for her great portrayal of a promiscuous bitch in this soapy Bette Davis melodrama. According to most reports, Davis pushed for Astor to get the role and both of them rewrote the corny dialog to make their on-screen relationship more believable. Mary plays a world famous egocentric pianist who ends up pregnant from a one-night marriage, and her scenes with Bette not only crackle with viciousness and hatred, they represent ’40s melodrama at its very best. When Astor won her Academy Award, she thanked two people: Bette Davis and Tchaikovsky!

Meet Me In St. Louis (1942)

Mary Astor probably made the career mistake of her life when she signed a seven-year contract with MGM following her great 1941 triumphs. Although it provided financial security, she was mostly given mother roles (only in her mid-30s at the time, she could have easily played leads for another five years). Her best product from this era was in this Vicente Minnelli classic starring Judy Garland. St. Louis is probably the most perfect musical ever made, and Mary stands out in a terrific cast as the wise and loving mother.

Mary_astor_3 Desert Fury (1947)

Mary plays the tough owner of a gambling casino and mother of rebellious Lizabeth Scott. This Technicolor noir is wonderful with a young Burt Lancaster romancing Liz, who has taken up with a killer who just happens to be a former flame of her mother. Mary owns the movie: Her scenes sizzle and she looks great in her Edith Head finery.

Return to Peyton Place (1961)

This trashy sequel to Peyton Place wasted the considerable talents of Eleanor Parker, Tuesday Weld, and Carol Lynley. The only reason to watch it is Mary Astor's brilliant performance. She plays Roberta Carter, who is not only scheming to wreck her son's marriage but trying to ban Carol Lynley's racy book from the school library. She is so good in the part that she reduces the rest of the cast—along with the lousy script and direction—to mere afterthoughts.

Mary Astor was also a fine author. Her two autobiographies, My Story and A Life on Film, are brilliant studies of a Hollywood long ago. This talented beauty survived hideous parents, a sex scandal, doomed romances, alcoholism, and having to play Elizabeth Taylor's mother in Cynthia.

If you are not familiar with this fine actress, check out the above movies and discover a great talent!