“It’s not the size, mate. It’s how you use it.”
– Michael Caine, “Goldmember” (2002)
Two qualities make Mary Astor one of my favourite actresses. First, she was so beautiful that I never tire of looking at her. Second, she inhabited a variety of roles comfortably and appealingly. She was up for anything, from wealthy women of privilege like a sweet, independent princess in “The Royal Bed”, to a clever, brave, dirty-faced race car mechanic in “Red Hot Tires”. One of Astor’s most noticeable physical characteristics was an unconventional hairstyle, cropped short and parted with curls piled in the front*.
Such an odd hair-do might make many actresses look foolish. Astor made it look natural in any type of movie. The same can be said about her equally distinctive face. She had wide set, angular eyes and eyebrows that were marvelously emotive in dramatic roles. They’d twist into some of the most intense displays of sadness I’ve ever seen. I believe only an extraordinarily heartless and unfeeling person could witness them without being moved (at least a little bit).
The teenage Mary Astor of silent movies is the epitome of tragedy and heartbreak. Her silent heroines seem to have direct access to my tear ducts and heart. Almost every time she cries out of fear or grief, I get watery-eyed right along with her. I want to yell, “Oh, Mary, no! Don’t cry!” at the screen. She moistened my eyes more than once playing devastatingly helpless victims of oppressive societies in “Beau Brummel” and “Two Arabian Knights”.
She is perfectly cast in “Don Juan” as the only woman whose purity and profound innocence can tame the world’s preeminent womanizer. After sound was introduced to movies, Astor was no less effective. When she eavesdrops on a man declaring his love for her in “Smart Woman”, her wordless facial reaction demonstrates how powerful silent acting can still be. In this scene, her face beautifully tells the story of what she feels. No words could possibly tell it better.
Voice ended up being another dynamic tool in the Mary Astor acting arsenal. Early into the age of talkies, she had already mastered using voice to convincingly illustrate character growth provoked by harrowing hardships. In 1931’s “The Sin Ship”, she begins as a dishonest woman who fakes vulnerability. Abuse by an evil man makes her truly vulnerable and the kindness of a good one inspires her to change. So much of the character’s emotional journey can be heard in her voice. Astor’s serious characters spoke with shaky urgency – another catalyst for harsh sympathy pains from me. In “Men of Chance”, my heart breaks right with hers as she confesses her sins to prove she loves a man, and he refuses to forgive them.
After watching Astor’s eyes take on a painfully melancholic quality in dramas, it’s uplifting to see them light up in comedies. She makes outrageously vain women both amusing and appalling. Her voice still vibrates, only with enthusiasm and spirit instead of sorrow and yearning. The best ‘light Mary’ performance is probably in “The Palm Beach Story”. She’s a talkative and flighty high society snob who brings wacky energy to every scene graced with her presence.
Flaunting wealth and a huge appetite for men, the character perfectly explains herself in cheerfully admitting, “I’m crazy, I’ll marry anyone!” Astor’s flair for comedy is obvious in “Paradise For Three” too, particularly when she acts demure to seduce a rich man at a costume party. She wears a ridiculous frilly ‘school girl’ outfit and lovable character actress Edna May Oliver made me laugh out loud with her reaction: “Heaven help the teacher!”
In addition to laughably greedy and egocentric characters, Astor played bad women who could be taken seriously, since their actions had disturbing consequences. Herbert Marshall (playing a mistreated husband for the umpteenth time) can’t stand her in “Woman Against Woman”. She’s selfish to a hideous degree, using lies about their child to manipulate him for attention and disrupt his life. In “The Maltese Falcon”, she’s the shady lady whose blatant deception intrigues Humphrey Bogart’s detective Sam Spade. When Spade responds to her dubious claims by stating, “You’re good. It’s chiefly in your eyes, I think, and that throb you get in your voice[…],” he sounds like he’s actually describing the performance of Mary Astor the actress as much as that of her deceitful character.
I’m not interested in learning too much about what my favourite actresses did and said outside of movies. I get sad if I hear they were mean or unhappy. It was inevitable that I’d absorb some information about Astor’s private life after a month of following her career through a few research methods and a marathon of Astor movies on TV. I like most of what I learned about her.
A few discoveries upset me, such as her struggles with alcoholism, domineering parents, and divorces. I was also disappointed to hear that Astor wasn’t keen on “The Little Giant”, which was her first movie with Edward G. Robinson, the start of his gangster comedies series, and one of my favourites in that run of films. I was glad to hear that Astor liked working with Mr. Robinson (as their cute interactions on screen suggest), even if she didn’t like the movie.
My favourite fact out of everything I learned about Mary Astor is that she turned down a lot of starring roles because she wanted to avoid the pressure of being expected to ‘carry’ a movie. She reasoned that if one is billed as ‘the star’, they’re held largely responsible for whether a movie succeeds or fails. This was an astute observation, especially true in the days of Old Hollywood. I really admire Astor’s deliberate attempt to be a ‘supporting player’ rather than ‘leading lady’. It was a shrewd move that shows her lack of ego and a bit of insecurity, making Astor seem more humble and human to me than arrogant stars who are greedy for stardom. Astor played supporting roles impeccably, making it clear that she was right to pursue them.
Mary Astor was modest and generous throughout her career. Consider how she responded when people said she stole “The Great Lie” from Bette Davis with her excitingly ferocious and passionate Oscar-winning performance. Referencing how Davis had the script re-written to beef up Astor’s character, she graciously declared, “I didn’t steal anything from Bette Davis. She handed that movie to me on a silver tray.” Astor has a small, yet important and eloquently-written role in 1948’s “Act of Violence”. She plays a cynical and world-weary call girl who consoles a suicidal young man.
Based on what I’ve gathered about Mary Astor’s tumultuous personal life and career, I believe this character’s dialogue must have resonated with her. She says, “I’ve seen ’em all. I’ve seen all the troubles in the world.” Astor’s eyes conveyed the distress of someone who internalized a great deal of trauma amassed over a tragic lifetime. Many actresses have beautiful eyes. Not many can do what Astor does with hers. Even if I shouldn’t, I feel inclined to believe everything her characters say and have sympathy towards them as they suffer. It’s not just the eyes, mate. It’s how she uses ’em.
* I’m not good at describing women’s hairstyles, so I had to get the description of Mary Astor’s hair-do from ‘Bright Lights Film Journal’. Thank you to the author for letting me quote her.