Brilliant, Touching, Tough

Edward Sorel
Drawing of Mary Astor by Edward Sorel from Mary Astor’s Purple Diary

Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke was born in 1906. “Mary Astor” was born in 1921—that was the name that went up in lights for the first time, at Manhattan’s Rivoli Theater, where, not yet sixteen, she was playing in a short film called The Beggar Maid. Soon her Madonna-like face was spotted in a fan magazine by the great John Barrymore and she was commandeered by him to play his love interest in Beau Brummel—as well as the (temporary) love of his life, and maybe the greatest love of hers. She missed out on the chance to play Mrs. Ahab to his Captain in The Sea Beast, but they were back together in Don Juan, the real first movie to include sound, even if it was only background music. Equally prestigious: she was Dolores de Muro, Douglas Fairbanks’s love object, in Don Q, Son of Zorro.

Astor, after nearly forty feature-length silents, made the transition to talkies, although for a long time they were mostly junkies—Ladies Love Brutes, Sin Ship—and while she showed no extraordinary talent, her astounding beauty and impeccable elocution kept her on the screen, and in the chips, until better roles started coming her way: with Ann Harding in the first version of Holiday; with Clark Gable and Jean Harlow in Red Dust. Then, in 1936, after a series of calamities like The Case of the Howling Dog and Red Hot Tires, she was featured in her finest role to date: as the noble Edith Cortright, together with Ruth Chatterton and Walter Huston, in William Wyler’s Dodsworth. It was being filmed while she was also featuring in the greatest Hollywood scandal of the decade: the trial for custody of her daughter, which lasted for weeks and had to be conducted at night, since you couldn’t expect a major studio to shut down filming during the day for a mere court case.

Among the movies to come: The Prisoner of Zenda, Midnight (she’s married, ritzily, to Barrymore), Brigham Young (she’s the great man’s first wife), The Great Lie with Bette Davis for which she won the supporting-actress Oscar for playing a selfish concert pianist with a glamorous up-sweep hairdo who gives her baby away for the sake of her career. Then her greatest role—as the ultra-noir Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon—and on to the man-hungry “Princess” who ends up with Joel McCrea’s identical twin in Preston Sturges’s glorious The Palm Beach Story, then soaked to the skin (along with Dorothy Lamour and Jon Hall) in John Ford’s The Hurricane.

And then in 1944, at the age of thirty-eight—as she recounts dolefully in her two excellent memoirs, My Story and A Life on Film—she begins a long string of mothers: first (and best), Judy Garland’s in Meet Me in St. Louis; then Gloria…

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