Nationality: American. Born: Lucille Langhanke in Quincy, Illinois, 3 May 1906. Education: Attended Kenwood-Loring School for Girls, Chicago. Family: Married 1) Ken Hawks, 1928 (died 1930); 2) Dr. Franklyn Thorpe, 1931 (divorced 1935), daughter Marylyn; 3) Manuel del Campo, 1937 (divorced 1941), son: Antonio; 4) Thomas Wheelock, 1945 (divorced 1955). Career: 1917–20—father entered her in various beauty contests grooming her for career in movies; 1920—signed six-month contract with Famous Players-Lasky in New York; early 1920s—acted for independent movie company producing two-reelers about famous paintings; 1923—under contract again to Famous Players-Lasky of New York; 1924—became star after Beau Brummel with John Barrymore; 1926—appeared in Don Juan, first use of synchronized musical soundtrack via sound on disc; 1929—began freelancing; also some stagework; 1931—contract with RKO; 1934—her parents, who had guided her career until 1928, sued her for nonsupport; mid-1930s—contract with Columbia; 1936—headline-making scandal during custody battle over daughter involved her diaries which allegedly listed the names of men with whom she had had affairs; 1940s—first appearance on Broadway in Many Happy Returns; 1951—reported suicide attempt after bouts with alcoholism; 1953—turned to Motion Picture Relief Fund for financial help; 1960s—began writing novels while making infrequent film appearances. Awards: Best Supporting Actress Academy Award, for The Great Lie, 1941. Died: Of respiratory failure, in Woodland Hills, California, 25 September 1987.
Films as Actress:
The Beggar Maid (Blaché); Bullets or Ballots (Tuttle and Woolley); Brother of the Bear (Carle); The Lady o' the Pines (Carle); The Bashful Suitor (Blaché)
The Young Painter (Blaché); Hope (Le Jaren à Hiller); The Scarecrow (Blaché and Le Jaren à Hiller); The Angelus (Blaché and Le Jaren à Hiller); John Smith (Heerman); The Man Who Played God (Weight); The Rapids (Hartford)
The Bright Shawl (Robertson); Hollywood (Cruze); To the Ladies (Cruze); The Marriage Maker (William DeMille); Puritan Passions (Tuttle); Second Fiddle (Tuttle); Success (Ralph Ince); Woman-Proof (Green)
Beau Brummel (Beaumont); The Fighting American (Forman); The Fighting Coward (Cruze); Inez from Hollywood (The Good Bad Girl) (Green); The Price of a Party (Giblyn); Unguarded Woman (Crossland)
Don Q, Son of Zorro (Crisp); Enticement (Archainbaud); Oh, Doctor! (Pollard); The Pace That Thrills (Campbell); Playing with Souls (Ralph Ince); Scarlet Saint (Archainbaud)
Don Juan (Crosland); Forever After (Weight); High Steppers (Carewe); The Wise Guy (Lloyd)
No Place to Go (LeRoy); Rose of the Golden West (Fitzmaurice); The Rough Riders (Fleming); The Sea Tiger (Dillon); The Sunset Derby (Rogell); Two Arabian Knights (Milestone)
Dressed to Kill (Cummings); Dry Martini (D'Arrast); Heart to Heart (Beaudine); Romance of the Underworld (Cummings); Sailors' Wives (Henabery); Three-Ring Marriage (Neilan)
New Year's Eve (Lehrman); The Woman from Hell (Erickson)
Ladies Love Brutes (Rowland V. Lee) (as Mimi Howell); The Runaway Bride (Crisp) (as Mary); Holiday (Edward H. Griffith) (as Julia Seton); The Lash (Adios) (Frank Lloyd) (as Rosita Garcia); The Royal Bed (The Queen's Husband) (Sherman) (as Princess Anne)
Steel Highway (Other Men's Women) (Wellman) (as Lily); Behind Office Doors (Brown) (as Mary Linden); The Sin Ship (Wolheim) (as Kitty); White Shoulders (Melville Brown) (as Norma Selbee); Smart Woman (La Cava) (as Nancy Gibson); Men of Chance (Archainbaud) (as Marthe)
The Lost Squadron (Archainbaud) (as Follette Marsh); Those We Love (Florey) (as May); A Successful Calamity (Adolfi) (as Emmie Wilton); Red Dust (Fleming) (as Barbara Willis)
The Little Giant (Del Ruth) (as Ruth Wayburn); Jennie Gerhardt (Gering) (as Letty Pace); The World Changes (LeRoy) (as Virginia); The Kennel Murder Case (Curtiz) (as Hilda Lake); Convention City (Mayo) (as Arlene Dale)
Easy to Love (Keighley) (as Charlotte); Upperworld (Del Ruth) (as Mrs. Hettie Stream); Return of the Terror (Bretherton) (as Olga Morgan); The Man with Two Faces (Mayo) (as Jessica Wells); The Case of the Howling Dog (Crosland) (as Bessie Foley); The Hollywood Gad-About
I Am a Thief (Florey) (as Odette Mauclair); Straight from the Heart (Beal) (as Marian Henshaw); Red Hot Tires (Racing Luck) (Lederman) (as Patricia Sanford); Dinky (Lederman and Bretherton) (as Mrs. Daniels); Page Miss Glory (Le-Roy) (as Gladys Russell); Man of Iron (McGann) (as Vida)
The Murder of Dr. Harrigan (McDonald) (as Lillian Ash); And So They Were Married (Nugent) (as Edith Farnham); Trapped by Television (Caught by Television) (Lord) (as Bobby Blake); Dodsworth (Wyler) (as Edith Coatright); Lady from Nowhere (Wiles) (as Polly)
The Prisoner of Zenda (Cromwell) (as Antoinette De Mauban); The Hurricane (Ford) (as Madame Germaine De Laage)
No Time to Marry (Lachman) (as Kay McGowan); Paradise for Three (Romance for Three) (Buzzell) (as Mrs. Mallebre); There's Always a Woman (Hall) (as Lola Fraser); Woman against Woman (Sinclair) (as Cynthia Holland); Listen, Darling (Marin) (as Dottie Wingate)
Midnight (Leisen) (as Helene Flammarion)
The Great Lie (Goulding) (as Sandra Kovak); The Maltese Falcon (Huston) (as Brigid O'Shaughnessy)
In This Our Life (Huston) (unbilled cameo); Across the Pacific (Huston) (as Alberta Marlow); The Palm Beach Story (Preston Sturges) (as Princess Centimillia)
Thousands Cheer (Sidney) (as Hyllary Jones); Young Ideas (Dassin) (as Jo Evans)
Meet Me in St. Louis (Minnelli) (as Mrs. Anne Smith); Blonde Fever (Whorf) (as Delilah Donay)
Claudia and David (Walter Lang) (as Elizabeth Van Doren)
Desert Fury (Lewis Allen) (as Fritzie Haller); Cynthia (The Rich, Full Life) (Leonard) (as Louise Bishop); Fiesta (Thorpe) (as Senora Morales); Cass Timberlane (Sidney) (as Queenie Havock)
Act of Violence (Zinnemann) (as Pat); Little Women (LeRoy) (as Marmee March); Any Number Can Play (LeRoy) (as Ada)
The Power and the Prize (Koster) (as Mrs. George Salt); A Kiss before Dying (Oswald) (as Mrs. Corliss)
The Devil's Hairpin (Wilde) (as Mrs. Jargin)
This Happy Feeling (Edwards) (as Mrs. Tremaine)
Stranger in My Arms (Kautner) (as Mrs. Beasley)
Return to Peyton Place (Ferrer) (as Roberta Carter)
Youngblood Hawke (Daves) (as Irene Perry); Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte (Aldrich) (as Jewel Mayhew)
By ASTOR: books—
My Story, New York, 1959.
The Incredible Charlie Carewe, New York, 1960.
A Place Called Saturday, New York, 1968.
A Life on Film, New York, 1971.
On ASTOR: articles—
Current Biography 1961, New York, 1961.
Higham, Charles, "Meeting Mary Astor," in Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1964.
Shipman, David, in The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years, rev. ed., London, 1979.
Ciné Revue (Paris), 13 March 1980.
Obituary in Variety (New York), 30 September 1987.
Obituary in Films and Filming (London), November 1987.
Anderson, Lindsay, "Mary Astor," in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1990.
Bangley, J. "Mary Astor,"Films of the Golden Age (Muscatine, Iowa), no. 7, Winter 1996/97.
* * *
Mary Astor is best known for her performance as Brigid O'Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon. One of film's most versatile actresses, Astor played everything from ingenues to mothers in a career that lasted almost 45 years and included more than 100 films, including The Great Lie for which she won an Oscar for her portrayal of temperamental pianist, Sandra Kovak. One of Astor's best performances is as the easygoing heiress in The Palm Beach Story. Another, and the actress's personal favorite, is Dodsworth, which casts her as the widow who brings happiness into the life of a downtrodden businessman. It contains one of the more memorable introductory lines in American cinema: on board ship Dodsworth asks the steward to bring him a drink to steady his nerves; from the dark reaches of a deck chair comes the voice of Mary Astor, "Why don't you try stout, Mr. Dodsworth?" Astor made her screen debut at 15, a hauntingly innocent presence in The Beggar Maid. When John Barrymore cast her in Beau Brummel, Astor became established as a leading actress. Even in this early, silent film, Astor's performance is expressive but not histrionic, her concentrated intensity an ideal match for Barrymore's bravura performance. Astor's delicate beauty and graceful carriage made her particularly suited to historical melodramas such as Don Q, Son of Zorro and Don Juan. It was an image that lasted into the 1930s when she made her last historical drama, The Prisoner of Zenda.
Almost a has-been at 23, Fox executives told Astor they were not impressed with the way her voice recorded. But her performance in a hit play led to several studio offers, and she ably made the transition to sound. The coolly confident Astor image first emerges in Holiday where Astor proves more than a match for the film's star, Broadway-trained Ann Harding. Astor's career again looked as if it was in trouble when the scandal associated with her infamous diaries erupted. Some critics feel that the publicity surrounding her divorce and custody battle in 1936 has dulled recognition of her as work as an actress. Yet it appears that the scandal, and her "fortitude under stress" actually boosted her career, and helped reshape her star image, from ingenue to lovely but knowing woman-of-the-world, a transformation that allowed her to play the roles for which she is best remembered.
Critics often discuss Astor's performances in The Great Lie and The Maltese Falcon in terms of her marvelous bitchiness. Yet what is remarkable is Astor's ability to play women who were charming, clever, perfectly manicured, but who also had an intensity, a candor, and an appetite for life that made them undeniably real. With her performances in the late 1930s and 1940s, Astor became a woman with a style and class unto herself. In 1948 the British magazine Sequence observed that "in Dodsworth she was intelligently lovely, in Hurricane intelligently conventional, in The Palm Beach Story intelligently crazy, in The Maltese Falcon intelligently depraved."
Astor's image changed again when she began to accept mother roles, notably in Meet Me in St. Louis and Little Women, where she displayed a maternal charm almost symbolic of the American mother. Mother roles continued to come her way in the 1950s and 1960s, although in Stranger in My Arms and Return to Peyton Place she was not quite as nice as she had been a decade earlier. Astor ended her career with a cameo in Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte where her piercing eyes, expressive voice, and keen sense of dramatic timing give a succinct portrait of a Southern lady whose recognition of her "ruined finery" only enhances her elegance.
In 1965 Astor turned to writing full time. She said that she never really cared for the industry of which she was so long a part, but that she is proud of the work of the actress called Mary Astor.
—Anthony Slide, updated by Cynthia Baron