Sunday, October 4, 2009

Astor the Master

Miss Mary Astor has a tendency to divide people. Some sing her praises while others find her quite ordinary, even boring. I confess that I don’t typically get a charge out of much of her early work (nor did she! She was an actress who took anything she was asked/ordered to do and, as a result, often wound up in roles she didn’t care a great deal about.) However, there are indisputable times in which she rose to the occasion and, even if she didn’t, she has one role that has a special place of honor in Poseidon’s Underworld, a role that ought to make a fan out of even her most strenuous detractors.

Astor had a film career lasting about 44 years, beginning in silents and lasting to the mid-60s (though, surprisingly, she lived until 1987.) Her earliest years were marked by the firm hand of her oppressive and sponge-like parents who not only controlled her money, but, when she was 26 and finally wanted to hold her own purse strings, sued her for support! What’s more, they won. She ran into trouble when talkies came into vogue because her deep voice was at odds with her ethereal image onscreen. However, after success in a Los Angeles play, her voice was deemed pleasing and she fielded five different film contract offers.

Always one to experience a pretty tumultuous private life, she was married four times, was widowed by one husband in a plane crash, and, most famously, engaged in a nasty custody hearing in which pages from her diary were shown in court. The actual passages and pages were never shown to the public, but the rumors were shocking, involving tales of various lovers and explicit details of the ecstasy she was having with men other than her husband. The notable book was stored, unread, in a safety deposit box from 1936 - 1952 when it was destroyed.

The film she was working on during the scandal was Dodsworth and it was in the best interest of various studio heads to ensure that she kept some degree of respectability, which she did, thanks in part to their far-reaching influence. Dodsworth was a hit and became a classic, as did some of her subsequent films such as Red Dust, The Prisoner of Zenda and The Hurricane. In 1941, she appeared in the legendary The Maltese Falcon with Humphrey Bogart. The big news for Astor that year, though, was being co-starred with Bette Davis in The Great Lie.

Unlike the vast majority of female stars who worked with Davis, Astor got on well with her and Davis was unusually generous in return. She insisted on having Astor cast and worked overtime to punch up her scenes. She even encouraged Astor to cut her already short hair shorter, giving her a chic, unusual look at a time when shoulder length hair was the rage. Astor soared as the spoiled, petulant and fiery concert pianist who tangles with Davis over George Brent (why?) One highlight of the film has the women holed up in a bleak cabin, riding out Astor’s pregnancy with Davis trying to prevent Astor from running away and from smoking “too much.” Astor won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress that year.

Still, she was never one to chase parts or even seek above-the-title billing. She enjoyed the less pressured approach of being a featured player. Thus, she wound up playing mothers more often than not and hated it in spite of herself. Even though audiences may have enjoyed her in Meet Me In St. Louis and Little Women, she was miserable in the roles.

After the death of her parents (several years apart), whose side she had stayed by through their illnesses and demise, she discovered her mother’s diary which outlined the deep hatred she’d felt for her daughter/provider over the years. This, paired with career trauma and other issues led Astor to bouts of sleeping pill “accidents” and a membership in Alcoholics Anonymous. She found it cathartic to write an autobiography in 1959 and it was a major success, though she scarcely mentioned her considerable career at all in it. (She penned a later book all about her cinematic experiences in 1971 as well as half a dozen novels in between.)

And now we come to her ultimate performance as far as The Underworld is concerned, the role of Roberta Carter in Return to Peyton Place. Return, a rather cheap and muddled follow up to the prior, more prestigious film, has many strikes against it. For one thing, almost none of the original cast is back. Also, the storyline contains far fewer engrossing threads than its predecessor did and several of the plotlines come off as rehashes rather than fresh scenarios. What it does have however, is the magnificently small-minded, bitter and nasty presence of Roberta Carter.

There just isn’t anyone else who could bring quite the prudish, derisive, possessive, manipulative and authoritarian qualities to this character than Astor does. She’s barely onscreen a minute before her faux-pleasant demeanor gives way to haughty arrogance and sidelong cruelty. She’s hardly finished insulting her son’s former girlfriend before her son arrives back home from college with an unexpected wife in tow. Astor’s blood is frozen in her veins until she makes it to her bedroom and slams her purse on the bed with smile-inducing fury. From here, it’s a battle of wills between Astor and the (:::gasp::: Italian) wife Luciana Paluzzi. The animosity builds and builds with all sorts of snappy repartee between the women.

Sadly, some nincompoop at 20th Century Fox decided to lop off roughly the last ¼ of the movie, including a murder plot between the ladies as well as a fire and these scenes have never seen the light of day since. Still, what’s there is mesmerizing. Ultimately, Astor turns her attention away from Paluzzi and guns for Carol Lynley, who has authored a book all about the title town, one that is full of salacious gossip, most of it true. Astor wants the book removed from the school library and fires the principal over it, resulting in a climactic town meeting. Even though we know we’re supposed to be rooting for Lynley, she’s so bratty and snotty that we retain a soft-spot for Astor, the old dragon. How interesting that Astor, a woman who led quite a spicy life was so adept at portraying someone this repressive and conservative. Every sour frame of her in this movie is cinema magic.

Now ready to hang up her hat and tend to her garden or write some more, Mary Astor made one last appearance before the big screen camera. Old pal Bette Davis asked her to portray her longtime nemesis in a two-scene cameo in Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Astor thought it a fitting way to go out and readily agreed, adding a rare drop of understatement to this tribute to hammy overacting (not that there’s anything wrong with that!) Her character’s name is a fun one and is bandied about continuously by the other characters: Jewel Mayhew. You have to hear Bette say it, though.

Her final years were marked with self-imposed solitude and failing health. She gave interviews only on the rarest of occasions, shunned visitors other than the closest of family and friends and wouldn’t even look at fan mail, of which she received healthy amounts. After all, she had appeared in about 120 films.


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