Pressured into an acting career by her ambitious parents, Mary Astor was a silent film star before she was 17 -- a tribute more to her dazzling good looks than anything else. Debuting in The Beggar Maid (1921), Astor appeared opposite John Barrymore in 1923's Beau Brummell with whom she had a romantic relationship and later starred with in Don Juan (1926), Anxious not to be a victim of the talking-picture revolution, the actress perfected her vocal technique in several stage productions for Edward Everett Horton's Los Angeles-based Majestic Theatre, and the result was a most successful talkie career. Things nearly fell to pieces in 1936 when, in the midst of a divorce suit, Astor's ex-husband tried to gain custody of the couple's daughter by making public a diary she had kept. In this volume, Astor detailed her affair with playwright George S. Kaufman; portions of the diary made it to the newspapers, causing despair for Astor and no end of embarrassment for Kaufman. But Astor's then-current employer, producer Sam Goldwyn, stood by his star and permitted her to complete her role in his production of Dodsworth (1936). Goldwyn was touched by Astor's fight for the custody of her child, and was willing to overlook her past mistakes. Some of Astor's best films were made after the scandal subsided, including The Maltese Falcon (1941), in which she played the gloriously untrustworthy Brigid O'Shaughnessy opposite Humphrey Bogart's Sam Spade, and The Great Lie (1941), in which she played a supremely truculent concert pianist (and won an Academy Award in the bargain). Seemingly getting better as she got older, Astor spent the final phase of her career playing spiteful or snobbish mothers, with one atypical role as murderer Robert Wagner's slow-on-the-uptake mom in A Kiss Before Dying (1956). A lifelong aspiring writer, Astor wrote two entertaining and insightful books on her career, My Story and A Life on Film. Retiring after the film Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte (1966), Astor fell victim to health complications and financial tangles, compelling her to spend her last years in a small but comfortable bungalow on the grounds of the Motion Picture Country House and Hospital.
photo credit: Sony Pictures Entertainment
by Hal Erickson biography