Mary Astor – The Great Lie

I’ve really been looking forward to this weekend’s anti-damsel blogathon. Work and life have a way of annihilating priorities, but this has already been a lot of fun and my goal is to show the magnificence of one of my favorite actresses, Mary Astor.

Many would argue she’s best known for The Maltese Falcon or maybe even the 1949 version of Little Women, and I agree, but don’t box her into one role; she deserves better and the many films she made, including silent films in the 1920s, make it clear she wasn’t only a pretty face; this lady mesmerizes on screen.

It’s difficult to put into words the magic that we feel when we witness a talented actor pull from the core of his or her soul and bring to life a complex living and breathing character, full of love and hate and redemption and forgiveness. It always goes so much further than a simple, “best acting ever” declaration. It’s about the tension that’s built when you know it has very little to do with a director’s insistence on proper timing. It’s about the delivery and inflection in a voice that speaks with a powerful line and you know it has little to do with the writers. It’s about the confidence you feel in a character’s purpose and you know it has little to do with the ability of talented co-stars to play off of one another. Without that power of that one soul, the rest serves no purpose. The writing, directing and team collaboration; they’re crucial, of course, but useless if the parts that define it are weak. There’s a reason some talent lives forever while second-best is pushed to the wayside and while we remember favorite films and the way they made us feel, you can be sure that would not exist were it not for the committed talent willing to bleed, cry and demand perfection to make that film worthy of a place in history.

And that is exactly the way every Mary Astor film moves me. It’s also the very reason I’ve chosen The Great Lie for this blogathon.

I mentioned yesterday that it’s difficult, for me personally, to imagine Astor as anything but Edith Cortright in her role in Dodsworth. Her character was just so calming and it’s one of my favorite films, too. She stood by as the man she loved beat his head against the wall trying to make a marriage work that had long since been dead. And she was there to pick up the pieces when he’d finally figured it out. I bring that up because there’s an irony to that plotline in The Great Lie, which was released five short years later. Gone was the compassionate, loving and patient “other woman”, Edith. Now, fans were able to witness Sandra Kovak and her very different efforts of wooing the man she loved away from his wife. Distinctly different, despite the love triangle in both films, and flawlessly delivered.

A quick note about The Great Lie. It starred two powerhouses who had already made several films together, George Brent and Bette Davis. I can only imagine what likely went through anyone’s mind who had the opportunity to perform next to these two giants, yet Astor was a rockstar in her own right. In fact, it was Davis who decided what role Astor would play: the role of Maggie, who was a bit more down to earth, realistic and, for lack of a better word, “domesticated” or the role of Sandra, the globetrotting, elegant, sophisticated, independent and spoiled pianist. While many believed Davis would have chosen the more aggressive role while leaving a slightly passive role to Astor, she instead chose the more appealing Maggie. Maybe it was because of Brent, but I don’t suppose we’ll ever know for sure. Wondering how many films Brent and Davis shared? Try eleven in just ten years – with The Great Lie being the tenth film. These two spent more time with one another during that decade than they did anyone else.

Ah, but Astor scored an Oscar in that role.

One last disclosure: SPOILERS follow. But don’t get caught up in the ending; trust me, the magic is found in the story as a whole. Besides, it’s easy enough to figure out how the film ends. What I’m trying to show is the way the viewer gets there.

Our film opens with Pete (Brent) waking up to the reality that he’s just married the wrong woman. He immediately leaves his still-sleeping and hung over bride at home and flies to Maggie’s (Davis) home, who’s already been engaged to Pete at least twice. He finds a grieving Maggie being protected by a determined and loyal housekeeper, Violet (oh my God…two words: Hattie McDaniel. Brilliant in her role, as always) ready to hurt him for the pain he’s caused her Miss Maggie. As Pete flies back to his bride (he’s a pilot and prefers a quick plane trip over a car ride), he learns that Sandra (Astor) is still married to her first husband. She’d married Pete believing her divorce was final. This, of course, gives Pete his out – which he promptly takes.

Later, as Pete is sent to pilot an exercise overseas, Sandra discovers she’s pregnant and wastes no time in sharing her news with Maggie, who is now finally married to Pete. She made it clear that she would use the baby to lure Pete back into her arms.

Soon, word comes that Pete’s plane is nowhere to be found and he’s declared dead. Maggie, grieving terribly, contacts Sandra and offers to raise the baby since it no longer serves Sandra’s purposes. Since Sandra travels the world as a renowned pianist, she agrees to hand over the baby to Maggie, who will raise the baby as hers and Pete’s.

The two disappear to a cabin in the final months of Sandra’s pregnancy so to avoid the media. She gives Maggie hell, but finally, the baby is born and the two women part ways, each believing they will never again see one another. The baby, who Maggie calls Young Pete is around three months old when she gets a phone call that Pete was found alive and was on his way home.

This means, of course, that Sandra begins lurking around again, showing up unannounced at their home with the intention of telling Pete everything in an effort to break up his marriage. Maggie, always the sensible one, instead beats Sandra to the punch and tells Pete everything. She wanted it all out in the open and let the cards fall where they may. Pete didn’t react the way Sandra hoped and the final few lines of the film, spoken between Sandra, Maggie and with Pete standing there:

Sandra:  “Maggie, I won’t be staying for lunch.”

Maggie: “But what about Young Pete?”

Sandra: “I’m leaving it with his mother.”

There’s no “damsel in distress” in her game. Sandra makes no apologies for her decisions. She never intended to give up her career and she never promised Pete that she would. She didn’t apologize for not wanting the baby, and in fact, she made it clear that the baby was just means to an end. At one point, Maggie says to her, “You never called, you never wrote – you never even knew what I named him!” Sandra never blinks and in fact, dismisses it almost as though Maggie was rattling off the week’s high and low temperatures two miles south of Tibet.

When you think about it, how many women would actually walk up to an ex’s new wife, never skip a beat, and say, “You should know, I plan to take him back.” For that matter, how many wives would take that without a street brawl? Sandra never loses her cool. Even her temper tantrums at the cabin before having the baby were merely efforts of frustrating Maggie. Maggie wouldn’t allow her to have more than a few cigarettes, no steak and definitely no more than “one pickle and a thin slice of onion” for her sandwich during the pregnancy. Sandra resented that.

Here’s what it comes down to: a pregnant woman, who as it turns out, was never married to her ex, allows the new wife to take custody of her baby at birth, no questions asked, accepts a considerable amount of money that she does not need, and then goes on her next world tour. The baby would have served one purpose, and since everyone believed the baby’s father was dead, the little one meant nothing to her past that. Then, upon learning the father is still alive, she finds her way back to him, accepts the hospitality offered, and still makes it clear to the new wife that she doesn’t intend to live without the man they both love. When it’s clear she’s lost the battle, she simply closes the chapter with a simple, “I’m leaving the baby with its mother.”

How much more anti-damsel can you get? And in our Sandra’s case, how much more Oscar worthy can you get?

I searched high and low for a clip that included one of the scenes I outlined above, but the clips are getting harder to come by. Below is the trailer to the movie, but it’s heavy on Brent and Davis; still, a few of her best lines are delivered in the trailer, so invest two minutes and see for yourself and be sure to notice her refined voice – beautiful, I tell you! Right below that is TCM’s Robert Osborne’s introduction to the network’s monthly Star of the Month series. It too has a few soundbites and clips. It’s good for your soul!


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