Mary Astor's piercing eyes and finely honed features made her the essential star to one generation of Americans. Her portrayals of mature but flawed women kept her fame bright through yet another.
During a career that spanned 45 years, Astor appeared in 109 films, among them such classics as "The Maltese Falcon" with Humphrey Bogart and "The Great Lie" with Bette Davis. For the latter, she won a 1941 Academy Award for best supporting actress.
Her path to Hollywood began when she entered a "Fame and Fortune" contest run by a movie magazine. After her picture was printed as a semifinalist, her German immigrant father, Otto Langhanke, a man ever in search of get-rich schemes, decided that his daughter would be a star.
On this quest, Langhanke moved the family first to Chicago and then, in 1920, to New York City.
Finally, she got a six-month contract with Famous Players-Lasky, later part of Paramount. During that six months, about all she got was her new name, Mary Astor, and a bit part as a double-exposed dream figure in "Sentimental Tommy."
In 1923, her Famous Players-Lasky contract was renewed, and with her parents leading the way, she moved to Hollywood. As the studios were divided between the two coasts, she commuted back and forth by train with a canary named Tweetums.
During the early part of her career in silent films, she played innocent heroines. But what stood out were her large eyes and fabulous profile. Later, she would be noted more for characterizations of evil, such as her Academy Award-winning portrayal of the ambitious, selfish pianist in "The Great Lie," or the treacherous Brigid O'Shaughnessy in "The Maltese Falcon."
In later years she played innumerable mothers.
This later career was almost aborted during Hollywood's transition to talking pictures. After making 39 films that were silent, in 1929 her voice tests were judged too "masculine." By this time she was under contract to Fox, and the studio released her. She went 10 months without work.
She broke the logjam by acting in a local play and winning kudos from reviewers who said her voice was "low and vibrant." ("Same girl. Same voice," she later wrote.) Her first talkie, "Ladies Love Brutes," with Fredric March, was released in 1930.
When she retired from films in 1964, she reminisced: "During the first two months of hanging around the Famous Players-Lasky studio, I distinctly remember feeling, 'Is that all?' Glamour is in the eye of the movie fan."
"I was never totally involved in movies," she once said. "I was making someone else's dream come true. Not mine."
Her dream, it turned out was writing. Astor published five novels and two autobiographies.
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