All that info about Peter Lorre, who Joe thinks is the most famous character actor STAR of classic movies, led us to think about which female would nab the crown as the biggest character actor STAR– and only one name came to mind — Mary Astor.
Oh yes, Mary, born Lucile Langhanke, was a leading lady in many silents and early talkies, and is best remembered for being Humphrey Bogart’s femme fatale lady in The Maltese Falcon, but it was when she played second leads that she shined. From Red Dust to The Palm Beach Story, from mothers to madams.
Astor always said she’d rather be the second lead. She didn’t want the responsibility of carrying a film. In the course of her 44 year career she played opposite the greatest stars of the age —Barrymore, Gable, Bogart, Tracy, Bette Davis, Judy Garland, William Powell, Jean Harlow.
There (above) she is with Sydney Greenstreet and Bogie in Across the Pacific. But, though Astor was the second, or third lead, she was and remained a STAR.
Offscreen, she was also quite the femme. Picture this. Astor’s second husband, one Dr. Franklin Thorpe, casually opens a dresser drawer one evening, discovers a leather-bound volume and begins to read.
“…remarkable staying power. I don’t see how he does it….His powers of recuperation are amazing, and we made love all night long…It all worked perfectly, and we shared our fourth climax at dawn.”
Thorpe knew immediately that the “he” was not him. “It seems that George is just hard all the time…I don’t see how he does it, he is perfect.” The entry from Palm Springs went, “Ah, desert night — with George’s body plunging into mine, naked under the stars.”
The “George” here is playwright George S. Kaufman, and if you’ve ever seen a picture of him you would have to question Astor’s taste in men. Well, she was 30 at the time, and Kaufman (then 47) was quite the man for her
By this time, Astor had been making movies in Hollywood for 14 years.
After appearing in silents, she moved on into “talkies” with 1930’s Ladies Love Brutes. It was during her silent movie period when she appeared in 1926’s Don Juan opposite John Barrymore, and decided to become the actor’s young mistress.
The sensational breakup of Astor’s marriage to Thorpe thanks to her affair with Kaufman actually resulted in a career boost. The actress’ best work from 1936 to the late Forties included her unforgettable turn as Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon. Also, she appeared in William Wyler’s Dodsworth and played a deviously self-sacrificing mother in the Bette Davis starring vehicle, 1941’s The Great Lie, for which Astor won a best supporting actress Oscar.
Astor’s fast-lane life (four husbands in all, various lovers, alcoholism, many visits to a psychiatrist) took its toll. By the early Fifties, her star status had slipped to supporting part player. Her last movie was Robert Aldrich’s Hush, Hush…Sweet Charlotte in 1964 after which she exploited her talent as a fiction writer.
Mary Astor died 1987 at the age of 87. A memorable actress and, certainly, a most literate mistress.