BEAUTIFUL LIAR: Deceit, Morality & the Radiant Intelligence of Mary Astor

On August 27, 2012

The first thing you need to know is that she’s lying. Every word that comes out her mouth is a ploy, a desperate improvisation, a massé shot aimed at a distant corner pocket.


The second thing you need to know about Mary Astor’s character in “Smart Woman” (1932) is that lying is the only option she has left. Back home, freshly arrived from a European vacation, she’s just been told by her husband that he plans to leave her for another woman.

Running out of time, Astor makes a blink-of-an-eye decision that sets the machinery of this drawing room comedy into motion. She realizes the only way she can win back her wayward husband and restore the sanctity of her home is through deceit. The Big Lie may be the only tool she’s got to re-establish the moral order of her world.

Yes, this is a deliciously ironic conceit, and “Smart Woman” follows it to its end -  though, like its heroine, we’re not entirely sure how successfully we’re going to land.

Taking a bold, impulsive risk, Astor invites her rival to visit the family manor in Long Island. The scene, in which she talks directly to the woman her husband is leaving her for, is embedded here below. It’s transfixing, a tour de force of acting, and something of a lost treasure.

“The test of a first-rate intelligence,” F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote, “is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” And to observe Astor alternately cajole, flatter and otherwise manipulate her husband into adopting her idea is to witness the kind of acting virtuosity that, through the slightest gestures, effortlessly suggests simultaneous levels of mental activity. You might, I suppose, want to spend some time analyzing Astor’s technique and her various bits of business, but only because they never called attention to themselves in the first place. Because Astor never once roils the smooth surface of naturalism, we long to know how she did it. This is acting right on the edge of living – acting, by Fitzgeraldian standards, of first-rate intelligence.

I love the authenticity of this scene: how credulous and obtuse her husband (played by Robert Ames) is, how Astor neutralizes him by shifting her tone to the adult and going serious on him. (“That’s understood,” she says, looking him in the eye, promising him a divorce she never intends to grant; her tonality is so right on the fool immediately swallows the bait.)

Now Astor must drag herself through the machinations of her own duplicity and actually speak to the gold-digger who intends to steal her husband away. Director Gregory La Cava stages this scene perfectly, starting with a medium shot, cutting away to a skeptical and then smugly satisfied Ames, and finally moving in with a closeup of Astor’s face (hidden from her husband’s view, the mask removed), which is now an intersection of pain, fleeting disgust, abject humiliation and a kind of sad, desperate courage. In Astor’s delicate hands, it’s cinematic incandescence – a life, hung tremulously in the balance, captured on screen.

“Smart Woman,” an obscure Pre-Code, is shown occasionally on Turner Classic Movies, and is currently available only among file-sharing internet film buffs. It’s the kind of movie one stumbles upon doing one’s due diligence, scouring the back catalogue in search of forgotten gems. Such delights of discovery animate any film lover’s existence. It certainly impelled me one into a search for other Mary Astor titles from the 1930s. My current state of research has so far brought me to “Red Dust,” “Dodsworth” and “Other Men’s Women” – all very much worthy of your time.

Even the most cursory overview of Mary Astor’s life points to the inescapable fact that hers was an unhappy one. Prodded into beauty contests at a young age by stage parents, whisked off to Hollywood at the age of 14, she told one biographer, “I was never totally involved in movies. I was just making my father’s dream come true.”

In 1949, after 20 years of battling alcoholism (a period that encompasses all of her early sound pictures), she admitted herself to a Hollywood sanitarium to dry out. Just two years later, she attempted suicide – unsuccessfully – and subsequently made a conversion to Roman Catholicism. Stricken by a heart ailment, she moved into a small cabin on the grounds of the Motion Picture Country Home, where she lived out the rest of her days and died – of a heart attack – in 1987 at the age of 81.

These are the bare facts, but they are enough to make one sigh.

Astor’s view of her own career said it all:  “There are five stages in the life of an actor: Who’s Mary Astor? Get me Mary Astor. Get me a Mary Astor type. Get me a young Mary Astor. Who’s Mary Astor?”

Astor’s screen persona would eventually harden into bitchy upper-class roles (“The Great Lie,” “Midnight”). Her signal achievement is, of course, the iconic noir femme fatale, Brigid O’Shaughnessy, in John Huston’s “The Maltese Falcon.” By the 1940s, Astor’s looks had faded sufficiently that she might convince as a duplicitous, globe-trotting vamp whose veneer of glamour had worn away just enough to reveal the cheap crook underneath.

Astor’s O’Shaughnessy is a woman so deeply untrustworthy that she has come to personify in modern terms an eternal principle: the femme fatale, the Vamp, the Whore of Babylon, the Salem Witch (pick your poison). In other words, the woman as an archetypal, omnipresent, supernatural embodiment of evil, the woman as devil. (To be thus demonized is often the fate of “smart” women, whose multivalent complexities are regarded as a threat to the straightforward male view of the world.) To hear Dashiell Hammett (through Bogie) speak of them, they are a mortal threat not only to his professional ethics, but, by implication, to the very foundations of civilization.

However, in the Pre-Code universe of “Smart Woman,” a woman’s ability to dissemble, to scheme, to think on her feet, is cause for celebration; in fact it’s what sets the world back on its moral axis. This genteel comedy of manners, written by Myron C. Fagen and adapted to the screen by Salisbury Field, is a moral fable that owes much to Beaumarchais’ “The Marriage of Figaro,” and it, too, moves us toward a humane, Mozartean vision of forgiveness and the restoration of domestic harmony.

There is much more to cherish in this movie. An English playboy nobleman played by John Halliday (who attempts to seduce Astor onboard a trans-Atlantic liner in the film’s first scene)  is a delight. He, too, is invited by Astor to the country estate. A somewhat jaded roué, his noblesse oblige is engaged almost by reflex, as he connives with Astor to save her marriage. Regarding himself with a sad irony, he swallows his romantic disappointment to come to her aid.

In this and other ways,  “Smart Woman,” though it evokes Enlightenment comedy and alludes to modern lifestyles (read: divorce), is at its foundation a deeply-rooted defense of the traditional values of love and marriage, as well as a defense of the wronged, the injured, and those who are – except for their wits – powerless in the world. It proposes a chivalric, though not quite Quixotic, conception of ideal behavior.

It also has the grace and tact to know that we’ve been over this ground before, so its ellipses seem apt, even courteous. When people talk about “sophisticated” comedies, they seem to mean those in which everyone speaks in plummy mid-Atlantic accents, wears evening clothes and uses the pluperfect tense (not that there’s anything wrong with that). But “Smart Woman” is truly sophisticated in that it trusts the audience to fill in much that has been left out – the gallantry is discreet and understated, and even the moral grandeur of the denouement, in which the husband must beg for forgiveness, is implied but never shown. This is a moral comedy streamlined for our pleasure, like an art deco locomotive.

What is bracingly modern, also, is Astor’s performance. Here, her acting is so lively, transparent and completely lacking in gimmickry or stagey affect that it seems inconceivable that she was a product of the Hollywood studio system. Poised on the edge of the moment, Astor’s vividness, her restlessness and vulnerability, her availability to others and to us, are so spontaneous and immediate that she doesn’t seem like she’s acting at all. It’s a shame, because Astor never showed such freshness or alacrity once she was shunted off, typecast, into the ungrateful secondary roles that made up the third act of her career.

Though she defends her home ferociously, Astor’s heroine never once loses her poise or bares her teeth. Her’s is a perfectly demure, well-bred profile in courage, all in keeping with the lost world of good manners this kind little film takes us into, where hearts can still be smashed as easily as tea cups, if they would kindly consent to it.

Astor will have none of it. “Smart Woman,” indeed — and a touch divine as well. Long after this movie is over, you realize that preceding the brilliant, desperate flyer that launches Astor into her web of lies, was an act of pure forgiveness. Whether he deserved it or not, she’d already taken the bastard back.

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After finishing this piece, I was very grateful to find Imogen Smith’s brief but very comprehensive and illuminating bio/appreciation of Mary Astor, available here.


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