Mary Astor

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I think "laconic" is a good word for John Ford and for his technique of direction. [...] Very Irish, a dark personality, a sensitivity which he did everything to conceal, but once he said to me while I was doing a scene with Ray Massey, "Make it scan, Mary." And I said to myself, "Aha! I know you now!".

Mary Astor (born Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke; May 3, 1906 – September 25, 1987) was an American actress. Her career spanned several decades and include her performance as Brigid O'Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon (1941).


  • Tuesday night we had a dinner at ‘21’ and on the way to see Run Little Chillun he did kiss me—and I don’t think either of us remember much what the show was about. We played kneesies during the first two acts, my hand wasn’t in my own lap during the third. It’s been years since I’ve felt up a man in public, but I just got carried away. Afterwards we had a drink someplace and then went to a little flat in 73rd Street where we could be alone, and it was all very thrilling and beautiful. Once George lays down his glasses, he is quite a different man. 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. I didn’t see much of anybody else the rest of the time—we saw every show in town, had grand fun together and went frequently to 73rd Street where he fucked the living daylights out of me.”
  • That guy over there, Ray Massey. He can put his boots under my bed any day of the week.
    • Responding, on the set of The Prisoner of Zenda, c. early 1937, to Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.'s query, as to who was more sexy: Fairbanks himself or the film's star, Ronald Colman; as recalled by Fairbanks in either 1970 or 1984; quoted in Conversations with Classic Film Stars: Interviews from Hollywood's Golden Era by James Bawden and Ron Miller (2016), p. 100.
  • Acting was my parents' idea for me. I happened to have a very pretty face. It was a very pretty face indeed, and it was sold to the highest bidder, that's all. I wanted to be a writer. I didn't know that until about 15 years ago, and I've been writing ever since. And that's about all I want to do.
    • Speaking to Betty Furness, circa fall 1976, on The Today Show; as quoted in "The Last Reel" by Cindy Erlich, Rolling Stone (December 16, 1976), p. 68

My Story: An Autobiography (1959)[edit]

  • My father often used to rebuke me by saying, "You're almost nine years old" (and then "ten," and then "eleven," and "twelve") "and you haven't learned a thing!" Well, here I was, fifty years old and I still hadn't learned a thing! My father's rebuke had always seemed to imply a promise that years, the very accumulation of years, would bring experience and understanding. So, at whatever age I was, I wished I were older. At seventeen I longed to be twenty-five. At twenty I wanted to be a woman of the world of thirty. At thirty I read that the French thought a woman did not reach full maturity of beauty and attractiveness until she was forty. Finally, at forty-five, I decided that the whole thing was a pack of lies. Where was the "serenity" that the years were to bring? Where was :"the cooling of passion's blood?" I realized that I, who leaned on so many people and things, had been leaning even on the abstraction of time.
    • pp. 10–11

A Life on Film (1971)[edit]

  • As far as acting was concerned, I simply did what I was told. This I was good at. For too many years I had searched for cues as to my father's disposition and desires. And this ability called forth praise of "How beautifully she takes direction!" You bet I did! In silents the direction went on during the action: after the camera turned, I'd hear, "Now look at him, Mary—that's it—you can't believe it! Tears come to your eyes—reach out and touch his arm—gently, gently." The more experienced actors would refuse anything but the minimum of offstage cueing, like perhaps, "You hear the door slam," but I wouldn't have been able to carry a whole scene without help. Not because I'd forget what we had done in rehearsal, but because I was afraid I'd do it wrong. You see, I was "stupid"—I really thought I was—and that was the role I played in life. It was very safe.
  • I think "laconic" is a good word for John Ford and for his technique of direction. No big deal about communication with John. Terse, pithy, to the point. Very Irish, a dark personality, a sensitivity which he did everything to conceal, but once he said to me while I was doing a scene with Ray Massey, "Make it scan, Mary." And I said to myself, "Aha! I know you now!".
  • Under contract, for some weird reason, you get typed, stuck into the same part, over and over again. In my case, it was mother roles. It isn't that I didn't like being a mother: I had two wonderful children of my own. But Metro's Mothers never did anything but mothering. They never had a thought in their heads except their children. They sacrificed everything: they were domineering or else the "Eat up all your spinach" type. Clucking like hens. Eventually every actor on the Metro lot called me Mom. I was in my late thirties and it played hell with my image of myself. And my femme fatale image of the Diary days went right down the Culver City drain.
    • On her exceedingly unsatisfying seven years spent under contract to MGM; p. 171
  • There is a kind of attitude, a manner of speaking, a look in the eye, the kind of smile you get, the embrace from a director or producer that carries the most depressing hypocrisy: "Hey! You know you're still looking pretty sexy!" "Wow, you still got it, you know!" "You haven't got a worry in the world—you can be right up there again." Translated, in means "The old girl still looks pretty good." But the old girl, now nearing fifty, is not a young girl, is not sexy and has no intention of competing with anybody. Competition has never been my thing, and I wasn't sure I wanted to be right up there again. [...] I wanted to put my craft, what I had learned, my experiences, to work. The myth of Sunset Boulevard, with the old glamorous actress looking at all her old movies in the sumptuous, decaying mansion, is just that. It may have been taken from a factual story of some kind of nut—but believe me, that isn't where old actresses go!
  • Yes, I do miss my "family." That great big family I accumulated over the years. [...]. We shared the ephemeral quality, the sense of impermanence of the medium we worked in. Often when a scene was being worked over in rehearsal, experimenting, nit-picking about words and moves, somebody would break up the over-seriousness with the question, "Who's waiting for this opera, anyway?" and we'd all laugh and realize it was all something that shouldn't be taken too seriously—and yet, if it wasn't taken seriously it wasn't any good. I miss these people who were part of my life—co-workers, co-actors. Friends. And I watch the new ones, the new breed, and when they do something great and fine, I'm proud. And when they do things that are blatantly bad, I am ashamed. But I can't disinherit them, for no matter how much they may feel that it is a whole new thing, it isn't really. It is a continuation. For what they have today was built upon the great and fine and the blatantly bad jobs that we did—we old movie-makers.

Quotes about[edit]

  • Another offering that is on the grim side but will hold your interest as a dramatic story in A Place Called Saturday, by Mary Astor. The former screen actress tells the story of a rape—and its effect on not only the victim, an Arizona housewife, but also on her husband and her "friends," one of whom, as it turns out, is "is going steady," as they used to say, with the rapist. There's everything here, from impotence to abortion, and Miss Astor is rapidly developing, from book to book, no mean ability at pulling out emotional stops.
    • Cleveland Amory, "Cosmo Reads the New Books," Cosmopolitan (January 1969), p. 8
  • When I think of Mary Astor, which is quite often, that prayer that was recited over our heads at College comes to mind. "Lord" (or some such), "who has granted that when two or three are gathered together in Thy Name, Thou wilt grant their requests . . ." And I have thought how strange it is, and how indisputable, that when two or three who love the cinema are gathered together, the name of Mary Astor always comes up, and everybody agrees that she was an actress of special attraction, whose qualities of depth and reality always seemed to illuminate the parts she played. And all this in spite of—or because of—the fact that she was never exactly a star. [...] [She] conceive[d] of her performance from the start in the terms the author laid down, not in terms of her own personality. This is why every performance she gave has the ring of truthfulness and the depth of reality. She was never a good liar.
    • Lindsay Anderson, "Mary Astor", Sight and Sound (Fall 1990), pp. 237–238
  • Nobody gave me anything. I had to fight to do scripts and fight not to do scripts and go on suspension and sue, and that's what saved me. Take Mary Astor. I had to fight to get her into The Great Lie, and she won the Oscar, and then did The Maltese Falcon and had a whole new career. She was beautiful, and a fine actress, but she could never be sure of that, because she was so beautiful that everything was handed to her right from the beginning only because of her beauty. So that led to insecurity and drinking and terrible scandals, and she became her own worst enemy.
    • Bette Davis, as quoted in "The Gothic Miss Davis" by Bernard Drew, American Film (September 1, 1976), p. 24
  • Mary Astor said nothing but stared a lot over the top of her glasses, and I thought this was a woman that no one will get close to. To my surprise she asked everyone to autograph the front page of her script. She was collecting autographs, she said, from every television play she had ever done. It was the first intimation of what it took me a long time to realize: She nearly always likes the people she works with. What I had taken to be offhandedness was her way of covering her terror of live television. Anyway, in that ill-lit ballroom, there she was, a good deal older than when she had won her Academy Award but not much changed; the darkly red hair in the mannish cut, that profile, the freckles, eyes the color of cracked hazelnuts. And the unique voice, a cello voice, Edith Cortright's voice in Dodsworth, a voice that has a trick to it: It can make a banal line seem intelligent; it has had experience doing that.
  • Mary is un-actressy, though, herself, one of the least actressy actresses I have ever known. She is no more given to ostentatious behavior than she is to big hats. In fact, the impression she gives is more that of a successful woman lawyer; that has something to do with her native intelligence. [...] [A]s a person there is so little sham in her that you wonder at her spending forty years working in artificial light. It has always been the work she likes and not the limelight. "Let's work," she says at rehearsal and if there is too much chat about it, "Let's get back to work."
    • Elliott, op. cit., p. ix

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