Mary Astor wrote one of the best “movie star” autobiographies when she spoke intimately of the film industry and the studio system, but with a surprisingly analytical and objective voice. Mary Astor – A Life on Film (NY: Delacorte Press, 1971) presents a world that no longer exists, revealed through the sharp eyes of an intelligent woman with a gift for writing that is rare among biographies and autobiographies of Hollywood’s great players.
Today we turn the blog over to Miss Astor.
On transitioning from silent to sound film:
“There was much talk about ‘talking pictures,’ and most people thought that it would be a loss to an art form. It was felt that instead of being more realistic, it would be a sort of two-dimensions…Theatre had sound, and color and three dimensions, and true reality. Actors from the theater had difficulty in the movies—it was a real translation—and a movie-trained actor rarely made it in the theater. There was a little something called sustaining a scene which a film actor was never called upon to do. His acting was done in bits and pieces…But soon we were to be supplied with that most expressive organ of emotion: the larynx.” (pp. 62-63)
“For while we did not have to adhere as strictly to the words of a script, the words were there, and had to be learned and spoken. Sometimes when a scene was going well and a pair of actors were in step we would add something or take a different tack. Today it’s called improvisation.” (p.74)
The movies had sound now, but because they had sound, the “sound stages” had to be kept quiet during filming.
“I can remember I had difficulty adjusting to the deathly silence after I started making sound pictures; it was disconcerting, a hollow void. That pleasant murmur, the director’s voice saying little helpful things, ‘fine, now you hear footsteps—and freeze!” (p. 74)
On being isolated in Hollywood while the Depression destroyed lives just outside the studio walls:
“The national situation was tragic, but it wasn’t our tragedy. It was something that was happening ‘out there’ and wasn’t it awful, but did you read Variety today? People stood in line at the employment agencies but they also stood in line at the theaters.” (p.81)
“These were the years called by the extravagant name of the Golden Years, maybe because nobody ever had it so good as the movie-makers. In our fortress of films we were safe from dust bowls and grinding poverty, breadlines and alphabet agencies.” (p. 109)
On the peculiar subliminal tossing away of one’s personal past when a star was born:
“It was as though actors’ lives began the day they got their first check for acting, and to speak of parents and peers, of schools, of activities in other lines of business would decrease the actors, lessen them as individuals. Even their beginnings were spoken of as discoveries rather than as strivings on their part. They might have had hard times, small parts, done a little starving; but it was never spoken of as growth, of learning, of becoming. They had always been there, fully developed, just waiting for the spotlight to pick them up and reveal their talent.” (p.81)
On her MGM mother roles:
“I was in my late thirties, and so it played hell with my image of myself. And my femme fatale image of the Diary days [she refers to the famous scandal of her diary made public and nearly destroyed her career] went right down the Culver City drain.” (p. 171)
On the creativity of acting:
“I could form my boundaries in the air, the proscenium, the limits wherein I could move—and they were felt as though I could reach out and touch them.” (p.115)
In “Thousands Cheer (1943)”:
“I played the mother of Kathryn Grayson, a very lovely girl with a fine coloratura soprano. She was quite fascinating in her total concentration on music. Often we stood together in front of the camera waiting for the lighting to be set, saying nothing. Kitty would have a vague, lost look on her face and I’d whisper, ‘Sing Kitty Cat!’ and out it would pour—the song she’d been singing in her mind—no beginning, no hesitation, just another breath, the middle of an aria, perhaps. It was like squeezing a Mama doll.” (p.173)
On modern film (of the late 1960s and early 1970s):
“…no one longed for innovation, for change, more than I did, for I was often up to my knees in dreck. What troubles me is the direction that the changes and innovations have taken. For they are just as drecklich and boring in their own way.” (p. 187)
“I admire the young film-makers for they try new things, new concepts, but I think they are just as much in danger of getting trapped in clichés as at any time in film-making history. Audiences will get just as tired of people wrestling in bed as they did of Tom Mix kissing his horse.” (pp 186-187)
“We need identification that can purge but not lower one’s spirit…This is not accomplished by shotgun stimulation. Multiple action, strobe lighting, flashing, psychedelic color, split second subliminal outs. It’s exciting, yes, but very tiring…Linear action can accomplish much more. It can build interest and tension, and then resolve that tension by something satisfying or thought-provoking.” (p. 92).
“To ‘tell it like it is’ is an impertinence, because it just isn’t, not everywhere. Therefore, it become propagandizing.” (p. 93)
“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 blatantly bad jobs we did—we old movie-makers.” (p. 219)
We've mentioned other quotes from this book in this previous post on Golden Age Perspectives of Film Sex and Violence. This marvelous book is currently out of print, but check your library. Her previous book, My Story-An Autobiography was published in 1959 and covers more about her personal life. She also wrote several novels.
It is in A Life on Film where she leaves us with the remark most quoted: “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?”
This post is my contribution to the Mary Astor Blogathon, sponsored by Tales of the Easily Distracted, and Silver Screenings. Please have a look at the other blogs participating in this fun event to pay tribute to a wonderful actress and a remarkable lady.