Friday, May 3, 2013

Mary Astor's Life on Film

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.



Anonymous said...

This book sounds like a must read, Jacqueline - and I had no idea that it was Mary Astor who had come up with that famous quote about the five stages in the life of an actor! I've just been watching one of her mother roles so am interested to hear that comment about how "it played hell with my image of myself". Was there any ghost writer involved, do you know? Judy Geater

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

It certainly is a great book for film buffs. Very well written, there was no ghost writer. She wrote it herself, along with an earlier autobiography dealing with her personal life, and several novels.

Silver Screenings said...

It's interesting how she talks about the "silence" when making talking pictures, and how she missed the vocal encouragement from the director.

Also, I loved that she used this word: drecklich

This sounds like a terrific read, and it really does look well written.

Thanks for participating in our blogathon!

Unknown said...

I would love to read her book about her backstage memories. I'm sure she has many fascinating stories to share with her fans.

John/24Frames said...

It's an interesting book, one of the better autobiographies. I read an old beat up stainedlibrary copy. It needs a reprint!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

This book definitely needs a reprint.

Unknown said...

IMHO, "Life on Film" and "My Story" are some of the most complete first person accounts of film history. Astor's career spanned so many different eras that her books read like a primer for cinema buffs. I have both of these, as well as one of her novels, "A Place Called Saturday" (not enamored with the plot, but I was interested to see how she fared with fiction), and am fascinated by what a wonderful, natural writer she was. There's such an ease about her wording, and she always manages to strike just the right tone. Clearly, writing was something she had great passion for, possibly even more than she had for acting. It's interesting to imagine what her career would have been like, were it not for her stage parents. I think she could made a very successful go at being an author.

Caftan Woman said...

Hearing the voice behind the face gives a greater appreciate of Mary`s art. You`ve certainly started the blogathon off in a fine way.

DorianTB said...

Jacqueline, you've started off our Mary Astor Blogathon to a terrific start! It was truly fascinating to read these excerpts from her first bio. I especially liked her discussion of Old Hollywood vs. what was then "New" Hollywood. "Sing Kitty Cat!" and "Mama Doll" might become catchphrases for me! :-) BRAVA on a wonderful post; now more than ever, I must get her books!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you, all. I agree that reading about Hollywood in Astor's voice is a wonderful education for any film buff.

Mildred Fierce, I agree writing seems to have been even a greater passion for acting, and I'll keep on the lookout for her novels, which unfortunately I've not read.

I love this bit here: "...and am fascinated by what a wonderful, natural writer she was. There's such an ease about her wording, and she always manages to strike just the right tone." So well put.

Aubyn said...

I agree with Silver Screenings that Astor's commentary on the newness of a silent set for talking pictures is fascinating. A great little window into what must have been an extremely confusing and turbulent time in movies. But I loved all the excerpts. Astor was an incredibly astute and thoughtful writer. I really want to get hold of this book, especially for the famous part where she pokes fun at the "romance" of kissing Clark Gable. Thanks for a great contribution to the blogathon!

Fritzi Kramer said...

Fantastic post! I will certainly have to check this one out. Thanks for the well-chosen passages and commentary. The final quote about the five stages of a movie actor's career has become one of my favorites.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Aubyn, I love that passage where she describes the kissing scene with Gable, breaking it down it its most technical aspects.

Thank you, Gwen. Astor was wonderfully articulate.

Karen said...

Such interesting quotes, especially about early Hollywood. And I love the last one, about the five stages in the life of an actor. Sad, but true!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Welcome, Karen. I agree, the five stages of an actor is such a great quote. Thanks for stopping by.

FlickChick said...

That woman had some life - her off-screen life beat anything she ever played in the movies!


What a wonderful post! Nothing better than getting inside Mary's mind and read her thoughts about filmmaking. My favorite part was the lovely anecdote on Kathryn Grayson.
Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you, the Kathryn Grayson bit was cute. Looking forward to your post.

Crocheted Lace said...

Silver Screenings commented on the word "drecklich" - that gives away MA's german heritage. :-)
I remember reading the autobio in highschool in the 70's. I was doing a term paper on John Barrymore. I don't think I got a good grade. I was so busy reading about everybody, I had to rush and did not make a very organized paper.

Kimberly J.M. Wilson said...

Astor was such an interesting and talented woman. Love her comments about the "new" generation of actors and filmmakers.

Yvette said...

I love this post, Jacqueline. I'm learning more and more about Mary Astor and finding her to be a fascinating woman both on and off the screen.

Her book sounds as if it's well worth reading, something I can't say about every actor's attempt to write about their lives.

Thanks for putting this together, I loved reading the quotes.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Kim and Yvette, getting to know Mary Astor through her own words is delightful. Her articulate objectivity on her craft really makes this book.

Kevin Deany said...

Great stuff, Jacqueline. I especially enjoyed the Kathryn Grayson anecdote.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks, Kevin. Yes, her Grayson bit was cute.

Citizen Screen said...

Fantastic idea, Jacqueline - loved reading Mary's tidbits, which even with the brief view, shows depth, a woman of substance. I must read both her books! Refreshing honesty is what I saw in the few examples you chose to include.


Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

I agree, Aurora, her comments were unfailingly honest, and most articulate.

Page said...

I read your wonderful post on Mary late last night but I was so blurry eyed by then that I thought it best to comment today. : )

As others have mentioned, Ms. Astor was very honest about her life and her experiences in working in the motion picture industry. Very refreshing. When I started reading her bio and every book available on her a few weeks ago, I was a bit surprised that she was so brutally honest but it certainly does help in understanding her struggles.

Loving this post in that you allow Mary to speak for herself on so many topics.

A perfect contribution to the Blogathon.


Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you, Page. Mary Astor was certainly honest, and we have her to thank for giving us insight into what working in the movies was like. I'm enjoying your series of biography posts on Mary, and encourage readers here to hop over and check it out.

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