Oscar Actors: Astor, Mary

Mary Astor is best remembered for her performance as Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon in 1941, opposite Bogart.  In the same year, she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her portrayal of concert pianist Sandra Kovak in The Great Lie, which co-starred Bette Davis.

Astor began her long motion picture career as a teenager in silent movies of the early 1920s. When talkies arrived, her voice was initially considered too masculine and she was off the screen for a year. After she appeared in a play with Florence Eldridge, film offers came in, and she was able to resume her career in talking pictures.

In 1936, her career was nearly destroyed by scandal.  Her affair with playwright George S. Kaufman branded her an adulterous wife (by her ex-husband) in a custody fight over her daughter.  But she overcame this and other obstacles in her private life, and achieved great success on screen.

Astor was a MGM contract player through most of the 1940s and continued to work in film, TV, and on stage until her retirement in 1964.

She authored five novels and her autobiography was a bestseller, as was her later book, A Life on Film, which was about her career.

Astor was born as Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke on May 3, 1906 in Quincy, Illinois, the only child of Otto Ludwig Langhanke and Helen Marie de Vasconcellos. Both of her parents were teachers. Her German father emigrated to the U.S. from Berlin in 1891 and taught German at Quincy High School until the U.S. entered World War I.  Later on, he took up farming. Astor’s mother, who had always wanted to be an actress, taught drama. Astor was home-schooled and was taught to play the piano by her father.

Beauty Contests
In 1919, Astor sent a photograph of herself to a beauty contest in Motion Picture Magazine, becoming a semifinalist. When Astor was 15, the family moved to Chicago, Illinois, where her father taught German in public schools. Astor took drama lessons and appeared in amateur stage productions. The following year, she sent another photograph to Motion Picture Magazine, this time becoming a finalist and then runner-up in the national contest. Her father then moved the family to New York City, in order for his daughter to act in motion pictures. He managed her affairs from 1920 to 1930.

Manhattan photographer Charles Albin saw her photo and asked her to pose for him. The Albin photographs were seen by Harry Durant of Famous Players-Lasky and Astor was signed to a six-month contract with Paramount Pictures. Her name was changed to Mary Astor during a conference among Paramount chief Jesse Lasky, film producer Walter Wanger, and gossip columnist Louella Parsons.

Astor’s first screen test was directed by Lillian Gish, who was impressed with her recitation of Shakespeare. She made her debut at age 14, in the 1921 film      “Sentimental Tommy,” but her small part in a dream sequence was cut out, and Paramount let her contract lapse. She then appeared in some shorts based on famous paintings, such as the 1921 two-reeler “The Beggar Maid.”

John Barrymore

Her first feature movie was John Smith, followed by The Man Who Played God, both in 1922.  In 1923, she and her parents moved to Hollywood. She was again signed by Paramount, this time to a one-year contract at $500 a week. After some movies, John Barrymore saw her photo in a magazine and wanted her cast in his upcoming movie. On loan-out to Warner, she starred with him in  Beau Brummel (1924). The older actor wooed Astor, but their relationship was constrained by Astor’s parents’ unwillingness to let the couple spend time alone together; Mary was only 17 and legally underage. The secret engagement ended because of the Langhankes’ interference and Astor’s inability to escape their authority; meanwhile Barrymore became involved with Astor’s fellow WAMPAS Baby Star Dolores Costello, whom he later married.

In 1925, Astor’s parents bought land known as “Moorcrest” in the hills above Hollywood. The Langhankes lived lavishly off of Astor’s earnings, but kept her a virtual prisoner inside Moorcrest.