This post is part of the Mary Astor Blogathon, co-hosted by yours truly and the lovely & talented Tales of the Easily Distracted. It runs May 3-10, 2013.

Mary Astor (right) is sick of Bette Davis' cheerful smothering.

Mary Astor (right) is sick of Bette Davis’ cheerful smothering.

Don’t you love a clever and witty antagonist?

In a pivotal scene of the 1941 drama The Great Lie, the antagonist, Mary Astor, is handed a cocktail. She responds brightly, “Oh, I shouldn’t. But how I love to do things I shouldn’t.”

Her demeanor is light, but her words are heavy. She’s directing her comments to her on-screen rival, Bette Davis, who sits across from Astor in this scene, worried that Astor is going to publicly reveal a secret.

The Great Lie offers us a refreshing casting switch. Davis is the self-sacrificing protagonist, while Astor, in her Oscar-winning role, is the unpredictable antagonist. (We’d love to call Astor a villain, the way she sports her glitzy I’m-An-Important-Musician cape.) She relishes the thought of taking everything Davis cares about, then squishing Davis with designer heels.

The Great Lie is a melodrama about two smart and capable women who vie for the affections of the unremarkable George Brent. Brent spurns Astor in favour of Davis, but Astor holds the mother of all trump cards: she’s pregnant with Brent’s child.

No sooner does she reveal this juicy morsel to Davis than Brent disappears while travelling on official government business to South America. Believing Brent to be dead, a grieving Davis convinces Astor to let her raise his child. This would allow Astor to remain unencumbered so she can concentrate on her career as a concert pianist.

It was Davis who insisted Astor play the part of the callous, self-absorbed musician. Astor, who was a pianist in her own right, was the perfect choice for this role. When she plays Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, she attacks the piano keys as though she’s beating them into musical submission.

(Digression: Composer Max Steiner had fun with this concerto, weaving elements of the piece into the film’s soundtrack.)

Astor is fascinating as the temperamental artist who can be charming with those she likes or wants to use. She is the very definition of a spoiled, indulged celebrity. In one scene she sniffs, “Take this tray away. I hate the smell of food.”

Part of the movie takes place in the Middle-of-Nowhere, Arizona. To preserve the reputation of Astor’s character (she is a single woman in the 1940s, after all), Davis whisks her away to Arizona to await the arrival of the baby. Davis is over-the-moon excited; Astor becomes increasingly bad-tempered. She’s on a dreadful diet, she can’t drink, she has no diversions. Control-freak Davis is even keeping track of the number of cigarettes smoked per day. We, as viewers, start to feel a little sympathetic towards Astor. Those conditions would drive anyone crazy.

Our favorite scene is the one where Davis visits Astor and pitches the idea to raise Astor’s child herself. Astor’s face is an exquisite study in acting: you can see her disbelief, then skepticism, and finally her reluctant agreement. Astor says very little in this scene – Davis does most of the talking – but you can feel what Astor’s thinking. Davis’ plan is ridiculous and improbable, even for 1941, but because Astor believes in it, we believe in it.

The Great Lie may not have a storyline that appeals to everyone. (For Pete’s sake – they’re fighting over George Brent??) However, we encourage you to see an exceptional actress in her well-deserved Oscar-winning performance.

The Great Lie: starring Bette Davis, George Brent, Mary Astor. Directed by Edmund Goulding. Written by Lenore Coffee. Warner Brothers, 1941, B&W, 110 mins.


Happily blogging about old movies and using the royal "We".

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