Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Mary Astor (Bitch)/George Sanders (Blaggard)

This is the first in the "Bitches and Blaggards" series; monthly posts devoted to my favorite movie bad girls and rogues. A bitch is a selfish, malicious woman. A blaggard is a villain, a rogue and a black-hearted man. Both are bad, both are devastatingly alluring.

Mary Astor
Mary Astor is my favorite "movie bitch." Like a jagged shard of glass, she glitters, she shines, but she is hard and she can cut deep. As an actress, Mary Astor has few equals. Her first roles were of the Madonna type, but she soon found her niche playing ladies who were lethally lovely and never to be trusted.

Mary's two crowning "B" roles are Brigid O'Shaughnessy in "The Maltese Falcon" and Sandra Kovak in "The Great Lie."

Brigid O'Shaughnessy ("The Maltese Falcon")
Did you fall for Brigid's act the first time you saw this film? If you did, don't feel foolish, since a tough guy like Bogey's Sam Spade also fell hook, line and sinker. Her eyes are so moist, her voice trembles, she so needs the protection of a man like Sam Spade. How could he resist? Selfish, duplicitous, conniving, unrepentant and beautiful, she is the ultimate noir femme fatale. We really don't like her, but we can't take our eyes off of her, either.

Sandra Kovak ("The Great Lie")
This is Mary Astor's finest hour as the ultimate movie bitch. In "The Great Lie" Bette Davis (who can bitch with the best of them) steps aside and lets Astor steal the show. Davis' acting generosity to Mary Astor in this film is stunning. As the cold, selfish, brilliant pianist and party girl Sandra Kovak, Astor poaches George Brent's Pete from Bette's Maggie, impulsively marries him and manages to get pregnant by him before the two discover the marriage was not valid because Sandra's divorce from hubby #1 was not final. Pete, unaware of the pregnancy, feels he dodged a bullet, ditches Sandra and returns to true love Maggie before flying off into the unknown. Not wanting the child, Sandra willingly gives it to Maggie to raise before embarking on a successful world tour. Imagine the surprise of both gals when Pete returns home alive. He happily reunites with Maggie, who tells him that the child is theirs. Selfish Sandra decides she wants Pete for herself and holds the secret of the child's paternity over poor Maggie's head. Apparently, both natural mom and dad really don't want that kid, as Pete tells Sandra she can have the child, but he'll keep Maggie, thank you. Good thing Maggie wants the child, since Sandra doesn't want him without the father. Astor elevates screen acting to its highest art. She is amazing and was awarded 1941's Academy Award for the Best Supporting Actress.

Mary Astor had a long and varied career in Hollywood. She went from the perfect innocent in the 1920s, to the perfect sophisticate in the 1930s to the perfect bitch in the 1940s. She could be nice ("Dodsworth") and not so nice ("Red Dust"). Her playing was always delicate, incisive and refined.

Mary Astor's personal life proved to be even more dramatic than any film she ever made. Prodded into acting by oppressive parents who virtually held her a prisoner into her 20s, at age 18 she engaged in a passionate affair with the much older John Barrymore (until he ditched her for equally young Dolores Costello). She married four times, and, during a bitter child custody battle with husband #2, her private diary (which contained much purple prose and detailed a sexual affair with playwright George S. Kaufman) was exposed with much publicity. Later, she became disenchanted with Hollywood and struggled with alcoholism and several suicide attempts. She recovered and went on to write six novels, two autobiographies and kept her hand in acting on both stage and screen (her last appearance being in "Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte" with friend Bette Davis).

George Sanders
Suave, elegant, deadly - ah the magic of George Sanders. Was there ever a man so sophisticated, so cynical, so seemingly morally corrupt - yet so attractive? I can't think of any.

I am sure George Sanders played some nice men, but it's hard to think of him as anything but a rogue. My two favorite George Sanders roguish roles are Jack Favell in "Rebecca" and Addison DeWitt in "All About Eve."

Jack Favell ("Rebecca")
Jack Favell is a blaggard, plain and simple. As Rebecca's disreputable cousin (and Mrs. Danvers' partner in psychological crime), Sanders is a charmer with a capital "C". Joan Fontaine knows he's bad, but he sure seems nice - and much more fun than stuffy Maxim De Winter. She doesn't close the door in his face, even though she knows she should, and neither would any of us because you just know he'd never, ever be a bore. And besides, he was right, wasn't he?

Addison DeWitt ("All About Eve")
Addison DeWitt is probably one of the best written and best performed characters in the history of film. That's a pretty strong statement, but I stand behind it. George Sanders is perfection as the acid-tongued theater critic who knows all the players and all the angles and who has Eve Harrington's number right from the start. Sardonic and suave, I can't imagine any other actor who could do justice to Addison DeWitt. With a love of self that cannot be trumped by any feminine wiles, he is the perfect dinner guest and the most deadly of enemies. For his brilliant work he was awarded the 1950 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

The one Sanders role I long to see is his performance in "The Private Affairs of Bel Ami." As a rogue who climbs over a series of women to attain social prominence, it seems to be the ultimate George Sanders role (and Ann Dvorak is in it, too!). It is on VHS, but since my VCR melted long ago, I'll have to wait and hope it is either released on DVD or TCM decides to show it.

George Sanders' career lasted into the 1970s. Not only was he Hollywood's premier rogue ("The Ghost and Mrs. Muir" and "The Picture of Dorian Gray" are two other good examples), he was also Simon Templar of "The Saint" series.

Sanders personal life seemed to have mirrored his movie portrayals. Married four times (once to Zsa Zsa Gabor, once to Magda Gabor - I guess he liked the Gabor sisters), he titled his witty autobiography "Memoirs of a Professional Cad." In his later years, alcoholism and ill health eroded his will to live and, in 1972 he committed suicide, leaving behind these famous "last words" that could easily have been penned by Addison DeWitt: 
Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck.

Coming in February: Miriam Hopkins and Warren William.


Kimberly J.M. Wilson said...

Mary Astor could play a bitch really well. She sure had everyone along for the ride in The Maltese Falcon! As for her turn in The Great Lie--when you out-bitch Bette Davis you've accomplished something.

George Sanders was loathsome in Rebecca! You are so right about his turn as Addison DeWitt in All About Eve--though, I think he took a page out of Clifton Webb's acting book and watched Laura before taking on the role of Addison.

Mythical Monkey said...

This looks like a fun series. Like you, I am a big fan of both Mary Astor and George Sanders.

Caftan Woman said...

George Sanders good guys are as intriguing as his bad guys. If you get the chance check out "The Saint's Double Trouble" wherein George plays not only Simon Templar, but a lookalike gangster. Two George Sanders at once! It's almost too delicous to bear.

PS: The role George turned over to his brother Tom Conway was "The Falcon". Actually, he's really "The Saint" with a different name, but as a B movie aficianado, I couldn't let it rest.

FlickChick said...

Hi Kim: Well, Clifton Webb and Addison were seemingly separated at birth, but I would say Addison was tad more "manly" (if you know what I mean).

Irene Palfy said...

I can't say it often enough: I love George Sanders! Wonderful idea for a series!

whistlingypsy said...

Marsha, this is an intriguing idea for a series and a great way to begin the New Year. I’m a big fan of Mary Astor, both in silent and sound pictures, and loved her in Desert Fury. I’m also a big fan of George Sanders; with his voice of velvet he could persuade nearly anyone of nearly anything. Thanks for the suggestion of “The Private Lives of Bel Ami”, haven’t seen this one, and I look forward to your February installment

FlickChick said...

Thanks, Monkey! They were both superlative screen actors - first class all the way.

FlickChick said...

Why, Caftan Woman - what mistake? (wink wink). That's the beauty of the internet - here today, gone tomorrow! p.s thanks for setting me straight!

FlickChick said...

Thank you, Irene. The older I get, the more I love George. I now want to read his autobiography - and the bio written by his friend, Brian Aherne.

FlickChick said...

Thank you so much, Gypsy.I really do hope we get to see "The Private Affairs of Bel Ami" soon!

The Lady Eve said...

You couldn't have selected a better pair to launch your series (or picked two featured players I love more).

Mary Astor and Bette Davis are so good together in THE GREAT LIE that the viewer nearly forgets the film's silly premise (and the blandness of George Brent). And I love Mary's autobiographies. One is about her life mostly off screen, the other is about her career. Both excellent.

George Sanders is charming even in his most celebrated blaggard-ly roles - Favell and DeWitt. Such panache he had. One of his non-blaggard roles that I enjoy much is in Hitchcock's FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT. He and Robert Benchley are unbeatable as Joel McCrea's newspaper cronies in Europe. Sanders' character has a most odd last name: "Ffolliot" (there's a funny bit about the origins and spelling of his name, with Sanders having the final word: "One of my ancestors had his head chopped off by Henry VIII, and his wife dropped the [second] capital letter to commemorate the occasion.").

Great idea, great post. Can't wait for more...

FlickChick said...

Thanks, Lady Eve. I haven't seen Foreign Correspondent in years, and at the time I may have been focused on Joel McCrea (ahem...). But I'd love to revisit for Georgie now! I'll keep my eye out for it!

Dawn said...

I think Mary Astor, who was one of movies most memorable Femme Fatales, is a wonderful actress... I love every movie I see her in. I can not pick a favorite...

George Sanders, is growing on me.

I can not wait for what you have planned for Gary Cooper((sigh))

FlickChick said...

Hi Dawn - I'm taking my time on Gary Cooper - I want it to be just right (I think he deserves it, don't you?).

DorianTB said...

FlickChick, Bitches and Blaggards are an ingenious subject for a series, and I think our household favorites Mary Astor and George Sanders are the perfect pair to kick things off! I loved your post, and your particular focus on Mary Astor in THE GREAT LIE and THE MALTESE FALCON (though I wouldn't call that classic 1941 version of ...FALCON a "B" picture), and George Sanders in oh so many things! :-) Great job, FlickChick; I look forward to your Bitch and Blaggard for February!

On a related note, as a Sanders fan, you might enjoy Team Bartilucci's discussion of him in one of our earliest blog posts, FLICO SUAVE: AN ANALYSIS OF SUAVENESS IN MODERN SOCIETY AND FILM HISTORY! :-) Here's the link:


Grand Old Movies said...

Oddly enough, Mary Astor twice played perfect mothers, in "Meet Me in St Louis" and the 1949 "Little Women"; but you're right, she's much better as a bitch. My own favorite Astor role is the tramp she plays in Fred Zinneman's "Act of Violence," in which she not only gives a superlative performance, but is unrecognizable as a down-and-out prostitute. For any Astor fan, this film is a must-see (and it's on DVD).

Sanders also played nice guys, once even in a Hitchcock film ("Foreign Correspondent"), but his talent was also for bitchiness, guy-style. He's great in the 1946 "Picture of Dorian Gray," as Lord Henry, the epitome of suave cynicism (plus he looks superb in a top hat). I think the Sanders persona tended to hide what an excellent, and varied, actor he truly was.

Look forward to your next series entry!

Diane said...

This is going to be the best series yet. I just loved it and cannot wait for the others to follow.

FlickChick said...

Thank you, Dorian and thanks for the link. By the way - by "B" I meant "bitch" not B movie!

FlickChick said...

Grand Old Movies - well, I just have to track down "Act of violence." Mary is, indeed, aces in all that she did. She could be just the best mom and the most loving wife, but she nailed the nasty ladies best. Just a great actress.

As for "Picture of Dorian Gray" - Sanders is sure swell. Who knows if he was really a nice guy or not (Zsa Zsa said he was her favorite husband), but he also nailed the nasty boys.

FlickChick said...

Thank you, Diane I'm glad you enjoyed it.

ClassicBecky said...

Short but sweet from me -- one of your very best, FlickChick. I love Astor and Sanders (in different ways of course - LOL!) The Great Lie for Astor and All About Eve for Sanders are my first choice pics, which is pretty hard to do considering the other two. By the way, I love your title. Blaggard is a wonderful word!
Oh, and did you ever see Sanders in Somerset Maugham's "The Moon and Sixpence"? TCM finally showed it a few weeks ago -- it is rarely shown. As the Gaugin-like artist, Sanders plays probably the meanest man with the least conscience I have ever seen. He's marvelous!

FlickChick said...

Thank you, Becky. I have not seen Moon & Sixpence, but I will definitely keep my eye out for it. Nothing is better than an bad George Sanders!