My current Top 5

My current Top 5

6/22/2011

Number 73: Mary Astor as Sandra Kovak in "The Great Lie" (Best Supporting Actress Ranking)

The first time I ranked all the winners in this category, Mary Astor made it to position number 58 but this time I was less generous. The last time I appreciated a certain level of entertainment that she showed in her role but this time I found myself only being distracted by her over-the-top acting that consisted mostly of camp effects than anything else.

In The Great Lie, Mary Astor played Sandra Kovak, a famous pianist, a temperamental diva – and the secret mother of Pete Van Allen’s (Bette Davis’s husband) baby. The Great Lie is one of those typical, melodramatic movies from the 40s – in fact, even worse and only the involvement of actresses like Bette Davis and Mary Astor helped to get this picture some serious reputation. But even those two actresses aren’t able to turn The Great Lie into something better. I admit that the movie does entertain – it’s the kind of movie that makes Bette Davis-fans scream with joy while all fans of old Hollywood movie-acting also won’t be disappointed. It’s a two-hour-long bitch-fight between two skilled actresses – surely more than enough people are willing to love this movie just for this. But I am not among them.

The Great Lie is full of clichés and unbelievable over-the-top moments. And Mary Astor’s performance fits very well in the context of the movie – over the top and unbelievable. In her first scene we see her in full diva mode – complaining about everything, slapping her servants and acting superior to everyone around her. Sorry, but Mary Astor is not the kind of woman to pull that off – there are actresses who are believable as a diva, but Mary Astor simply misses that certain quality. In her performance, it all comes actress as pretentious and somewhat laughable.

She is always better whenever the movie doesn’t force her into this kind of performance – in her more quiet moments, she is able to communicate her character’s feelings and thoughts much more effectively than in any loud, over-the-top scene. She does have a great moment when she looks at the pictures of her child but she lets it go so quickly that all the effect is ruined before it truly started.

Her biggest success and probably the reason why the movie achieves a level of entertainment is her chemistry with Bette Davis – her acting choices may too often be exaggerated but these two actresses still know how to work together. A rather astonishing fact is that Mary Astor was not overshadowed by Bette Davis – but the reason is less Mary Astor but rather Bette Davis who is surprisingly pale and boring as the loving wife. Mary Astor has the juicier part, that’s for sure, but she, too, suffers from a lack of screen presence and rather negligible acting.

What is probably the movie’s highpoint is unfortunately also Mary Astor’s low point – her scenes with Bette Davis in a little cabin in the desert where Sandra is supposed to have the baby that the other woman will raise as her own. Mary Astor’s failed attempts to portray a true diva become very noticeable here – her constant complaining, her behaviour that changes all the time from grown woman to little child and especially her
incredibly over-the-top screaming scene are a complete failure. Again, I won’t deny that Mary Astor’s performance works extremely well in the context of the whole movie – but that theatrical, over-the-top style is just not for me, especially when that’s all the actress has to do. There is no real character, no real emotion, it’s mostly just being a bitch.

It’s a thankless part that Mary Astor tried too hard to fill with life – but some successful line deliveries to Bette Davis or some more powerful quiet moments can’t make up for all the over-the-top choices she did in The Great Lie.

10 comments:

Louis Morgan said...

I must say I am a little surprised, but I have not seen her yet so I don't know if I agree or not. What did you think of her in the Maltese Falcon, also from this year?

Anonymous said...

Agree on her being melodramatic and over the top,but would've put her little higher actually.

Sage Slowdive said...

C'mon Fritz, worse then Miyoshi?

Fritz said...

Yep! :-)

Francesco said...

Great analysis which can be accepted even by fans.
In fact I really love Mary Astor and I'm fascinating by this actress. So I see her precisely as one of the best diva/bitch in the movies's history and when I laugh watching her performance it's with her not againts her, if you see what I mean. I find her both authoritarian and spectacular in The Great Lie and, for me, this works so much.
About the pale Davis's performance (who is wearing the worth costums of her carreer) it was intentional, I believe. They have worked together to make Sandra the "pivot" of the movie.

About Astor I would have nominated her for this role, but also this year for Maltese Falcon (leading). And, as supporting, for Red Dust (1933), Dodworth (1936), Zenda (1937) Palm Beach Story (1942)and Return to Peyton Place (1961).

And I find the Umeki'performance very moving ... :-)

dinasztie said...

I also feel that Myoshi should have already been ranked. In fact, she should have been the first one or Renée Zellweger (Why do I hate her so much?

HarlowFan said...

She should have been nominated in support for Hush...Hush,Sweet Charlotte. Her performance is a master class in subtle poignancy. By the way, I LOVE her in The Great Lie!

Michael Patison said...

I agree with everybody else about Miyoshi, but you've already said you liked her so whatever. I'm bringing up Astor in The Maltese Falcon again. What'd you think of her there? I personally think she should've won n 1941, but for TMF instead of TGL.

Fritz said...

I'm not sure, I'm not a big fan of hers...I cannot really remember her in TMF and at the moment, the ladies from The Little Foxes are much fresher in my memory so I give them the edge.

tlcarpenter3 said...

Astor's performance is so damned entertaining, it embodies for me exactly what a supporting Actress win should be, but then I can't believe you have Patty Duke at number 1. However, having said that, I LOVE your whole blog and the concept of discussing Oscar performances so you are one of the few people that I have no problem disagreeing with - because you are awesome.