That great actress Mary Astor has a transcendent moment in The Great Lie, the movie for which she won a well-deserved Academy Award. She’s Sandra Kovac, a concert pianist used to the good life, who finds herself, pregnant and miserable, in a house without electricity in the middle of the Arizona desert, and under the autocratic care of romantic rival and all-around killjoy Maggie Patterson (Bette Davis). Maggie’s been monitoring Sandra’s diet and health like Nurse Ratched on steroids (replying as to why she, Maggie, can smoke and not Sandra: “I’m not special.”) One night Sandra sneaks off to the kitchen to indulge herself in an outright Babylonian feast of all the wrong things to eat. “Ham, onions, butter, everything the doctor said you couldn’t have,” tsk-tsks schoolmistressry Maggie as she surveys the incriminating spread. Not to mention the final guilty revelation: “Pickles, oh Sandra!” At this, Sandra bridles. She’s had it with healthy eating. “I’m not one of you anemic creatures who can get nourishment from a lettuce leaf,” she cries out in a mood of 1776-style rebellion; “I’m a musician, I’m an artist! I have zest and appetite, and I like food!”
Of all the splendid, quotable movie moments we treasure, this one we take to heart. Maybe you don’t realize it, but for us ladies who like to lunch, Mary Astor just saved our lives. Note the conjunction here: I’m an artist and I eat. She has a soul and it needs to be nourished. That puts her in another league from those size-one-and-a-half gals, who live on nothing but yogurt and beets and who can wrap themselves in clothing the size of a man’s handkerchief. They’re that way because they don’t create. The divine afflatus does not reside within their interiors; hence they don’t have to fill them. Those of us who have to work at pulverizing the pounds, and who become weak-kneed at the sight of a double-decker BLT—just remember, that’s the artist in us calling. To paraphrase Whitman, we are large and contain multitudes. All us bloggers, meaning all us writers, can understand that. Like Emerson’s Harp, we tremble to the cosmic breath, and sustaining that cosmic quivering requires a healthy caloric intake.
You might think from the above-described scene that the title of Warner Bros.’ 1941 melodrama The Great Lie refers to food faddism (honest! It’s OK to eat!), but it’s actually a classic Woman’s Film: two ladies, the Bitch and the Nice Girl, played respectively by Astor and Davis, square off for the love of a Man (here George Brent). Usually the women’s weapons are sex, looks, youth, money, or combinations thereof, such as used by the combatants in 1939’s The Women. Sometimes it can be emotional blackmail, as used by the unseen wife in Now, Voyager. But in The Great Lie the weapon is the contents of Mary Astor’s womb. A baby is used by the Nice Girl as the leverage to hold onto the Man, by passing off the infant as her own—hence the Lie of the title—until the Bitch, who’s the actual producer of the child, reappears at the climax, with the intention (being that she’s the Bitch) of claiming both man and bundle of joy. But the film pivots on what might be called its middle act, when the Bitch and Nice Girl call a temporary truce and meet on a windy plain in rain-parched Arizona to oversee the baby’s birth. That’s when TGL really kicks into high gear.
The film first has to wend its way through a complicated plot set-up before we come to that central confrontation. Sandra has married Maggie’s object of desire, pilot and playboy Peter van Allen (Brent), only to discover that her marriage is not legal, as her divorce decree from her earlier marriage was not yet final. Pete takes advantage of this opportunity to slip out of his liaison with Sandra—told to choose between re-marrying him and playing a concert in Philadelphia, Sandra decides to honor her contractual commitment—and then marries Maggie, who had broken off two earlier engagements because of Pete’s partying ways. Pete, however, has reformed, demonstrated by his flying a plane down to South America on government work. When the plane is reported lost and he’s believed dead, Maggie whisks now-pregnant-with-Pete’s-child Sandra to the wilds of Arizona to have the baby in secret, on condition that Sandra gives it up to Maggie to raise, while Maggie makes a financial settlement on Sandra. And thus do we get to what is the red meat of the woman’s film genre: two women together, battling, mano a mano, over women’s territory. What are the women actually battling over at this point? Not the man, as he’s thought dead; nor is it over the baby, since Sandra is perfectly willing to transfer it to Maggie. So what’s it all about?
Our own take is that what the two are battling over is the woman’s film’s essence—meaning, which Archetype do we prefer, the Nice Girl or the Bitch? Do we eat what’s good for us, or do we just like to eat?
We’ll be right up front in stating that our own preference in this movie is for the Bitch. It’s more than just a feeling of simpatico (deep calling to deep, if you will). Nor is it that Sandra is the ‘nicer’ person; that adjective clearly describes Maggie. But, drama-wise, the Bitch here is the more interesting character. There’s never a dull moment with the Bitch. We get that right away in the movie’s opening, the morning after a wild party in Sandra’s apartment to celebrate her quickie marriage to Pete. Bottles, plates, glasses, cushions, and cigarette stubs are strewn everywhere; the place looks like Dorothy’s tornado hit it. Sandra later explains away her lack of housekeeping skills by airily noting that she’s been “a bachelor for so long” between her marriages. That’s meant as a wink and a nod to us: Sandra’s been making with la dolce vita for some time now. Perhaps audiences in 1941 may have found that shocking, but we’re not so sure. Were drinking, smoking, and screwing so unheard-of even in 1941? (Except within the Breen office cocoon; we have a pleasing fantasy of those desperate Breeners scrambling all over the script, trying to make Sandra’s quickie knock-up fit within Production Code restrictions.) At least Sandra likes to live; and at least she’s not apologizing for it: “How I love to do things I shouldn’t,” she purrs. The one who’s always excusing her lack of zest is Maggie. Oh, she likes to drink and smoke just like anyone else, she claims defensively; but in her heart she disapproves. She’s Mother-Knows-Best, always regulating the intake of others, whether it’s calculating Sandra’s cigarettes-and-whiskey consumption during her confinement, or later that of rescued-hubby Pete’s (tasting a Coca-Cola he’s ordered, to find out if it really is what he says, she discovers it’s a Cuba Libre cocktail—tut, tut!).
One reason why Sandra is more interesting may be that Davis, disliking the script, colluded with Astor during filming to change the story and throw all the best situations and lines her co-star’s way; according to Astor, Davis “handed [the film] to me on a silver platter.” The director, Edmund Goulding, seems to have understood: He stages scenes in long, mid-distance takes, which allow the actors to focus on their interactions; and both Astor and Davis thrive on it, communicating as much by shifts of posture and eye movement as by dialogue. Still, to us Davis’ performance seems ‘off’ here; it’s a little too carefully contrived. She plays Maggie in the Julie Andrews Good-Diction mode of acting, articulating her lines so carefully, manipulating tongue, lips, teeth, to give the full emphasis on each word, that we found ourselves gritting our own teeth listening to her. The technique affects Davis’ whole vocal production. Astor projects her voice from the chest, ‘sculpting’ her delivery so that her lines resonate. But Davis uses what might be called the ‘head voice,’ it issues from her nose and upper palate, and lacks substance and weight. It’s a fault we’ve noticed in other of her Nice-Girl performances, such as her super-efficient secretary, also named Maggie, in The Man Who Came to Dinner; her acting comes off as dry, fussy, and over-precise, lacking the juice she gives to her bitchy film characters. Davis may have been the greatest portrayer of the Bitch in cinema, but she seems at a loss when dealing with Nice Girls. She brings no warmth or humor to them; Doris Day she’s not. It’s not surprising that Astor walks away with the picture.
Astor won her Oscar on her own deserts, however. She doesn’t go for obvious effects in her performance. Her Sandra is acerbic, worldly-wise, and coolly sardonic; she’s George Sanders in skirts. But she also plays Sandra with a subtly dark touch that brings out, like delicate shadings with a pencil, seething undercurrents in the character. In the morning-after scene with George Brent, Astor is lightly flirtatious; she wraps her arms around Brent’s neck and speaks to him in an insinuatingly teasing manner, yet her eyes flicker nervously, like a snake’s tongue, as she watches him. She’s aware of his lack of interest and is not sure how to handle it. Even the usually stolid Brent plays it lightly, his amusement bordering on contempt. You sense the ugly tension roiling beneath the couple’s manipulative insincerity. And note Astor’s face when Maggie meets Sandra after they’ve learned of Pete’s supposed death. Sandra looks crushed, but she also looks hung-over; she’s probably been drinking away her sorrows the night through. Astor doesn’t play it for sentiment or pathos; she plays it for the truth.
The role of Sandra came at that point in Astor’s career when she had moved on from playing Nice Girls herself (Red Dust, Dodsworth, Little Giant) to playing hard-edged, brittle, and sophisticated-as-hell characters, often in screwball comedies (Midnight, Palm Beach Story). As an actress, Astor could effect a remarkable change in her psyche that transformed her features onscreen. Note the contrast in her beautifully expressive eyes between Dodsworth and Midnight: The deep, yearning pools of unspoken feeling in her lonely expatriate divorcée in the former film become glittering spheres of onyx in her bored socialite wife dallying with infidelity in the latter. (This transformative ability of Astor’s is most startlingly on display in the late-40s noir Act of Violence, where she’s literally unrecognizable as a burnt-out hooker leeching onto lost-soul Van Heflin.) In The Maltese Falcon, Astor brilliantly combined the Bitch and the Nice Girl in the scheming Brigid O’Shaughnessy; you’re never sure which part is on display. But her bitchy Sandra never leaves us in doubt. As she tells Maggie at one point, “if I didn’t think you meant so well, I’d feel like slapping your face.”
It’s actually Astor who gets her face slapped, and by Davis’ Maggie, during Sandra’s hysterics in the middle ‘Arizona’ act. It’s meant as the moment when we’re to cheer the Nice Girl for finally giving the Bitch what she deserves. You have to admire Davis’ generosity here; even this scene she gives to Astor, who just before the slap lets rip a scream that would have done Fay Wray proud. But Maggie doesn’t get any visceral satisfaction in slapping Sandra. She’s too damn nice and lady-like about it, she does it for Sandra’s good. Maggie’s so god-awful patient, kind, and considerate that sometimes we felt like slapping her. She’s a saint made of plaster. (Note how Goulding in this sequence frequently cuts from Maggie’s do-good prattling to Sandra’s eye-rolling reactions, as if in subversive support of Sandra’s point of view.) Davis’ Maggie highlights a tricky feature of the Nice Girl persona—she’s the one we’re supposed to root for, but often her high-falutin’ Nobility gets in the way of our sympathy. Many women, like Maggie, would feel helpless when witnessing conniving females steal their men, but the raw feeling of despair is what registers; we know that feeling in our bones. It’s all that dignity that makes our own eyes roll. Take Norma Shearer in The Women, who’s so good and decent and put-upon when her man dumps her that she drives us up the wall; instead, we’re with foxy Paulette Goddard, urging this almighty-regal creature to get some guts and fight back. Norma finally does, dipping her nails in Jungle Red and heading off to the wars with a handy tube of lipstick tucked in her arsenal, but until then, we kept wishing for bitchy Joan Crawford to show up again and flash some more midriff at us (in campaigning for what is essentially a supporting role, Crawford’s instincts played her right; she steals the film).
No one sports a bare midriff in TGL, but we were curious about one aspect of it, one that’s deeply important to the woman’s film: Costuming. Costumes are vital in this genre, not only to make the actresses look beautiful and to draw a female audience, but as clues to reading character. Davis was one of the few golden-age Hollywood actresses who was willing to look dowdy on film in service to the role. Just look at her pre-Claude-Rains Charlotte in Now, Voyager, or her post-George-Brent Charlotte in The Old Maid. And the dressing and lighting of title character mad Baby Jane in Whatever Happened to… was a sheer hurl-off-the-cliff act of bravery, as well as of acting integrity, for the actress. But TGL’s fashion styling (by one of Davis’ favorite designers, Orry-Kelly) for Maggie left us puzzled. Maggie may be the demure Nice Girl, but she’s also a wealthy one. She lives on a vast estate in Maryland, where she has a platoon of servants to do the chores, and where she doesn’t seem to have anything to do herself but fret about what Pete is doing. In other words, Maggie can afford to look good.
However, she’s clothed in ways that, while not making her look drab, just seem a little weird. No doubt, living on a farm is why she wears jodhpurs and lumberjack shirts in the home scenes (sex appeal is not allowed for Maggie). But that pointy-tipped hat she wears in a fancy restaurant, with the scarf lashed round her chin—why wear that indoors? Does she have a toothache? It looks like Ma Kettle gone upscale. And then there’s the black dress with a wide, frilly white collar, like several doilies stitched together, which Maggie is wearing when she learns that Pete’s plane is missing. It’s her big dramatic moment, so why make her look twelve years old?:
Sandra, of course, is clad in drop-dead glamor, as befits the Bitch. Orry-Kelly uses black-and-white clothing on both characters as a way to contrast their personalities, but more successfully, we think, with Sandra. Astor in black looks gorgeous as well as deadly; crowned with her severe bob, she’s the antithesis of the softer, meeker Maggie. And note the shimmery white thin-strapped gown and appliquéd cloak she wears in her concert scene. When Maggie wears white, as in her wedding dress, she looks virginal and innocent. When Sandra wears white, she looks like a killer:
But then we get to the Arizona episode, which, as mentioned, is central in TGL, and not just for its locked-horns clash between Bitch and Nice Girl. It’s also the section that focuses on the experience unique to femalekind—that of childbirth. However ‘bad’ Sandra may be, and however bitchy, she’s also about to become a mother—a condition not granted to Maggie, who has desired it. The costuming becomes important in this section, and not just for how a Breen-conscious studio would dress a pregnant woman. (Astor conveys her pregnant state more through her movements than through dress or padding; when she rises from a couch, for example, she hauls herself up as if trying to climb out of a deep ditch.) It indicates how these two women react to this defining experience—childbirth brings them together, but it also essentially separates them. Maggie may have gotten Pete, but Sandra has—has created—something that Maggie herself desperately wants: Her own child with the man she loves.
So here’s Maggie in a dainty white negligee, with soft lapels and light fabric that make it seem made of gossamer. She looks like a shy fairy princess caught slumming:
And here’s Sandra in…a bathrobe:
What’s with that bathrobe, we thought. True, Sandra’s supposed to be pregnant, but a bathrobe? Not even stylish maternity clothes for this fashion-conscious woman? Instead, she shlumps about in a glorified towel. It seems almost a meta-gesture of vengeance within the film: The Nice Girl finally scores one against the Bitch by having the latter garbed like a frump:
But might not the costuming indicate something deeper going on, other than Nice Girl Revenge? Perhaps the essence of what these two women are? We might say that Maggie in this scene maintains her standards, whereas the sloppy Bitch lowers hers. But that prim negligee of Maggie’s—it makes her look unsullied and pure; she’s a widowed woman, but she seems untouched by what she’s gone through, she’s somehow above it all. Whereas Sandra, in the middle of a life-changing experience, surrenders to it. She’s uncomfortable and unhappy, and she acts like a pain in the ass (and Astor relishes the chance to do so); moreover, she doesn’t give a damn about it. And she’s unafraid to wear bathrobes and dress like a slob; who cares when you’re stuck in Arizona? (We’ll make a fearless statement here—creative people dress like slobs. We can attest to that.) Maybe Sandra’s not wholly admirable, but she’s wholly human, pickles, bad temper, bathrobe, and all. We can’t help but root for her.
Here’s a clip of the scene of Sandra’s declaration of culinary independence, followed by the scene of Maggie’s (double) slap when she becomes hysterical. Note how Arizona makes its presence felt:
TGL’s last act brings back a restored-from-the-dead Pete and also brings back the rivalry between the two women for the man’s affection. Determined to get Pete back, Sandra shows up at the Maryland house, dropping nasty hints about Maggie’s faux motherhood; she feels sure that, once Pete learns the truth, he’ll choose her over Maggie. This sequence for us fell rather flat, in part because it lacks the fireworks of the Arizona scene (and, frankly, because George Brent doesn’t do a thing for us). The scene is also oddly structured in how it tries to build tension between the two women. Sandra forces a showdown just before Maggie is to host a large luncheon party; and we felt more suspense in wondering whether Maggie and Sandra would settle things before the luncheon guests arrived than on which lady will get to keep Pete. (Dinner at Eight worked it better; it really was about the dinner.)
If you haven’t seen the film, we won’t give away the ending. We will note, however, that it begins and ends with images of Sandra at the piano, pounding the opening chords of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, and playing her heart out. (Astor did her own piano playing, synchronizing it to that of an offscreen professional pianist.) Sandra’s a Bitch, all right, and she does nasty, Bitchy things, but she’s first, last, and wholly an artist—as was the actress who created her.
BONUS CLIP: here’s the trailer for The Great Lie – “the love story of a Magnificent Cheat!” Notice how the trailer edits the clips to mislead audiences about the plot: The scene where Davis says, “we’ll go away together, someplace secretly,” cuts from her to Brent; in the film she’s actually speaking to Astor at that point. The trailer begins with two girls (representing “the public”) buying tickets for the show – we’re not sure, but we think the actress wearing the light blouse with the bow at the throat might be Faye Emerson, who later made her mark in several Warner Bros. noirs, including The Mask of Dimitrios. Anyone know for sure?