Other Noteworthy Performances: Peggy Ashcroft (Quiet Wedding), Mary Astor (The Great Lie), Edith Barrett (Ladies in Retirement), Spring Byington (The Devil and Miss Jones), Dorothy Comingore (Citizen Kane), Paulette Godard (Hold Back the Dawn), Jessica Grayson (The Little Foxes), Ruth Hussey (H.M. Pulham, Esq.), Elsa Lanchester (Ladies in Retirement), Maureen O’Hara (How Green Was My Valley), Teresa Wright (The Little Foxes), Margaret Wycherly (Sergeant York)
I hesitated choosing Mary Astor as the best supporting actress of 1941 because her part is so hefty that she feels like a lead. But, in the end, The Maltese Falcon is really only Humphrey Bogart’s film and everyone else is supporting him. Astor, however, does such a great job of creating a fully formed character that she manages to stand up well opposite Bogart’s near domination of the film.
Mary Astor brings a wonderfully compulsive liar to life without reducing her to her sociopathic tendencies. She turns those big innocent eyes toward Bogart’s Same Spade and for a while her explanations sound so sincere that even we believe her while we know she’s lying.
But there are hints that Astor’s Bridget O’Shaughnessy would love to rise above her sociopathic nature, to stop running, lying, and living a life of crime. She exhibits a vulnerability that lesser actresses would have used as a cheap ploy Bridget uses to ensnare Spade and highlight her perfidiousness. Astor recognizes that Bridget is vulnerable and she is constantly struggling between her two natures: brash selfishness and an intense need to be loved and valued.
Sam taps into her softer side and her walls crumble a little under his gaze. She manipulates him, but doesn’t enjoy it the way she must have with Thursby or Gutman. She is manipulating Sam because she believes she has to. The obsession for the Maltese Falcon is just too far along, gripping her weak soul and demolishing any of those dormant positive instincts that Sam had awakened.
Mary Astor had been a solid supporting actor for years, turning in good dramatic performances in Red Dust (1932), Dodsworth (1936), and The Hurricane (1937). She even showed off her comedic ability in Midnight (1939), something she would try again with even greater success in Preston Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story (1942), showing her great range.
Astor won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1941 for her role in the Bette Davis vehicle The Great Lie, but her work in The Maltese Falcon is clearly more accomplished. It has been reported that Astor wished she had won for Huston’s film, rather than this uninspired melodrama. I’m happy that the Academy honored Astor with an Oscar, but I agree that they should have given it to her for a better performance in a better film.