Director: Edmund Goulding
Cast: George Brent, Bette Davis, Mary Astor
Within the first ten minutes The Great Lie presents itself unmistakably as a love triangle tale. George Brent plays Peter Van Allen, a man who is desired by two women who are presented in the film as total opposites. One is nurturing and domesticated (Bette Davis) and one is a modern career woman, excelling as a talented pianist (Mary Astor). She is free, driven, uninhibited, social and wild.
While George Brent commands the attention of these two woman, they command the attention of the audience, squaring off against each other, each seemingly obtaining the upper hand but then loosing it again to the other.
Bette Davis is as brilliant as ever with her perfectly expressive face. She plays Maggie. At times she is formidable and intimidating. At other times vulnerable and downtrodden, and as her expressions and emotions yo-yo, she is never once unbelievable, only completely convincing despite the soap opera feel this movie takes on as it progresses through the plot.
Mary Astor steals the show despite the undeniable talent of Bette Davis. In this, Astor’s one and only Oscar earning performance she storms into her opening scene, a powerhouse of presence and charisma. We know instantly the type of woman we are dealing with and we are simultaneously impressed and on guard. It seems insulting to the cast who are all marvelous in the film, but Mary Astor really does carry The Great Lie and it is particularly impressive when she is able to communicate the pain of the character to the point of sympathy, but yet continue to be a menacing antagonist. The best example of this balance is during an extended stay in a small cabin in Arizona, as circumstances force her away from the general populace and the adoring fans of her work. She is caged there, and she knows she can’t leave, pacing back and forth like a caged predator, simultaneously terrorizing and rueful. She is a pathetic character really, but she doesn’t seek pity, she lashes out. She is a dangerous and unpredictable woman. A woman scorned. While an evening with her would certainly be eventful and pleasurable, this is certainly not the type of woman we would want to wake up married to after a night of drinking until dawn. Yet, that is were Peter Van Allen finds himself.
So, the roller coaster begins, and the twists and turns land quite comfortably between just believable enough, yet not entirely predictable. Sure, it gets a little melodramatic at times, but these performances and the sparring between the always stirring Bette Davis and the toughest Mary Astor we’ve ever seen is worth a good long look. The Great Lie is great fun, no lie.