Sandra Kovak (Mary Astor) seems to have it all: beauty, a fantastic career as a concert pianist, an avaitor husband (George Brent). But when husband Pete learns that he and Sandra are not legally married (because her previous divorce has not yet been finalized), it has devastating consequences for their relationship.
Also on Pete’s hook is Maggie (Bette Davis), a woman with whom he’s had an on-off relationship for many years. Maggie loves Pete greatly, but turned down his proposal because he was a heavy drinker. With Sandra and Pete on the outs, Maggie may have a chance to mend her relationship.
Complications ensue as Sandra and Maggie try to resolve their complicated relationships with Pete, and as their own lives collide in unexpected ways.
Edmund Goulding directs 1941’s The Great Lie.
Most of the time, when I watch a film involving a love triangle, I’m struck by the same idea: The central conflict could easily be resolved if these women realized the man they’re fighting for isn’t that special, or if all parties involved realized that they aren’t good for each other. This isn’t true for every bit of The Great Lie‘s conflict, for reasons I won’t spoil, but the women could certainly benefit from the realization that aloof two-timer Pete isn’t much of a catch.
As the characters choose to remain ignorant to this fact, there’s plenty of drama to be had throughout The Great Lie, with Pete remaining involved in two very troubled relationships. Tension grows between Pete and his two loves, as well as between the women themselves. In one scene, Maggie confronts Sandra backstage at one of Sandra’s shows. Their words are cordial, but it’s clear they want nothing more than to sock each other.
Whitney Stine’s Mother Goddam calls this tension “bitchery of nuance” and notes that the actresses, together, made changes to the script. Both actresses do a fantastic job at portraying the trouble between their characters. Throughout the film, interactions between Davis and Astor are fascinating to watch, providing the film’s strongest scenes.
Davis herself thought Astor aced her role in the film, sharing in Whitney Stine’s “I’d Love to Kiss You”… Conversations with Bette Davis that she was elated over Astor’s Oscar win as supporting actress. “She deserved it! She told me that I gave the picture to her on a silver platter. Hell! It was the part that did it!” Stine notes later in the book that Davis always saw Astor as her co-lead in the film, though they didn’t share top billing.
Also on the positive, The Great Lie is about much more than a simple love triangle. Again, I don’t want to spoil anything (I’d recommend knowing as little as possible going into this film), but the complications are executed very well. The drama is handled with a serious tone, and during the eponymous lie’s big reveal, Bette Davis grips every millimeter of the viewer’s attention.
The Great Lie is well worth watching for the duo of Mary Astor and Bette Davis, who truly collaborated to make the film what it is, and deserve much of the credit for its success!