Picks and Pans Review: Mary Pickford: America's Sweetheart

updated 05/21/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/21/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Scott Eyman

When Charlie Chaplin received his long overdue honorary Oscar in 1971. Mary Pickford, then 83, decided she deserved one too. Hints were dropped. Four years later, in a ceremony broadcast from her house, millions of viewers, for whom Pickford was but a name from a bygone era when movies didn't talk, saw a gold statuette handed over to a frail, bewigged woman who, sadly, seemed more than a little out of it.

But the Mary Pickford of old. the Pickford who had once been Hollywood's most powerful woman, could still be glimpsed, if briefly. An old pal came by to shoot stills of the Oscar ceremony only to have her snap at him, "Remember, don't you cross-light me. The hump on my nose will show up."

Eyman, former entertainment editor of the Miami News, has written an engrossing, well-researched biography of Pickford, full of insight and understanding of the complex woman who became famous by playing innocent waifs. Using primary sources such as contracts and production memos, he charts her career, giving Mary her due as a businesswoman. He says she was "the first female movie mogul...perhaps, the only female mogul." At the same time, Eyman recognizes Pickford's shortcomings, saying that she was largely to blame for allowing herself to remain straitjacketed in little-girl roles. He describes her acting as "expert, emphatic stage performances that were slightly scaled down for the camera."

Pickford's story is a good one. Born in Toronto in 1892, she was the family breadwinner (her father died when she was 5) from age 6, first acting in touring melodramas, then, starting in 1909, in movies. By 1916, she was the industry's top female star, earning $1000 a week and a percentage from her movies. Four years later, she married Douglas Fairbanks, the day's reigning screen idol, and they ruled Hollywood's social scene. With Fairbanks, Chaplin and director D.W. Griffith, Mary formed a production company, United Artists.

The arrival of talking pictures in 1927 ended Pickford's career, as it did those of other silent stars with overly emotional acting styles. None of Pickford's four talkies was a hit (though she won an Oscar as a small-town flirt in Coquette, her first talkie).

In 1933, at age 41, she quit. "The day she stopped acting was the day that, in the largest sense, her life lost its meaning," says Eyman. Though Pickford's smart investments in real estate kept her finances in good shape, her marriage to Fairbanks unraveled. She wed Buddy Rogers, a bandleader-actor 12 years her junior, though clearly she loved Fairbanks until the end. She traveled, pursued film projects that went nowhere and drank too much. Mostly she drank too much. As a friend said, "It was like she'd done everything, seen everything, had everything and just decided, 'the hell with it.' " Pickford, a recluse for the last 15 years of her life, died in 1979 at age 87.

Eyman presents all this with detail, perspective and a measured affection for Pickford. He has done right by America's Sweetheart. (Fine, $19.95)

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