Mary Pickford

Mary Pickford, actor and producer (b Gladys Louise Smith at Toronto 9 April 1892; d at Santa Monica, California 25 May 1979). Following the death of her alcoholic father, Mary Pickford began to act in April 1900 at Toronto's Princess Theatre. In 1909, after leading an impoverished life as a stage actress, Pickford reluctantly auditioned for the legendary film director D.W. Griffith, who was then making ten-minute films for the American Mutoscope and Biograph company in New York. Pickford quickly abandoned her view of film as second-rate employment. Instead, for 40 dollars a week, she joined the nascent art form's pioneers.

Pickford instinctively understood that the camera demanded an acting style different from the theatre. Within a few months, she moved to the vanguard of performers who fused psychological realism with silent film's balletic gesture. The result was an unprecedented intimacy between the audience and the actor. This new relationship, sparked by Pickford's genius and her onscreen image as a comic spitfire, triggered a Mary Pickford craze that grew more intense with the advent of features (which then meant films more than an hour in length).

In 1913, Pickford broke with Griffith and aligned herself with producer Adolph Zukor. Features such as Tess of the Storm Country (1914) reinforced her appeal as a fiery guttersnipe. Soon, Pickford's box-office power was supreme. In response, she demanded fantastic fees, as well as increasing creative power. Her peers gave in to her demands, though they considered them unseemly in a woman so gentle and small in appearance. Pickford ignored the criticism. By 1916, she had her own production unit within Zukor's company. In 1917, she joined another company, First National, where she had complete creative approval over every aspect of her films (and, depending on their profits, 1 to 2 million dollars a year). The only element Pickford did not control was distribution. In 1919, she solved the problem by co- founding United Artists with actor Charles Chaplin, actor Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith. There, Pickford seized a power no other woman in film history has equalled - starring in, producing and distributing her own work.

In the 1910s and 1920s, Mary Pickford was probably the best known woman who has ever lived. Several weeks after her divorce from Owen Moore, an alcoholic actor who had married her in 1910, Mary Pickford married Douglas Fairbanks. Their European honeymoon in 1920 triggered hysteria across the continent, and Pickford was almost killed by stampeding fans in England. Her life with Fairbanks at Pickfair, their mansion in Beverly Hills, was as public a marriage as that of Prince Charles and Princess Diana. Their tortuous divorce in 1936 received the same scrutiny. Though fame has continued to cling to performers, no other actor has inspired the unalloyed, round-the-world rapture bestowed on Pickford.

Mary Pickford made four talking films, and though she won an Oscar for the first (Coquette, 1929), it was probably awarded for her work in the silents, not Coquette itself. Indeed, she lost her public in the talkie era. The last 30 years of Pickford's life were marked by depression and alcoholism. In 1956, Pickford sold her shares in United Artists and became increasingly reclusive. When she received an honorary Oscar in 1976, few people knew her as a watershed figure who was central to the history of acting, as well as an icon of female independence and the trigger for the culture of celebrity we live in.