Mary Pickford: The Angelina Jolie of her day, but much more famous

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Big eyes, a luscious mouth, Oscar-winning star of dozens of movies, fame on an enormous, worldwide scale, the daughter of actor parents, a feisty, independent and ambitious nature, one half of an enviously beautiful Hollywood power couple, trailed by fans and paparazzi.

Sounds like Angelina Jolie, right?

Actually, it also describes the woman who, many years earlier, when movies were black-and-white, emotionally gut-punching and entirely silent, staked her claim as “America’s sweetheart” and paved the way for Jolie, for Brangelina, for Hollywood as we know it: Mary Pickford.

You may hear Pickford’s name more and more these days, even if you don’t recognize it at first. A biopic on the actress, The First, will go into production in 2013, starring Lily Rabe (American Horror Story) as Pickford, and Michael Pitt (Boardwalk Empire) as her first husband, Owen Moore. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recently announced partnering with the Mary Pickford Foundation on a multi-year initiative to promote her long legacy.

Born in Toronto, Canada in 1892, Pickford rose through the ranks of theater, and then the silent screen, acting in more than 175 movies in her career, from 1909 to 1933. She snagged an Academy Award for 1929 talkie Coquette, as a short-haired Southern flirt, and played up her wide-eyed underdog beauty and sexuality as an orphan in movies such as 1920 melodramatic comedy Pollyanna. By the time, in 1920, she married her second husband, actor Douglas Fairbanks Sr., whom she co-founded the studio United Artists with, alongside Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith, she was as big a star as you can get. She and Fairbanks were anointed “The King and Queen of Hollywood.” They also were two of the founders of the Academy.

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“In Pickford’s day, there wasn’t social media and digital technology to distract people. If you were going to be a major star, it was through film,” The First co-director Jennifer DeLia told EW.com. “No one now can ever be that big, because everyone’s focus is so divided. If you pick that couple, right now, to compare, it would be Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. When Pickford and Fairbanks were on their honeymoon, there were half a million people waiting for them.”

Added Manon Banta, director of educational outreach at the Mary Pickford Institute for Film Education, “She and Douglas Fairbanks together, that was the start of what we know as modern celebrity. We have all the news reels and photos of their honeymoon tour through Europe, and they were absolutely mobbed.”

Even Jolie and Pitt’s upcoming wedding likely won’t get that swarmed, except by photographers.

So what made Pickford such a glowing beacon of desire and fan-induced mayhem, and continued influence?

“Mary Pickford, even in her earliest performances more than a century ago, was one of the first to bring a subtle and natural acting style to the screen. While she is stereotyped today as a ‘little girl’ actress, her films reflect an amazingly diverse and nuanced collection of characters who share a strength and vitality that still inspire audiences today lucky enough to see them on the big screen as they were intended to be seen,” said Randy Haberkamp, the Academy’s managing director of programming, education and preservation.

But beyond her petite good looks and charm, she not only acted, but produced films at a time when women’s rights weren’t necessarily present in people’s minds. United Artists was founded in 1919, a year before American women cemented the right to vote, with the 19th amendment. Like Jolie, who made her directorial debut with last year’s war drama In the Land of Blood and Honey, and has ventured into countries as a United Nations goodwill ambassador, Pickford was her own woman.

“She really was the epitome of a modern woman. She made her own career on her own terms,” said Banta. “She was on a level playing field with men. She was the driving force behind the creation of United Artists. She was the first woman to make a million dollars in a year. Angelina Jolie and Mary Pickford are artists that like to have a lot of input into their work. Mary Pickford was very much a philanthropist too. She started nailing a can up to the wall of the set, for everyone to give what they could to help people working.”

DeLia mentioned that the role of dashing, handsome Fairbanks hadn’t been cast yet, for the film. As for Pitt as Pickford’s first husband and love Moore, a “phenomenal actor with addiction issues, who couldn’t handle Mary’s rise to fame,” she said, “I’ve loved Michael’s work for a long long time.”

With Pickford’s humble roots and flight to fame, choosing her as a subject was a no brainer. The film will focus most on her life from age 15 through 40, said DeLia.

“There was something about Pickford that really spoke to me. She came from Toronto and was really poor. I came from Kansas when I was 18 to L.A., and also had no connections,” said DeLia. “She remained a fierce producer, but as an actress she was losing her clout, when she got older. Then she became a recluse. That celebrity culture was amazing and magical, but it was also really dangerous.”

Jolie, jutting her leg out from beneath her sweeping dark gown at this year’s Oscars, showed an old-school, almost silent film era flair – whether you liked it or not – for the dramatic. Pickford built her career on the nuances of a hair flick, the roll of one’s head and eyes, gaining sympathy through her mainly working class roles, while maintaining a coquettish composure throughout.

“In the silent era, it was far easier for people to become a universal star. People were looking at silent emotions, with title cards in different languages,” said silent film expert John Bengtson, who has written books about Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. “The concept of an international media superstar, Pickford was one of the first. She was a real trailblazer.”

Read more:
Casting Net: Michael Pitt to play Hollywood legend’s husband. Plus: Brie Larson, Thomas Ian Nicholas

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