It was the tech community which brought Hedy Lamarr’s scientific and technical accomplishments to light in the 1990s. The movie actress was better known for other aspects of her work and life.
She was the first actress to portray an orgasm on screen, the movie was Ecstasy (in English), the year was 1933; and, Hedy Lamarr was 18 years-old. Shortly after the film was released, Lamarr, of Jewish descent, married Friedrich Mandl, a wealthy Austrian with ties to fascist regimes led by Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini. A controlling and jealous man, she eventually escaped Mandl in the middle of the night with all the jewels she could pack on her person.
That’s just the prelude for a documentary celebrating the extraordinary Lamarr. ‘Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story’ (directed and written by Alexandra Dean) has been making its way around the festival circuit for the last several months. I saw it at the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF) in October 2017 and the house was packed.
(If you missed it on the festival circuit, don’t worry. It’s being broadcast by most, if not all PBS stations, on May 18, 2018 as part of the American Masters series.)
*ETA video clips May 18, 2018 at 0945 hours PDT*
Over the last few decades there’s been a major reevaluation of Lamarr’s place in history. She was dangerous not just for her beauty (bombshell) but also in the way that people who aren’t easily categorized are always dangerous.
Before she did her ground-breaking work as an inventor and after her dramatic middle-of-the-night escape, Lamarr made her way to London* where she sought out Louis B. Mayer in 1937 and turned down his offer of a contract at MGM. Not enough money. Instead, she booked passage n a ship bound for New York City which was also carrying Louis B. Mayer and his wife. By the time they landed, Lamarr had gotten a contract that she was happy with and a brand-new name. Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler effectively became Hedy Lamarr for the rest of her life.
Lamarr’s famous quote: “Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid,” provides an interesting juxtaposition with her role (along with avant-garde musician and composer George Antheil) in developing a technology that laid the basis for secure Wi-Fi, GPS (global positioning system), and Bluetooth. Or as some of us think of it, life in the 21st century.
She claimed to have advised Howard Hughes on the design for the of his airplanes; she was inspired by the wings on birds and fins on fish. She created a tablet that when reconstituted with water became a carbonated drink (according to Lamarr, it was not very tasty). There was also her influence in the field of plastic surgery. Those incisions that are in hard-to-see places? That was at Hedy Lamarr’s suggestion.
Her inventions spanned electrical engineering (telecommunications), bio-inspired engineering and physics (airplane wings), chemistry (the drink tablets), and plastic surgery. That’s an extraordinary range and there’s more. She created her own movie production company in 1945/46* (it was a failure) and was instrumental in designing a resort (she was never fairly recompensed for that).
She suffered throughout her life in various ways.The US government shafted her and George Antheil by politely refusing their invention in 1942. To be fair, it would have been difficult to use with the technology available at the time but somebody must have recognized its potential. At some point in the 1950s the US Navy developed the technology (without informing either inventor or compensating them as had been their deal).
There was more, her achievements were ignored or, worse, attributed to anyone except her the better part of her life; the Hollywood factory is not kind to older actresses, especially those of Lamarr’s generation; and she made serious mistakes.
Ironically, one of those mistakes involved plastic surgery. It’s hard to know what the effect will be on television but in the movie house, there was a big gasp when some footage from her last years was shown. She’s not monstrous but after an hour or more of footage from her ‘glamorous’ years, it’s a bit of a shock. If you can see past the effects of some ‘bad’ plastic surgery, you’ll find a woman who despite everything kept on. She never gave up and there’s a kind of beauty in that act which is indelible in a way that her physical beauty could never hope to be.
The documentary is fascinating not only for what it includes but for what it doesn’t. You’d think she’d never had a woman friend in her life but according to J. E. Smyth’s 2018 book ‘Nobody’s Girl Friday; The Women Who Ran Hollywood’, she and Bette Davis were good friends. There’s also mention of her poverty but none of her late life litigiousness and the $3M estate she left when she died in 2000.*** At a guess, having learned from the debacle with the US Navy (she could have sued but didn’t realize she had the right), she litigated her way into some financial health. As for the ‘Time’s Up’ and ‘Me Too’ movements which have formed since the Hollywood sex scandals of 2017 – ????, one can only imagine what Lamarr’s stories might have been.
If you have the time, see the documentary. Lamarr was a helluva dame.
*’Paris’ corrected to ‘London’ and ‘1945’ changed to 1945/46′ on on May 21, 2018 after watching the PBS broadcast of the documentary on May 18, 2018.
.***ETA May 21, 2018: See the Hedy Lamarr Wikipedia entry for more about her estate and other details of her life.***