Fangirl Fridays – In Praise of Brains and Beauty, Hedy Lamarr


The ladder of success in Hollywood is usually a press agent, actor, director, producer, leading man; and you are a star if you sleep with each of them in that order. Crude, but true.  ~ Hedy Lamarr
The year is ending, and I think we can definitely call it a Women’s Year. Not because of Feminism, not because of great achievements by women, but because of all the courageous women who bravely stepped up and condemned abusive behavior. Strong women who pointed a finger at men who bullied them and would not back down, who called out the indignities they went through to get a job or promotion that they were already entitled to because of their talent and qualifications, but that would be given to them only if they succumbed to humiliating and disgraceful activities. Selma Hayek’s recent story in the New York Times is only the latest “flag” in Harvey Weinstein’s now-notorious black list.

I was horrified.

Weinstein is only one in a growing list of monsters. Sometimes the revelations were a bitter pill for me to swallow, because I thought of the accusers (and some of the accused) as great actors (you know who) or as talented journalists (in my country).

In a kind of tribute to all these women, I want to share with you the story of one talented woman from a past decade who could have accomplished much more if she had been given the opportunity.



Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, known as Hedy Lamarr, was born in Austria in 1914.

Lamarr, who was considered at the time (1930s, 40s, 50s in Hollywood) to be the most beautiful woman in the world, had a remarkable life. She attended an acting school in Berlin, had a brief acting career in Austria and Germany, then gained a scandalous fame in 1933 by starring in Ecstasy, a Czech film where she was bold enough to play a sexy scene, in the nude. This was an outrageous act at the time, which continued to haunt her years later.


My mother always called me an ugly weed, so I never was aware of anything until I was older. Plain girls should have someone telling them they are beautiful. Sometimes this works miracles.
During the Second World War, she disguised herself as a maid to flee Austria and her rich, controlling husband. In Paris, she met L. B. Mayer, head of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film studios, who offered her a place in Hollywood. Later, she rescued her mother from the Nazis and brought her to the U. S.

Mayer was the one to suggest changing her name to Hedy. Her first film in the States was Algiers (1938). She made a lot of movies (such as Lady of the Tropics, Boom Town, Samson and Delilah) during the 30s, 40s, and 50s, but was always cast as the alluring, enticing, exotic beauty who said only a few words and had limited opportunities to really act. Lamarr was producer Hal Wallis’s first choice for the role of Ilsa Lund in the iconic Casablanca movie, a role that went to Ingrid Bergman.
Any girl can be glamorous; all you have to do is stand still and look stupid.

Left: Hedy with Spencer Tracy (Heavenly Body, 1944)
Right: Hedy with Clark Gable (Boom Town, 1940)

Hedy Lamarr was undervalued in the film industry. In a review for the movie Algiers, the critic wrote about her only as the girl, nothing about her acting skills. She had to battle this typecasting jabber for years.

There are a few versions of her story. One says she became bored due to her unsatisfying movie roles. Another tells how she heard about a ship carrying 83 school children being torpedoed by the Nazis, which inspired her to contribute to the war efforts. Anyway, she did have an extraordinary mind, in addition to her beauty; she inherited a love of mechanical engineering from her father.


Inventions are easy for me to do; I suppose I just came from a different planet.
She worked at home on a new and special communications system with the help of a friend, the composer George Antheil. The secret technology she invented was known as frequency hopping — randomly switched frequencies. This technology allowed the U.S. military a new way of communicating using wireless, undetectable transmissions, which opened up the way for some technology you might be familiar with today: GPS, wireless phones, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth.


Lamarr and Antheil received a U.S. patent for their invention, but the military didn’t use their invention because it didn’t come from the Army. A few years after their patent expired, the U.S. military rediscovered the patent and finally began using it.

Sadly, Hedy Lamarr received very little public recognition for her invention, and not one cent for it as the patent expired.

The Hollywood PR agents weren’t impressed by Lamarr’s mind. They preferred to portray her exquisite beauty instead, as one of the magazines emphasized during the 1940s:
It does seem incredible that anyone as beautiful and as fragile-looking as the luscious Hedy could be mechanically minded.
In later years, Lamarr’s career suffered the curse of getting old in the movie industry. The studio didn’t renew her contract. (She made two unfortunate decisions. One, as I mentioned earlier, was not taking the role in Casablanca. The other was declining the leading role in Gaslight.) Later she moved to Florida, became a recluse, and passed away in 2000. In 2014, she was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, a small act of recognition, considering how important her contribution to science was and continues to be.


Hedy Lamarr said that if someone ever bothered to look inside her head, he would find a greater beauty than in her face. (And that’s saying a lot, since her face was the inspiration for the appearance of Disney’s Snow White character.) I think she was right. Inside that beautiful woman’s head, in her mind, there were some brilliant and beautiful ideas, ideas that changed a few important things in our life.
Films have a certain place in a certain time period. Technology is forever.


This post touches on only a few milestones in Lamarr’s turbulent life, which began with the theater, got sidetracked with an escape from the Nazis, and then continued with the movie industry. She lived through six marriages and divorces, and various addictions and arrests, to spend her final days in seclusion from the world, which never really knew her.
My face is my misfortune ... a mask I cannot remove. I must live with it. I curse it.


If you are curious for more, you can watch a new documentary film called Bombshell – The Hedy Lamarr Story (Zeitgeist Films), which weaves together her interviews, clips, and audio tapes into one amazing story. I hope I’ll be able to watch it soon.


Try to imagine, dear readers, what might have happened to Hedy Lamarr if she had lived in our time. Would she have been treated differently? Would she have been recognized for her brilliant mind?


Comments

  1. Awesome, Merit! Hedy Lemarr was an amazingly brilliant woman. Hopefully, as time goes by women will become valued more for their brains than their beauty. She truly is an inspiration to the younger generation.

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