In a 2012 interview with Hero Complex, Anne Hathaway explained starlet Hedy Lamarr’s influence on her version of the seminal character, Catwoman, in Christopher Nolan’s third Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises, “I know this sounds odd, but her breathing is extraordinary … She takes these long, deep, languid breaths and exhales slowly. There’s a shot of her in [the 1933 film] Ecstasy exhaling a cigarette and I took probably five breaths during her one exhale. So I started working on my breathing a lot.”
The aforementioned film, Ecstasy, was the Austrian born actress’s fifth film. Thanks to a very brief nude scene and simulated orgasm scene in the 1933 film, she began to draw more attention to herself. Not all of it was of the “oh you’re awesome” nature. Around that time, Lamarr had married an ammunitions manufacturer, Fritz Mandi. The noted Austrofascist, apparently not a big fan of his wife’s nudity, attempted to buy up all the prints of the film. It didn’t take long for that union to crumble.
In her autobiography, Ecstasy and Me: My Life As A Woman, Lamarr recounted, “I could never be an actress while I was his wife … He was the absolute monarch in his marriage … I was like a doll. I was like a thing, some object of art which had to be guarded — and imprisoned — having no mind, no life of its own.”
Not long after leaving her marriage, she moved to Paris. Thanks to the infamy of Ecstasy, another man entered her life. While scouting for talent, MGM co-founder, Louis B. Mayer took notice of Lamarr (then known by her birth name Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler). While at first resistant to the Mayer’s insistence, she eventually changed her name as an homage to silent film star Barbara La Marr.
Before too long, Lamarr made a splash with her American debut in Charles Cromwell’s drama Algiers. The film received Academy Award noms and served as inspiration for the Humprey Bogart classic Casablanca. While her beautiful visage captivated audiences, it wasn’t enough to convince Mayer to renew her contract. That combined with her declining to star opposite Bogart as Ilsa in Casablanca, led to a bit of a slump for the actress. It was revived, however fleetingly, when she co-starred as the titular character in the Cecile B. Demille epic Samson And Delilah. While she continued to act, she never reclaimed the notoriety that she experienced from previous works.
While most would view this as the conclusion to Lamarr’s journey, it wasn’t enough to dissuade her from picking up a new interest: inventing. The woman who, like Sophia Loren, Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn and Meryl Streep, has been described as having a classical beauty, wasn’t satisfied with simply being seen as someone with surface value. In Richard Schickel’s 1962 book, The Stars, she mused, “Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.”
You learn something new everyday. When it comes to Hedy Lamarr, mainstream audiences know little about her. Which brings us to Alexandra Dean’s documentary, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story. Rather than focus on the peaks and valleys of her acting career, Dean has decided to focus on the creative mind of one of Hollywood’s lauded sirens.
Thanks to archival recordings of Lamarr, we learn that, unbeknownst to many, the actress spent her free time working on inventions. Including a “secret communication system” to help the Allies to beat the Nazis, Dean details how Lamarr gave her patent to the Navy and received no credit for her a contribution that would ultimately become an integral part of what we now know as the Wi-Fi, GPS, and Bluetooth technology we utilize today.
This Saturday, The Gibbes Museum will have a one-night only screening of Bombshell, which was produced by Susan Sarandon and premiered to rave reviews at the Tribeca Film Festival. The film will will be followed by a Q&A with Dean.
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