When I was a kid, two names always put a smile on my father’s face – Grace Kelly, and Hedy Lamarr – and I didn’t get it until years later when I re-watched some key films and understood their ongoing place in the pantheon of Hollywood’s most glamorous screen stares. There are many others, but Kelly and Lamarr always made dad smile.
Kelly’s decision to marry Prince Ranier of Monaco and step away from film nevertheless left movie fans with a short but highly memorable career during the 1950s, whereas Lamarr went through the traditional MGM talent machine, working busily in whatever studio bigwig Louis B. Mayer decreed was best for her career.
When Kelly left Hollywood, it was after Olivia de Havilland successfully sued and broke the bullshit contract which Warner Bros. used to keep stars in line. You don’t want to appear in a film we’ve catered to your image? Okay, but the longer to sit out production, the longer your contract will run, because you owe us 7 years of full-time work, and we get to loan you out and take whatever’s offered above your standard fee because we need to recoup all that singing / dancing / acting / elocution training somehow, right?
de Havilland put power back into the hands of talent, enabling freelancing which some managed to parlay into highly successful careers, such as James Stewart moving between westerns, comedies, dramas; and Burt Lancaster partnering to form a production company and make movies of his choosing.
Lamarr’s extraordinary beauty during the mid-1930 into the 1940s meant she was part of MGM’s stable of ‘more stars than there are in the Heavens, and whatever inane publicity idea, ideal image, and social activities were concocted, they had to be followed. MGM owned their stars, and when Lamarr’s contract ran out, she also went freelance, seeking out and producing her own work, but with less success than multi-hyphenate Ida Lupino, who could act, direct, and produce tough films welcomed by postwar moviegoers.
Lamarr’s biggest success is arguably Samson and Delilah (1949), playing the scheming temptress who emasculates the long-haired hunk, and you’d think the success of that film would’ve led to stronger dramatic parts, but there are few screen goddesses of that era who were able to reinvent themselves and thrive, such as Joan Crawford and Better Davis.
Lamarr simply faded from the silver screen after a final film role in The Female Animal (1958), and after publishing the 1966 autobiography Ecstasy and Me, paying homage to the title of the Czech film Ecstasy (1933) in which she swam nude and ignited her film career, she went off the radar.
Around 1996-1997, Canadian giant Corel had released a substantial upgrade to their flagship desktop publishing software Corel Draw! and as a longtime user since version 2.0 (circa 1991), I was impressed with the sleek cover art for vers. 8.0 – a rendering of Lamarr using the vector-based drawing software. Then a news item appeared in which Lamarr, still very much alive, was suing Corel for illegally using her image.
She’d also sued her former manager for reportedly contriving her autobiography and playing up scandalous aspects, making that slender book a work of questionable authenticity. She’d become a recluse and had made headlines twice for stealing… and then came fresh news of Lamarr being an inventor, penning some breakthrough technology that’s vitally important to modern day defense systems and global communications.
This info didn’t come to light until a pair of documentaries, made after her passing in 2000, appeared at film festivals, of which one is available on home video. Neither is ideal in presentation, but one is more balanced and clearly focused on Lamarr, and both films share a handful of the same interview subjects who knew her, knew of her inventive mind, and prove she patented with composer George Antheil a complex system that predated Bluetooth, which they gave for free to the U.S. military machine to help in their fight against Nazis.
It’s an amazing story that opens up her incredible life which itself could and should become a feature film drama, but the tough part wouldn’t be in reconciling beauty and brains with a biased audience, but the equally complex life as mother of three children, one of who she broke off contact for almost 40 years.
Coming next: Band of the Hand (1986), the Michael Mann-produced quickie made during the heat of Miami Vice’s success on TV.
Mark R. Hasan, Editor
Category: EDITOR'S BLOG