Look beyond the lips

Bee Wilson

  • Hedy Lamarr: The Most Beautiful Woman in Film by Ruth Barton
    Kentucky, 281 pp, £25.95, May 2011, ISBN 978 0 8131 2604 3

Compared with most actresses, Hedy Lamarr wasn’t very interested in acting. She was an intelligent woman, capable of great things, but, beauty aside, the greatness didn’t show up on screen. If you only knew her through her performances in Algiers, Ecstasy or Samson and Delilah, you would never have thought it possible that she was jointly responsible for one of the great inventions of the 20th century.

Ecstasy was filmed in 1932 in the countryside near Prague, and the avant-garde film director Gustav Machaty found it very difficult to elicit a reaction from his leading lady, the 19-year-old Hedy Kiesler. The film told a Lady Chatterley-ish story of a woman, Eva, who flees an unhappy marriage with a wealthy older man, and falls in love with a young engineer called Adam. Machaty had planned a close-up of the heroine’s face as Adam kisses her and wanted the audience to be in no doubt that she had indeed reached a state of ‘ecstasy’, in Eden, with her Adam. The trouble was that Hedy Kiesler couldn’t act. In the early takes, she just closed her eyes and hoped for the best. Eventually, Machaty produced a safety pin and attacked her with it. ‘You will lie here,’ he said. ‘When I prick you a little on your backside, you will bring your elbows together and you will react!’

After its premiere in Austria in 1933, Ecstasy briefly became one of the most talked about films in the world. In Vienna alone, 71,000 people went to see it in the first two weeks (or so the publicity posters claimed). Mussolini asked for a private screening at his home in Rome, where he is supposed to have gasped at the beauty of the lead actress. ‘It shouldn’t be called Ecstasy,’ the Neue Zeitung complained, ‘it should be called Scandalous!’ Apart from the scene of close-up ecstasy, the sequence that caused the most fuss showed Eva shrugging off the confines of paternalist authority by running naked through a forest and jumping into a lake for a swim. Her horse bolts, and she chases after it, still naked. Audiences went in hope of pornography but many were disappointed, judging by the catcalls and hissing at screenings from Berlin to Paris and New York. What they got was a lot of highfalutin symbolism involving horses and a glimpse or two of the upper torso of a shivering teenage girl.

Still, it was enough to launch Kiesler’s Hollywood career. In 1937, she arrived in the United States as a new person, not Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, the intellectual daughter of a Jewish banker in Vienna, but Hedy Lamarr, ‘the most beautiful woman in the world’. Her new surname was inspired by Barbara La Marr, a star of silent film. The ‘most beautiful’ tag came from Louis B. Mayer, who brought her to MGM with other Mitteleuropean émigrées such as Greer Garson and Ilona von Hajmassy (though the theatre director Max Reinhardt had already declared her the ‘most beautiful girl in the world’ back in Vienna). Mayer knew that much of the excitement surrounding Hedy was due to her being the naked girl from Ecstasy, who thanks to a pinprick on her bottom was believed to have reached a state of sexual arousal on screen. However, at their first meeting, he made it clear that she would be keeping her clothes on in future when being filmed. ‘Never get away with that stuff in Hollywood. Never. A woman’s ass is for her husband, not theatregoers.’

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