Glasgow Film Festival runs 21st February- 4th March
If Hedy Lamarr had never existed, you would have to invent her . A Vienesse 1940s actor, once dubbed ‘the most beautiful actor in Hollywood’, she was the model for both Disney’s Snow White and Catwoman. She had multiple husbands, a breakout film, Ecstasy, that once supposedly scandalised the Vatican with its nudity, and a head for scientific invention, which paved the way for Wi Fi as we now recognise it. Pure Weird Science.
Yet, she did exist, and as Alexandra Dean’s conpelling, lovingly made documentary attests, Ms Lamarr, born Hedwig Keisler, was as much iconoclast as icon. Her rise was as swift as her subsequent downfall, and acrimonious withdrawal from the public eye.
Bored by the endless male gaze and constant allusions to her beauty, the actor retreated to her study, where she, in collaboration with friend, avant-garde composer George Antheil, attempted to patent a wireless communication in a bid to defeat the Nazis. Her ‘frequency hopping’ torpedo, previously discounted by the military, was sadly only acknowledged in her old age and finally given its official status as an invention in 2014.
This unique mind was not without precedent. Aged five, Lamarr disassembled her musical box, then put it back together again. Science, literature and opera had always held more fascination than the shallow waters of the film industry.
Indeed, she is portrayed as victim of her own beauty and the patriarchal system, which, as with contemporary Judy Garland, fed her pep pills and tried at every phase of her career to control her image and hide her Jewish background.
The film is no mere hagiography though- it doesn’t shy away from her moodswings, nor the controversial, troubling aspects of her life: her inability to connect with adopted son Jimmy; some film turkeys, her disastrous plastic surgery, or the attraction to abusive alcoholic men with Nazi ties.
Yet, what emerges is a strong, complex and independent woman who tried to make art on her own terms. Indeed, the very first quote from Lamarr at the top of the film, reads:
“Any girl can look glamorous. All she has to do is stand still and look stupid. ”
In the wake of #askhermore, Hedy Lamarr feels not just prescient, but utterly contemporary.
Screened at the CCA, Glasgow.
Out on release in cinemas on March 8th.