The Film Career of Hedy Lamarr: From Riches to Rags
This Actress of the Silver Screen Was Known as the Cold-Marble Star
Actress Hedy Lamarr, once considered the prettiest woman in films, could name her own price when playing the female lead in motion pictures back in the 1940s. Hedy made millions of dollars as a film star, yet by the middle 1960s she often couldn't pay the utility bills or buy the next meal.
Hedy Lamarr's film career started in Austria in the early 1930s when she starred in the German film Ecstasy, which featured a nude scene of Hedy, as well as a scene in which she feigns an orgasm. In Hedy's autobiography, Ecstasy and Me: My Life as a Woman, published in 1966, Hedy wrote that the director of the film had to lie underneath her and prick her with a pin to simulate in her the throes of sexual arousal. Hedy saw the film with her parents - who bolted from the theatre before it was finished. In spite of its sexual content - or because of it - Ecstasy won awards. Not a bad start for Hedy, an 18-year-old woman who wanted to be in pictures.
(In Hedy's book, she listed her birth date as the nineth of November 1915; other sources show 1914 or 1913. Just like an actress to lop off a year or two of age!)
But in order to continue her acting career, Hedy had to flee her possessive husband, Viennese munitions dealer Fritz Mandl. By gaining inside knowledge from Mandl, a Nazi sympathizer, Hedy was credited with inventing a radio guidance system used for torpedoes in World War II. Talk about strange but true!
Now free of her first husband, Hedy, the beautiful brunette with captivating green eyes and ivory skin, met movie legend Louis B. Mayer in Paris. Mayer, the head of Metro Goldwyn Mayer, the most prominent motion picture studio in Hollywood, thought Hedy was gorgeous and sophisticated. (Hedy wrote in her autobiography that being sophisticated means you're never surprised.) Mayer offered Hedy a contract at $125 per week. But Hedy demanded a lot more and eventually got it!
Whatever Hedy wanted, Hedy got.
Hedy's first Hollywood flick was Algiers, set in North Africa and released in 1938. Hedy played Gaby, a sultry, romantic figure. The film starred French actor Charles Boyer who, at one point in the film, uttered the line: "Gay-bee darling, come wiz me to the Casbah." This popular line soon became part of the shtick of many nightclub comics.
Algiers made Hedy a star overnight, and many actresses began imitating her look. Unfortunately, her next two movies were flops.
One of these flops was Lady of the Tropics, in which Hedy played a half-caste woman in French Indochina. She didn't look terribly half-caste actually. Anyway, Robert Taylor played the leading man. At the end of the movie, Hedy's character commits suicide with perhaps insufficient motivation. Critics criticized the story, but Hedy's acting was very good. She showed a captivating vulnerability that men probably found irresistible.
Then Hedy became interested in a small part in the movie Boom Town. Clark Gable, who would star in the film, helped pull some strings and she got the part. The movie did well and the reviews were great, particularly for Hedy's performance.
About this time, Hedy married screenwriter Gene Markey, and the couple soon adopted a young boy. This was Hedy's second marriage. It didn't last even six months. In Hedy's book she wrote that she had poor taste in scripts as well as husbands. (The longest of Hedy's six marriages was six years.)
In Hedy's movies she nearly always played the femme fatale, vamp or vixen. She didn't play ladies because she figured nobody wanted to see her play such parts and, besides, there were few parts written for ladies in Hollywood. In the movie White Cargo, Hedy played a dark-skinned nymphomaniac named Tondelayo, who spoke such stilted lines as "Me Tondelayo. Me stay." Critics skewered her part in the movie; they thought she looked funny. But the sex-crazed American military personnel of war-torn 1942 liked it just fine.
Hedy Lamarr Was a "Heady" Young Woman
Believe it or not, Hedy was very interested in science; in fact, she became an inventor! During World War Two, Hedy and polymath George Antheil developed a frequency-hopping device that would keep the enemy from jamming radio-guided torpedoes. The device used a piano roll to change the frequency unexpectedly. In 1942, Hedy and Antheil were granted a patent for the device, which they soon offered to the U.S. Navy, but it was not adopted. Perhaps the invention was ahead of its time, as many turn out to be.
In 1962, during the blockade of Cuba, the U.S. Navy began using the frequency-hopping device after the patent had expired. Interestingly, Lamarr and Antheil were inducted into the Inventor’s Hall of Fame in 2014. Also, the device has become an integral aspect of modern spread-spectrum communication technology.
Back to the 1940s, in 1947 Hedy asked Louis Mayer if he would let her out of her contract with MGM. About the same time, Hedy asked her third husband, John Loder, for a divorce, while she told him she was pregnant with their second child. Mayer let Hedy out of her contract, Loder granted her a divorce and she eventually bore the child. Now Hedy could have her own career and a family too.
Whatever Hedy wanted, Hedy got.
From that point on Hedy worked as a private contractor. Her first picture working as such was Strange Woman. “Hotter than Tondelayo” was the come-on. But Strange Woman was only a mild success. Variety magazine, referring to the film, wrote: “Hedy, more beautiful than ever, bit off more than she could chew. So the chewing was done by the other members of the cast, and what was chewed was the scenery.”
Hedy’s performances were hard to figure. Whether it was the director, her admitted weakness for picking bad scripts, the caliber of her co-stars or simply her frame of mind at the time, Hedy could be very good or decidedly mediocre in her roles. In 1957 she made an execrable portrayal of Joan of Arc in The Story of Mankind. (Don’t ever watch it!)
But Hedy quickly bounced back after Strange Woman.
Soon she began work on Samson and Delilah, a biblical-oriented spectacular produced and directed by film legend Cecil B. DeMille. Hedy argued frequently with DeMille, who often yelled at her. Somehow, though, the film was completed. It grossed $12 million, a vast amount of money when released in 1949. To date, it was Paramount’s highest grossing film. The reviews were wonderful, and Hedy was very pleased. This work constituted the peak of Hedy Lamarr’s film career.
Though Hedy made millions of dollars from her acting, she spent lavishly. She always lived in the best homes and had the finest furnishings. She traveled wherever and whenever she wanted. She wrote, “I advise everybody not to save: spend your money. Most people save all their lives and leave it to somebody else. Money is to be enjoyed.”
Hedy’s next picture was Copper Canyon, a Western. Glamorous Hedy Lamarr in a western? Who could imagine such a thing? Hedy wrote that she was miscast. Understandably, the picture flopped.
Over the years, Hedy had her share of sordid sexual encounters. At the age of 14, her laundryman twice tried to rape her. While making the film Come Live with Me in 1941, Hedy and a man she described as a bit actor entered the projection room to view the day’s rushes for the film, a common practice. With just the two of them in the room, the man forced himself on Hedy and she had to fend him off, running her fingernails across his face, drawing blood. Realizing he had a tigress on his hands, the man fled the room. And, one night, a man whom she simply labeled as Sam – handsome, charming and diabolical - pulled out a full-size plastic-rubber doll of Hedy, calling it “Hedy-the-Inferior,” and then made love to it right in front of her, panting and saying “I love you” over and over.
No stranger to sexual matters, sordid or otherwise, Hedy wrote, “I’m oversexed; and I’ve never kept that a secret.” She admitted to having sexual relations with numerous men – other than her husbands, of course. She also admitted to having sexual dalliances with women, though only for a thrill. Hedy loved men, not women.
In the early 1950s, Hedy wanted to produce a movie. She managed to raise $400,000 and then, after a long search, managed to find a suitable screenplay entitled Femmina. The film was produced in Rome, Italy, half of it anyway, before Hedy ran out of money. Eventually the movie was finished but never released because of legal troubles, and Hedy never got her hands on it, nor did she ever make any money from it.
Hedy’s career now dissolving into middle age, she was losing parts to much younger talent. But she continued finding parts in movies, the last of which being the The Female Animal in 1958. In the 1950s and ‘60s she also made numerous appearances on television programs such as What’s My Line?, The Perry Como Show, Shindig! and The Dick Cavett Show.
In 1960, Hedy divorced her fifth husband and then almost immediately married another man, lawyer Lewis J. Boies. The marriage lasted two years before Hedy divorced this sixth and final husband. Hedy thought all of her marriages were unsuccessful because she always married the same type of man, a man she could feel sorry for. She wrote, “How I understand poor old beast,” as in the classic tale Beauty and the Beast.
During her last marriage, Hedy had to sell her French paintings, totaling half a million dollars, to pay for her maintenance. By the middle 1960s she was broke; she couldn’t pay her utility bills and often went hungry, except when friends gave her food. As a consequence perhaps, Hedy was arrested for shoplifting in January 1966. She was apprehended with $86 worth of merchandise. But, at the trial, she was acquitted. It seemed Hedy was still an icon, because later that same year Andy Warhol directed a 70-minute film entitled Hedy the Shoplifter.
Now in her early fifties, Hedy had a love affair with a French painter she called Pierre. This, she wrote, was her most satisfying love affair. Without the fame, fortune and glamour, she had found true love at last.
Whatever Hedy wanted, Hedy got.
Hedy Lamarr, the star of the silver screen, certainly wasn’t the greatest actress of the era, yet she had the allure of untouchable beauty, elegance and intelligence. Most men could only dream of possessing such a fair woman, a sex goddess, if you will. Of course, movies of her enlivened their fantasies. Perhaps being close was close enough, the stuff of undying memories.
During Hedy’s twilight years, she retired to Florida, living off the royalties to her autobiography, and died on January 19, 2000 at the age of 86 (give or take a year).
Mel Brooks’ Western parody Blazing Saddles, released in 1974, featured a character named “Hedley Lamarr,” played by Harvey Korman. Hedy sued Brooks and the lawsuit was settled out of court.
Hedy in "Algiers"
Hedy in "Come Live with Me"
© 2008 Kelley