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Hedy Lamarr

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Hedy LamarrWidely regarded as the most beautiful woman ever to illumine the silver screen, Vienna-born Hedy Kiesler unexpectedly earned her first international film fame at age nineteen when she took a nude swim and romp through the woods in EKSTASE (1933).  But five years later when she arrived in Hollywood, MGM renamed her Hedy Lamarr, repackaged her in stunningly simple Irene and Adrian gowns, and revealed her to the world as a cool, classy, and unattainably mesmerizing beauty whose very presence in a picture could provide a leading man with instant character motivation.  Despite a hit-and-miss record with the critics, she reigned as one of the world's biggest movie stars from the late 1930s through the early 1950s, her luminous, exquisitely sculpted face outshining every other prized, disproportionate display of female anatomy in Hollywood.  In the end however, her greatest asset also proved her greatest handicap.  Audiences couldn't understand a leading man who wasn't in love with her, and therefore, couldn't accept a plotline in which she was anything but pursued, limiting her to a narrow range of characters who were always the object of someone else's affection with little room for motivations of their own.

Young Hedy (whose name rhymes with "lady") had only played supporting roles in a handful of movies when Austrian filmmaker Gustav de Machaty recruited the aspiring actress to play the ingénue lead in what the world would eventually come to know as ECSTASY (1933), though few American filmgoers ever actually saw it.  The story of a young bride who marries an older man only to return home shortly thereafter, virtue intact, before eventually finding a night of passion with a young engineer, the almost wordless drama was not particularly racy in plotline by the European standards of its day, but the way the story was filmed was.

EkstaseFrom the beginning, Hedy claimed there had been no nudity or overtly intimate scenes in the script, and she was herself surprised to see her bare body parts on screen (when the director had assured her the camera was too far away to capture anything but the most atmospheric silhouettes), as well as to see the combined effects of the close-ups he had shot of her face reacting when he stuck her with pins.  Implausible as it may sound by modern standards, the credibility of Hedy's naïveté was supported by the fact that she took her parents with her to preview the film and the whole family walked out of the screening together.

Shortly before the movie's release, Hedy married her first husband, European munitions magnate Fritz Mandl, who promptly set about trying to buy up all the existing prints of EKSTASE to spare himself and his new wife any further embarrassment.  However, as MGM would also discover pursuing a similar effort five years later, when the negative is beyond reach, buying up prints is an expensive, and ultimately futile, pursuit.

Erotic scandal aside, the severely edited prints of the film that still exist show a paragon of youth and beauty credibly experiencing (however manipulated) a rite of passage into adulthood, struggling to understand its significance, and lovingly embracing the fruit of her experience.  As would also be rarely, yet distinctly evidenced in her later Hollywood years, the maternal instincts Hedy displays in her joyful interaction with her baby at the end of EKSTASE would prove to be one of her most humanizing, unappreciated and under-utilized acting assets.

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Last updated: March 10, 2011.
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