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Her Face Was Her Misfortune

(WSJ) Being 'the most beautiful woman in the world' only hindered Hedy Lamarr's acting career


What cosmic shift has brought about not one but two biographies of the 1940s movie star Hedy Lamarr? Mel Brooks fans may know her as the source of Harvey Korman's hilarious "Hedley Lamarr" sheriff in "Blazing Saddles," but Lamarr was close to forgotten at the time of her death in 2000. A decade later, her personal life and film career have been given detailed scrutiny in books by Irish film scholar Ruth Barton and by Stephen Michael Shearer, the author of "Patricia Neal: An Unquiet Life." The new interest appears to be motivated by the recent discovery that, in 1942, Lamarr and avant-garde musician George Antheil patented a frequency-hopping radio-communications technique, which they hoped could control torpedoes. (It would later be employed in modern mobile-phone technology.) Suddenly Lamarr can be re-evaluated as a brainy inventor rather than merely, as she was originally billed, "the most beautiful girl in the world."

Hollywood was slightly wanton in its assignment of that "most beautiful" title. Elizabeth Taylor, Ava Gardner, Carole Landis and Grace Kelly, among others, were also burdened with the label. Ms. Taylor escaped its yoke with two Oscar wins. Gardner earned a more exclusive title as "Frank Sinatra's one true love." Landis killed herself, and Kelly trumped everyone by becoming a real princess, even though her realm was the size of a hair salon. Hedy Lamarr, however, could never shake off the title.

The reason is well- illustrated by a back-cover photograph on Ms. Barton's "Hedy Lamarr." It's Lamarr in her 1941 film "Zeigfeld Girl," and she really is the most beautiful creature imaginable. Her hair is a soft, dark cloud around her stunning face. Her eyes are large, wide-spaced, and framed by thick lashes and brows. Her perfect nose sits in exactly the right position above her full and luscious lips. In the middle of her forehead hangs a single diamond star. Around her slender throat is a necklace of stars, and on her head is a contraption that looks like a heavenly halo of even more shiny stars, in case anyone had missed the symbolism. "I am a beautiful star," says this image. "Look at me."

Yet Lamarr really was more than just another movie star. Her story was both unusual and fascinating, a true 20th-century tale. Her real name was Hedwig Kiesler. Born in 1914 as the beloved only child of a Viennese Jewish banker, she always attracted attention for her spectacular looks. By the time she was 16, she had embarked on a successful theatrical career. Before she was 20, she had shocked Austria with two major scandals: her marriage to the older Fritz Mandl, a millionaire arms dealer with connections to Mussolini, and her nude appearance in Gustav Machaty's 1933 film, "Ecstasy." The former she was able to run away from, heading from fascist Europe to America, but the latter stayed with her all her life.

It was inevitable that a beautiful rich girl who had appeared naked on film would end up in Hollywood. Signed by Louis B. Mayer for the pres tigious MGM Studios, Lamarr was loaned out to United Artists for her first American movie, "Algiers" (1938). Appearing opposite Charles Boyer, she was a visual dream, decked out in diamonds and fur-trimmed satin, leaning backward with romantic ennui while Boyer made love to her by reciting the names of subway stops in Paris. Americans ate it up. When Lamarr returned to MGM, she was a household name.

With that introduction and her looks, everything should have been simple. But MGM felt she was a casting challenge. There was her foreign accent, of course, but she was also too beautiful for ordinary roles. No one would believe her behind a department-store counter or accept her as someone unloved, unnoticed, unwed or unjeweled. Still, audiences would pay just to stare at her, and apparently she had a similar effect on people off-screen. Ms. Barton quotes actor George Sanders saying that Lamarr was "so beautiful that everybody would stop talking when she came into a room."

Lamarr's roles became limited by her unlimited beauty. Even when she showed a flair for comedy ("Comrade X," with Clark Gable in 1940) or gave a sensitive performance as a career woman ("H.M. Pulham, Esq.," 1941), MGM continued to present her as an immobilized object suitable for a long close-up. The result was a string of pictures in which Lamarr stood patiently by while drama swirled around her - vehicles such as "I Take This Woman" (1940) or "Heavenly Body" (1944). According to Mr. Shearer, Lamarr herself was smart enough to know how her beauty restricted both her career and her life. "My face," she said, "has been my misfortune...a mask I cannot remove. I must live with it. I curse it."

Despite her unquestioned fame, Lamarr's career never really went anywhere. She fought for good roles and socialized with her fellow expatriates, often filling her time by tinkering with ideas for inventions. The only really notable one of these, however, was the patent for what is now known as spread - spectrum wireless communication, which was not practical until the invention of the transistor. Both biographies dwell on her inventions not merely to point out the star's unusual cleverness but to connect her efforts to a desire to help her adopted America during World War II.

After the birth of Lamarr's daughter, Denise, in May of 1945, her frustrations grew. When her contract expired, she left MGM in 1946 of her own volition. Her last big success was a Paramount film directed by Cecil B. DeMille, "Samson and Delilah" (1949). The seductive Delilah was a role Lamarr was born to play, and she gave it everything she had, treating the often silly dialogue as if it were Shakespeare. ("No man leaves Delilah!" she warns, stomping around in her Philistine wedgies.) Lamarr left Holly wood for good after making her final movie ("The Female Animal," in 1958), finishing out her life living mostly in Florida - painting, visiting with friends and former fans, and continuing to invent such curiosities as a pocket in which to deposit used tissues on the side of a Kleenex box.

Both Ms. Barton and Mr. Shearer acknowledge the power of Lamarr's image - and concede that her lasting appeal is not as a female Thomas Edison. Ms. Barton provides the more scholarly account, locating Lamarr "within a history of European exiles in Hollywood." Her book has a feminist perspective but is not a polemic. In "Beautiful," Mr. Shearer writes with humor and has fun with some of the glorious nonsense of Lamarr's movies. Whether you prefer the surprisingly well-written academic account or the surprisingly substantial popular account ultimately depends on taste.

Despite their different approaches, the books do not contradict each other, and both tell essentially the same story. Neither neglects the sensational events of Lamarr's movie-star life: six husbands, the abandonment of her adopted son, rumored difficult behavior on sets, her latter-day arrest for shoplifting and her love of litigation. (She sued over "Hedley Lamarr" and plenty more.) They also sort patiently through what is true and false in Lamarr's own ghostwritten autobiography, "Ecstasy and Me" (1966), a racy volume that she agreed to when she wanted cash but later repudiated.

Both authors see Lamarr's wasted potential. Both present her as a difficult but intelligent woman who understood how much her beauty restricted her. Both respect Hedy Lamarr and even care about her. But their books, inevitably, still sell her in the usual way. Both use "beautiful" in their titles, and both have stunning portraits of Lamarr at her peak on their covers. What draws the eye toward them is the otherworldly face of the subject, which inevitably says: "I am a beautiful star. Look at me."

- Ms. Basinger is chairwoman of the department of film studies at Wesleyan University. Her latest book is "The Star Machine."