The actor, who depicted film’s first female orgasm, was well known for her scandalous love life and sultry beauty. Now, a new documentary explores how her scientific talents were vastly overlooked
Hedy Lamarr, the star MGM called “the most beautiful woman in the world”, had two of the worst-kept secrets in Hollywood. One of them, she could never escape until long after her career was over. The other, the press took little interest in at the time – but since her death in 2000, this is the story that has come to define her. A new documentary about Lamarr’s life, released this weekend, encapsulates both stories – one about sex and the other about science – in the innuendo of its title: Bombshell. Lamarr’s story is one of a brilliant woman who was consistently underestimated. It also gives us the clearest possible illustration of why on-screen representation matters – of all the parts that Lamarr was given to play, none of them was as fantastic, or inspirational, as her real life.
The actor, who was born Hedwig Kiesler in Vienna in 1914, was given her new surname by Louis B Mayer when she signed for MGM in 1937. He named her after the studio’s silent-era vamp Barbara La Marr – intending that her dark, heavy-lidded beauty should remind people of MGM’s sizzling back catalogue, not her own. Back in Europe she had made a film that was too hot for MGM’s family-values ethos. Gustav Machaty’s Ecstasy (1933) starred a teenage Hedy as a frustrated bride who finds fulfilment in an affair with a young man: she appears completely nude and performs what is probably the first on-screen female orgasm. Lamarr herself said that her movements in the love scene were prompted by the director shouting instructions and sticking her with a safety pin, but the effect, in this atmospheric, heavily symbolic and near-silent drama, is remarkably intense. The film was banned in the US, but screened illicitly there for years, and no matter how many hits she had at MGM, and despite the studio’s efforts, Lamarr was frequently referred to as the “Ecstasy girl”.