High Class Whore

By Horak, Jan Christopher | CineAction, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview
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High Class Whore


Horak, Jan Christopher, CineAction


HEDY LAMARR'S STAR IMAGE IN HOLLYWOOD

Although I have spent over twenty years writing about German-speaking film emigres who went to Hollywood after 1933, due to the anti-Semitic campaigns of the Nazis, Hedy Lamarr was for me not much more than another pretty face, this despite the fact that she was certainly one of the most successful in that group. It was only after Filmarchiv Austria in Vienna asked me to contribute to a monograph on the making of Ecstasy (1933) that I began to reevaluate her American career. The more films I watched, the more I read about Hedy Lamarr, the clearer it became to me that there was a discrepancy between the publicity (and historiography) surrounding Lamarr and what I was seeing on the screen. In trying to account for that discrepancy and her immense popularity in the 1940s, I realized that the producers had been caught in an ideological bind: how to take advantage of the public scandal surrounding her debut, yet still abide by Hollywood's conservative moralistic codes. Lamarr, on the other hand, was no mere pliant starlet, but an independent woman with her own agenda, which ultimately led to her downfall.

1. The scene of the crime

Her first nude scene pretty much sealed her fate as an actress. Indeed, it was only a matter of time before the industry realized that her market value had evaporated. In the land of I Puritani, they had her number. Hedy Lamarr, nee Kiesler, described in her so-called memoirs Louis B. Mayer's indignant and moralizing tone as he lectured her in a London hotel:

"I saw Ecstasy," Mayer opened. "Never get away with that stuff in Hollywood. Never. A woman's ass is for her husband, not theatergoers. You're lovely, but I have the family point of view. I don't like what people would think about a girl who flits bare-assed around the screen." [1]

Even if the exact quote is probably fictitious, the point of view expressed matches other descriptions of the mogul of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer: Convinced of his own overwhelming importance, Mayer saw himself as a father figure to his M-G-M family and the guardian of American morality. In his mind's eye, the supposedly sixteen-year-old actress from Ecstasy would always be a whore, because in his patriarchal book of knowledge women could only be saints or sinners. Neither a name change, nor the attempt on the part of M-G-M to turn her image into that of a sophisticated lady would ever counteract that first impression.

That the Austrian refugee was able to stay on the A-list of Hollywood stars for at least ten years after her arrival in the United States in 1937 was due to her physical attractiveness and her intelligence, but also a function of Zeitgeist. Hedy Lamarr fought for her career, never allowed herself to be taken in by the money-and-sex-machine Hollywood, hired lawyers and went to court when necessary, was considered "difficult." They sold her as "the most beautiful woman in the world," the woman men dream of, an inflation of adjectives elegant and sophisticated modifying her. Yet, in contrast to other starlets of her ilk, Lamarr consistently played strong, independent women who knew what their value was in the marketplace of erotic exchange, and were not afraid to bargain. Seldom did she go down on her knees before a man without already having an eye on the prize, rarely did she put her own desire behind that of a male partner. Lamarr broke taboos (on the screen and in the gossip columns) and many women in the a udience had their secret pleasure watching her, while the boys gawked. If the 1940s brought with them a degree of emancipation for women, due to the social upheavals of World War II, the post-war social order demanded that women return to the kitchen (both on cinema screens and in Ohio). The capitalist economy needed to adjust itself, by propagating an image of virginal, dependent women, happily found in the home with their children. Hedy Lamarr's star persona was no longer in demand, a world-class star reduced to fodder for gossip columnists.

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