Author Patrick Agan, among whose books are Clint Eastwood: The Man Behind the Myth and The Decline and Fall of the Love Goddesses, has been working on a biography of MGM star Hedy Lamarr, at one point considered one of the most beautiful women this side of Orion.
The Austrian-born “exotic” import was brought to the studio in the late 1930s, and would remain at MGM well into the following decade. Though hardly one of the greatest actresses to come out of either Europe or Hollywood, Lamarr possessed an undeniable charisma that made her thoroughly watchable in both biblical and modern tales, whether well cast or totally miscast, whether fully clothed or fully naked (as in Gustav Machatý's scandalous 1933 Czech drama Ecstasy).
A temptress with a heart, Hedy Lamarr was a young adulteress in Ecstasy; an unwitting Angel of Death in Algiers; the Other Woman in H.M. Pulham, Esq.; a Russian agent who discovers democracy, Clark Gable, and baseball in Comrade X; a Spanish-Californian in Tortilla Flat; swarthy siren Tondelayo in White Cargo; Joan of Arc (!) in The Story of Mankind; and most famously, a perfectly coiffed Delilah in Cecil B. DeMille's highly entertaining atrocity Samson and Delilah.
What does your Hedy Lamarr manuscript cover – Lamarr's films, her private life, both? – and how did you become interested in Lamarr as a book subject?
My book is an unauthorized biography even though it contains many quotes given me by Lamarr when we were talking over many hours about doing a book entitled “Beyond Ecstasy.” My book covers everything, including the movies, the woman, and the myth.
Personally, I always thought of Hedy as being an available, an accessible love goddess, unlike the aloof images of Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich, who were both still huge stars when she got to Hollywood in the fall of 1937 – even though their gloss had been tarnished when they'd both been recently labeled “box-office poison.” Hedy had her work cut out for her.
Aloofness was something Hedy didn't – couldn't — project after the publicity surrounding her running around naked for ten minutes in Ecstasy. That picture made her a sensation long before she sailed past Ellis Island on the Normandie. In fact, she was barely off the ship before reporters surrounded her with questions about it. She must have thought she was getting away from it, as she was so upset she had to take refuge at the Plaza until her train left for California.
As a kid from a town in Upstate New York, I didn't know from Ecstasy but I sure knew from Hedy when I saw her on The Late Show in Boom Town and The Conspirators. Frankly, I'd never seen anything like her, and when Samson and Delilah was re-released in 1959 I stayed in the theater for three shows.
I could say she was underrated, but what I really think is that she was underappreciated, most likely because of her beauty. Surprisingly modest in person, Hedy nonetheless had a great sense of humor which I think came across best in My Favorite Spy. [MGM head Louis B.] Mayer briefly pushed her as a new Garbo but it was quickly apparent that she had more to offer than copycat glamour. She had her own brand of style and, when she had the chance, of acting. When she got to Hollywood and made Algiers, everybody was copying her. [Joan Bennett, in fact, went from cutesy blonde to Lamarr-ish brunette at that time.]
As an European star during World War II she had a lot stacked against her, but she became a big star and a household name nonetheless. She deserves to be remembered.
Hedy Lamarr, William Powell in The Heavenly Body
What would you say was Hedy Lamarr's forte as an actress?
As an actress, I think Hedy's forte was surprise. True, the reason she got butts into seats was her beauty, but once they were there she let them know there was more to her than the languid beauty of Algiers, much more than just soulful eyes and a hairdo.
After all, this woman had studied with Max Reinhardt and had starred on the Viennese stage in Sissi, giving a remarkable performance. Hollywood just looked at the face and thought that anyone who looked that good couldn't possibly have talent, but when she needed it it was there. Her pal Clark Gable first helped show it off in Comrade X [right].
Though it's endlessly dismissed as a Ninotchka rip-off, the movie is a hilarious take-off on wartime prejudices and sensibilities, and Hedy surprised everyone with her comic sense. Stripped of glamour, she exuded a slap-on-the-shoulder charm she rarely got to exercise. She wasn't funny again until the much calmer The Heavenly Body three years later.