Saturday, February 27, 2016

Mount TBR #8

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2016. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

Hedy Lamarr: The Most Beautiful Woman in Film – Ruth Barton

Ruth Barton recounts the life, inventions, passions, and troubles of Hedy Lamarr. Barton is a lecturer in film studies at Trinity College in Dublin and has already published several books on cinema history. But here she focuses on Lamarr, considered by many fans and critics alike the most beautiful woman in classic Hollywood.

In our age of social media snark, I was thankful that Barton brings to this project insight and patience towards her subject. Lamarr was a contradictory and distressed person. She wondered if people were drawn by her looks or her self. This insecurity made her act in contradictory, difficult, and strange ways. What can we make of stories like this?

A few years later, when Zsa Zsa Gabor and George Sanders were married, Hedy called on them. Their daughter Francesca, who was three, was on her way to bed. Hedy volunteered to say good-night to her, since it was the nanny’s night off. Then as an afterthought, she asked, “Does Francesca know the facts of life yet?” Perturbed, Gabor shook her head. “The next morning Francesca came downstairs with a balloon stuck inside the front of her dress and informed me that she was pregnant. Hedy Lamarr had told my three-year-old daughter the facts of life. I was livid.”

Who wouldn’t be irate? But we feel a bewildered compassion too – what kind of broken person would think it appropriate treat a child and anger parents in such a way?

Hedy’s personal life was an ongoing turmoil.  She married six times and had children and failed to have a satisfactory relationship with any of them. She and her adopted son were estranged when Hedy, in a fit of displeasure, just broke off relations.  Near the end of her life, Hedy was a shoplifter, notorious in department stores but Barton doesn’t ask any shrinks as to the origins of this behavior.

So, with such a hard to subject to like, the story that Barton tells is not a simple "star bio" because Hedy was not an actress though she may have become a fine comedienne if Hollywood, notorious waster of talent, had been smarter in judging what she could do persuasively. Because she sure couldn’t act, never was able to overcome a wooden, remote, icy quality that was more overpowering than likable. Unfortunately, her first appearance in film created preconceptions. Hedy stripped naked on camera for the very first time in the history of mainstream film (a European – of course – movie called Ecstasy in 1933). Like Paris Hilton found out after the sex tape, success came with both benefits and hazards.

Barton did not interview any art critics to give us readers a sense of how skillful an abstract painter Hedy was. Barton does describe a little bit of Hedy’s technological achievements. With composer George Antheil she patented an innovative modulation system for encoding information to be transmitted on radio frequencies. Its discovery had repercussions in technology, such as with the encryption systems used for mobile phones. Another upside is that Barton provides the insight that Hedy was an émigré – she had to leave Austria because of her Jewish background (which she never talked about). Forced out of her native country, Hedy never felt as if she were home in California, New York City, or Florida. It must be a grim feeling to never feel at home.

Barton's book persuades us that Lamarr's life  was a tangle of unique adventures, appetites, escapes and episodes more or less bleak. On the other hand, it is the same old story, told yet again, of a person who can’t tolerate great gifts. Like, the Donald was born to wealth and power; he couldn’t tolerate so much money, authority, and fame so he turned into an ogre. Hedy was born beautiful beyond belief, gifted with intelligence. And she acted like a person, mercifully rare, who feels most alive when fussin' and fightin', embroiled in constant arguments, suits, and feuds.

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