By Patricia Contino
The real lives of several early Hollywood starlets are more interesting than their on‑screen personas. Olivia de Havilland sued Warner Brothers to break her oppressive contract, and did away with an exploitative practice. Myrna Loy spoke out for civil rights in plenary sessions at the United Nations. Ida Lupino became the only artist to both star in and direct episodes of “The Twilight Zone.” But the most glamorous of these smart dames was the most inquisitive. Austrian‑born Hedy Lamarr, whose nickname, “the most beautiful woman in the world,” is better remembered than her filmography, was an inventor. During her long life (1914‑2000), she received neither compensation nor recognition for her work on “frequency hopping” ‑ manipulation of radio frequencies at irregular intervals between transmission and reception to trip up the Nazis. Thanks to dedicated reexaminations of female contributions to the male‑dominated histories of science and World War II, Lamarr finally received credit for her greatest role. Writer and performer Marine Assaiante brings her to life in “Hedy Lamarr: Born in Ecstasy.”
Ms. Assaiante resembles the actress and perfectly imitates her “startled beauty” stare. She and co‑writer/director Gabrielle Berberich frame Lamarr’s life as a 45‑minute interview. Events, such as her learning about Pearl Harbor on a film set, are evoked by fade‑to‑black lighting and costume changes behind a screen. The non‑linear exchange begins in 1937 with Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler’s arrival in America, and Hedy Lamarr’s career at MGM. TCM binge watchers know that her most famous role was in “Ecstasy,” the 1933 Hungarian film in which Ms. Kiesler appeared nude. Ms. Assaiante’s Lamarr feigns regret about the notoriety.
Lamarr’s story only gets better, providing Ms. Assaiante with great material. At a Hollywood party, she meets composer George Antheil. Instead of becoming one of her five husbands, he becomes an important collaborator. Anxious to help the war effort, the two brought their frequency‑hopping patent to Washington, D.C., only to have it rejected. (It would later prove valuable when mechanized defensive systems became standard.) Not only was the government uninterested in her invention, they didn’t take seriously the insider knowledge she acquired during her first marriage to arms dealer Friedrich Mandl. Thus, as she fled a domineering husband with a clientele of hatemongers, the Jewish‑born actress fled the Nazis.
Ms. Assaiante’s Hedy keeps reading from a movie magazine article referring to her as “faded.” How could someone so intelligent be so insecure? That question cannot be answered in under an hour, but it’s worth asking. What is clear is that Ms. Assaiante successfully portrays a real woman who led a complicated life.
“Hedy Lamarr: Born in Ecstasy” makes one curious enough to seek out “Algiers” (1938), arguably her best movie, Richard Rhodes’ “Hedy’s Folly” (2011) and Alexandra Dean’s documentary “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story” (2017).
“Hedy Lamarr: Born in Ecstasy”
Written and Performed by Marine Assaiante
Co-written & Directed by Gabrielle Berberich
October 16, 2019 at 7:30PM
Photo: courtesy of the production
2019 United Solo Theater Festival
410 West 42nd Street
New York City
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PATRICIA CONTINO has written about the performing arts for several online publications. The NJ native and resident received her MFA in Writing from The New School and is the administrator for Columbia University’s Masters of Bioethics Program.