Unbearable weight of beauty and brains


SHE was described as the most beautiful woman in the world. Heather Massie plays Hedy Lamarr. Photograph by Monica Callan.

CAN YOU IMAGINE the damaging complexity of being deemed “the most beautiful woman in the world”? This was one of the descriptions that dogged the complicated life of Austrian born American bombshell Hedy Lamarr, who most certainly was more than just a pretty face. Less acknowledged than her prettiness was her intellect and her ability to redefine important scientific ideas which sowed the seeds for the kind of technology we enjoy today, for instance, in WiFi, GPS and bluetooth technology. American performer, Heather Massie brings a show that she has developed on this extraordinary woman, for a brief Johannesburg season.

And with raw material like this, it’s an important empowering show that young women on the cusp of taking life forming decisions should see. Evoking stories such as that of Melita Norwood (upon whose life story the film Red Joan is loosely based); and that of Ruth Bader Ginsburg (on whose life story the film On the Basis of Sex is based), it’s a good solid tale to be told for so-called Women’s Month, in South Africa.

However, the writing reeks with platitudes and there is a lot of gasping and oohing and aahing in the depiction of the pretty side of Ms Lamarr, which hurts the character’s credibility. Soliloquys delivered in a sing-song way further damage the piece’s watchability. It’s not always clear who the Lamarr character is speaking to in the odd little conversations with others that pepper the work.

Married many times and born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in 1914, she was something of an ‘ugly duckling’ and was educated because her mother never thought she’d amount to much. But with a little improvisation and a lot of chutzpah, this woman, who died in 2000, was able to leap over boundaries, assume roles for which she had no experience and take prominent men to bed. And none of these were easy romances. The controversial arms dealer, Fritz Mandl was her husband for four years in the 1930s, and according to this work, it was a tumultuous marriage which opened up Lamarr’s awareness of politics, but also of torpedo-related technology.

From the age of 16 in 1930, Lamarr burst into a western world heady with possibility and energy, spattered with sexist values and the filthy business of war. It was also a world characterised by lots of frenetic dance, literature, film. In thinking about what the 1930s meant to society, you may ponder the intricacies of the Foxtrot and the flow of Swing. Talkies were brand new, and film hadn’t yet slipped under the Production Code of 1934, with its moral rules. The Andrews Sisters were entertaining the troops; the writer Henry Miller was in full throttle and the era was sparkly with verve and character.

Alas, this monodrama lacks that sexiness. There are some snippets of Lamarr on screen before the work begins, but sadly none of these are segued into the work itself. While Lamarr’s peers, such as Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, James Stewart and others are hinted at, there is not enough to give this work the fierce and complex context it needs. Massie’s performance forces the character into more of a parody of a 1920s ‘flapper’ than a real woman.

There is so much exciting possibility in this project that has the wisdom to peer at sexism in the 20th century through the life of a woman who knew the best and the worst of both. There is, however, much in this performance that you will need to forgive, from a theatre perspective.

  • Hedy! The Life and Inventions of Hedy Lamarr is written and performed by Heather Massie and directed by Blake Walton. It features design by Jim Marlowe and Charley Marlowe (projections), Jacob Subotnick and Andy Evan Cohen (sound design) and Page Clements (dialects coach). It performs at Auto & General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until August 24.

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