by Matt Smith
I must admit that my familiarity with Hedy Lamarr is mostly relegated to a handful of movies and a recent (enthralling, fascinating, sprawling) book by Richard Rhodes about her second life as an inventor (of, among other things, spread-spectrum radio, which makes the method of my uploading this essay wirelessly onto the Internet possible). I’ve always admired her in The Heavenly Body alongside Dick Powell, which occasionally pops up either very early in the day or very late at night on Turner Classic Movies. And she’s fabulous alongside Bob Hope in My Favorite Spy. But in Ecstasy, Gustav Machaty’s 1933 opus of eroticism, she’s something very, very special.
No one, and I very much mean no one, could carry a movie like Hedy Lamarr does in Ecstasy. As Eva, a woman dissatisfied with her new husband’s lack of passion for her earthly delights, rejected even on her wedding night, Lamarr is downright sultry, and the camera lingers over every inch of her gorgeously lit figure. The movie’s as erotic and seductive as everyone has ever said, and Lamarr’s body is certainly its core. The effect is to make the viewer fall in love/lust with her as her lover Adam does as they escape into the idyllic countryside with each other, discovering Eden amid the ruins of Eva’s unsatisfying marriage.
Ecstasy is a film renowned for its scenes of a nude Hedy swimming in a lake and chasing down the horse which has run off with her clothes. They’re still a bit shocking, if only because we know this was 1933, and in Hollywood this would have been unheard of (think of all the hullabaloo over Barbara Stanwyck in Night Nurse and Baby Face and add nudity and you can see what I mean). But even more shocking is how amazingly erotic the film is in its entirety. Revelation after revelation of absolutely gorgeous cinematography, lighting, and yes, the much-discussed love scenes. The film is open and honest in its handling of sex and lust, and it brings it on hot and heavy.
And in fact, the film was banned by Hollywood. Nudity notwithstanding, the film still contains an on-screen orgasm in an amazingly brazen erotic scene when Adam and Eva finally get together. The entire sequence leading up to this notorious scene is one of the most amazingly shot things I’ve ever seen in my whole life. Eva, finally having waited long enough to have her needs met, and pacing in her room, looks longingly into the night from her back door, taking a long drag on a cigarette. She leaves to find Adam, and when they finally embrace, it’s the stuff of dreams. Close-ups on Eva’s lips, parting with anticipation lead to their kiss, and then to the bed.
The bed seems to be the place of choice for Machaty to shoot Lamarr. Earlier in the film (and later) there are plenty of shots which feature her lounging, just rousing from sleep or longing for some sort of physicality. When the act between Adam and Eva is finally consummated, the camera keeps right on Eva’s face, twisting, rapturous, at the touch of her lover. Seriously, this is the kind of hot and heavy eroticism that late-night cable wishes it were capable of producing, and during this scene, not a bit of nudity. Instead there is just Lamarr’s face, which was more than enough for Hayes Office head Joseph Breen to call the film indecent and to get the Legion of Decency’s panties in a twist.
It’s no wonder this film made Lamarr an international sensation. The love scenes and nudity aside, she’s a magnetic force. I think it might be impossible to take your eyes off her in any film she’s in (and some of them are only worth watching for her). And the film itself is difficult to turn away from. There’s something in the way early Czech/Austro-Hungarian filmmakers shot those wonderful, billowy, only-in-Europe cloudy skies and sprawling countryside vistas that is hypnotic. In Ecstasy those skies are the heavenly counterpart to our heroine’s earthly desires.
The ending is pure tragedy. Emil, Eva’s ex-husband, comes to reconcile, but Eva tells him it’s too late. While driving away from Eva’s house, Emil runs into Adam and gives him a ride into town. After discovering that Adam is Eva’s lover–by recognizing her pearl necklace that Adam is carrying–Emil briefly considers killing both of them in the path of an oncoming train but decides against it. Later that night Emil shoots himself in a hotel room while Eva and Adam are dancing at a party.
Even in the film’s final moments, the tragic element comes to the fore, but is then subverted by a somewhat radical image. Adam and Eva plan to leave on a train, but as Adam sleeps through the train’s arrival, Eva leaves him and gets on a different train, leaving him behind. The final shot of Eva shows her holding a baby, alone and happy, without Adam or any other man. What does this image suggest, and what might it have suggested in 1933 to a Hollywood obsessed with reconstituting the family unit at the end of its narrative? This radical image of independent womanhood, especially following the active role of Eva in seeking her own pleasures and the negation of what I think of as the “happy family” ending, must have been just as threatening in its connotations as those of an obviously sexualized and aroused woman achieving orgasm.
Ecstasy is a film that relies on its young star and racy subject matter for its cultural capital and continued intrigue with first-time viewers. Lamarr and the film are forever intwined, unable to escape the other, and why should they anyway? She’s gorgeous, the film’s magnificent, and it’s also that rare thing pictures so often are not: honest and real, radical and potent.