You’ve never heard of the curse of Hedy Lamarr? This screenwriter experienced it. 2,225 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Fifty-three year old Steven Harris could recite the ten worst if only moments of his life in Hollywood in perfectly chiseled narrative prose, in a voice resonating with regret that ended in either a deep sigh, a shoulder shrug or another belt of strong coffee since he’d been in recovery. He’d related his woeful tale so often, it had become as polished as the best of his screenplay exposition dialogue. His last project, just passed on after a lot of studio bullshit happy talk, demanded a heavy session of commiseration. For that his ex, Ellen Owens, was his go-to safe place. Theirs had been one of those quirky marriages you hear about: horrible living together, utterly joyous after the divorce.
One of the reasons was Ellen’s magical ability to listen with patience and insight to his mewlings about the downward trajectory of his writing and directing careers. And, as always, his sorry tale began with that fleeting elevator moment, thirty-two years before, with Hedy Lamarr.
Ellen had agreed to meet Steven at the Intelligentsia coffee joint in Silver Lake at a quiet corner table where the lamentations, all familiar and chronologically precise, flowed from his mouth to her ears for the umpteenth time since their divorce ten years before. As she came inside, he got up, and they did their hugs and cheek kisses, and he curled back into his gloomy shell, prepared to spew forth the top ten list of why his career had gone into the crapper.
He tapped his laptop and said glumly, “It’s my best script ever. Fox just passed. Nobody left to see it. That’s project number five in the toilet this year. A new record. Want something besides coffee?”
“Just coffee. So, honey, talk to me,” she asked, planting elbows on the table, curled fists on her cheeks. “What’s the great project they shit on this time?”
“Working title: INVENTING HEDY LAMARR.
“So you’ve written about that Forties drop dead gorgeous movie queen who couldn’t act for shit. Another period biopic of someone nobody under sixty has ever heard of. Steven, please, you’re making old white guy noise again.”
“Just a second. That’s not all she was. You know Hedy Lamarr was a genius inventor. And she had a partner, a musical prodigy composer named George Anteil. And these two improbable people developed a World War II radio guidance system for Allied torpedoes which used spread spectrum and frequency hopping technology to defeat the threat of jamming by the Axis powers. The principles of their work are now incorporated into modern GPS, Wi-Fi, CDMA and Bluetooth, which led to their being inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014.”
“And nobody in Hollywood got it.”
“It’s a miniseries lay-up for HBO, Netflix, Hulu for god’s sake. Here, read the first scene,” he implored, sliding his laptop over to Ellen. “She practically won the submarine war. It’s incredible, her life. It’s all about female empowerment. I even loaded five minutes of clips from her movies as part of my pitch. The execs were stunned at her beauty, gave me this, ‘Love it, Love it’ con job — and passed.”
“Millennials don’t get anything before 2005. They think old movies begin somewhere around 2007. You should know that.” Ellen scrolled the first ten pages. “Steven, it’s nice, it’s sweet, it’s warm and fuzzy. And it’ll die. It’s not a love letter from a new generation to an old. Get it?”
The screenwriter slumped back in his chair, collapsing within himself.
“Nobody tells you that. Instead they say, ‘It’s unique.’ ‘It’s a story that needs to be told.’ ‘She’s a fascinating creature.’ ‘We can see Eve Mendes in the title role.’ And then, El Paso. Of course, I know why. It’s the Hedy Lamarr curse. I’ve thought about it a lot. I almost puked when the brutal truth hit me last night as I nibbled on my pizza.”
“Oh please, Steven, that Hedy Lamarr curse thing again? God, that was ninety seconds of nothing, You’re still paranoid about that stupid encounter eons ago? Jeez.”
“It was ninety seconds that killed my career in the cradle, Ellen. I can prove it.”
She lowered her head, spread her fingers across her eyes, sighed and then looked up. She surrendered by tapping his hand. “Okay, Steven, let’s have the pathology on your Hedy Lamarr moment. You realize I know it by heart, second by second, honey. But I’ve forgotten the details. So start me from scratch.”
Once more into the breech, Steven Harris told Ellen about his singular Hedy Lamarr moment.
“Thirty-two years ago. In the William Morris Agency elevator. A life changer. I was too slow, too dumb, too clueless, too soon out of Oberlin to understand it was the shot of a lifetime. And I failed.”
“Steven, how many times have I heard it and how many times have we finally agreed it was imaginary?”
“No, it’s a new take. Really. There are resonances and nuances we never discussed that have come on me, epiphanies like lightning bolts.”
Ellen’s coffee came, she sipped it, and she nodded for him to go on.
“If you don’t mind,” he murmured, glancing at the time on his iPhone, “Unless you have to be somewhere…”
“No, I just have to pick up Karina at her art class at three. Go ahead. You have my damn sanction. From fade in…”
“I was like fifteen seconds out of Oberlin, two weeks in L.A., faxing resumes to the entire circulation of Variety, getting a scattering of polite ‘thanks but no thanks’ letters, total zip, until I got a phone call from William Morris.”
“Assistant to some bitch goddess agent, as I recall, right?”
“Yes, a coke-sniffing fucked-up Vassar grad of the moment giving it up once a week to some horror film dude a decade her junior. It was hell, believe me, but I stuck.”
“Don’t we all?”
“Yeah, well, now a month into the gig, I couldn’t sleep. I rose at six and thought, what the fuck, maybe I’ll earn brownie points showing up early. So, one morning, I arrived at the office at seven a.m. and buzzed for the elevator. It whooshed open, I stepped in and, just as the doors began to hiss, I heard, ‘Hold the door, please,’ from a voice behind me. I chopped a hand into the electric eye and stopped the door. Who walks in? Hedy Lamarr. By the 1970s she had become increasingly secluded. She was offered several scripts, television commercials, stage projects, but none piqued her interest. Then, in 1974, she filed an invasion of privacy lawsuit for $10 million for an unauthorized use of her name in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles. The case was settled out of court. By 1981, she had retreated from public life completely and settled in Miami Beach.”
“The Empress of South Beach.”
“But here she was in person. With me in the elevator. The door shut, I punched my floor, and I shat a houseload of bricks trying to figure out what to say. We’re alone for maybe 90 seconds. I was searching madly for something beyond, ‘Good morning.’ A bon mot, a quickie joke, an astute observation, even an introduction. I froze, my mouth balled up in wool. And then a deus ex machina intervened. The elevator got stuck between floors. Deliverance. Somebody up there wanted to give me more time with the great woman to impress, to mutter my name, to tell her how great it would be to start my career representing the one-time actress apogee of the film business.”
Ellen made a little platform of her hands beneath her chin, readying herself for the primal scream she knew was coming. “And ten options at once flew into your addled brain, right?”
“Probably more. A plain ‘Good morning, Ms. Lamarr,’ and wait for a reaction. I knew it could break her concentration, and she’d turn and think, ‘Just who is this who doesn’t know he’s not to intrude on my space.’ Or then the ballsy foray. I would say, ‘Good morning’ and she’d turn around. I’d smile, extend my hand to shake and say something like, “Ma’am, I just want to introduce myself. I’m Steven Harris, I’m a new hire here, and I’d feel so lucky to start my career with you.”
“And the downside risk?” Ellen asked like she hadn’t heard it all before.
“She’d be annoyed, might give me back a vacant nod, even perhaps a, ‘You’re welcome,’ and turn back to pressing the emergency button on the elevator console. In which case I’d be totally fucked just for being friendly. Or maybe she didn’t want to be recognized by a mere nobody.”
“And the biggie? Tell me about the biggie, again,” Ellen said, suppressing a yawn.
“Well, what any young, aggressive and savvy guy starting out in this business would do. There was precedent, you know,” Steven began.
“Precedent, huh?” the ex replied.
“Yes, those What Makes Sammy Run types, old Hollywood conniving loudmouths who took no shit and were in the faces of their bosses and wound up running studios. That kind of balls. I mean, I should have created some colossal lie that had to get her attention…”
Already wearied, Ellen decided on a muffin with a coffee warm-up and hailed the waiter. She needed the sustenance to get to the end of Steven’s lament. “Tell me the dazzling lie,” she said.
“Of course, it had to be something she’d relate to, highly personal, close to the gut. Like she plays the grandmother of a kid who aspires to be a great fighter and works his way through the tomato can bums and loses. But, in the process, we learn he’s been hiding his innate mathematical genius out of shame in his world of ignorant bozos. No championship but instead a scholarship to MIT. It’s reverse Rocky meets A Beautiful Mind.”
“Every cab driver in L.A. had a screenplay they pushed on passengers in those days, right? But you couldn’t get out a word…”
“Correct. So I decided the smart move was to say good morning in German, ‘Guten Morgen.’”
“Since she was born in Austria and had an early but brief film career in Germany…”
“Exactly. But she didn’t even turn towards me. The elevator began moving, the doors flew open and she disappeared. And that, dear Ellen, is why I’m sitting here today at my comfy dead end…”
“But you’re still living okay on your TV sitcom residuals, no?”
“I get by. But a man must finally recognize when he’s as irrelevant as a Betamax cartridge in this business.”
Ellen’s eyes shifted past Steven to the café door. “Look who’s arrived for coffee,” she said, nodding. “That’s David Yellen, the new bigwig executive at Quest Media.” The thirtysomething mogul took a seat alone at a table near the window and tapped away on his iPhone. “This is kismet, Steven. Go over, introduce yourself, and do a quick pitch on Hedy Lamarr. It’s said in the trades that he’s open to fresh ideas from any source…”
Steven flushed and shook his head and mumbled, “Press release bullshit.”
“Steven! It’s another elevator moment, for godsakes. Go over, be friendly, shake hands, start a chat. He’s got a reputation for being one of the nice ones…” she urged, kicking him under the table.
Steven looked at Yellen. He had a kind of beatific appearance. A friendly face, bright eyes, even a smile as he browsed through his email. “Let one of these ballsy millennials here do it. It’s all past me. Nobody wants material from middle-aged white guys in this town anymore.”
“If you won’t, I will,” Ellen insisted, getting up. She turned and walked over to where Yellen sat. She put out a hand. They shook. In minutes, they were exchanging chortles. He saw her thumbing back to where he sat. Yellen waved at him. Steven panicked all over again, his mouth went wooly, but he managed a wave back.
Savvy Ellen continued the chatter a few more minutes then came back to the table. “We have an appointment with him. Tomorrow at 11. He loves our Hedy Lamarr idea. So spit out the wool, Steven, and be ready to pitch.”
“I told him we were a writing team. An old white guy and a not-so-old sassy woman. He was putty in my hands. So you need to put my name on the script. If he bites, you owe me nothing. I’ll play writing partner as long the project lasts through the gauntlet. If we get greenlit, you take all the money. I don’t need it. I cleaned you out once and, morally, I can’t do it again.”
“Jesus, Ellen, this feels like the Hollywood Ten redux,” Steven said.
Getting up, she leaned over and kissed his cheek. “Incomplete logline. It’s Hollywood Ten faked authorship meets The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty.”
“Ellen, I don’t know how to thank…” Steven began, nonplussed, somewhere between delighted and discombobulated.
“Say nothing, honey. Just ‘Guten Morgen’!”
He flipped open his laptop, punched in the spec script PDF and retitled it: INVENTING HEDY LAMARR, a screenplay by Ellen Owen and Steven Harris. He’d put her name first. Because Steven Harris was one of those men easily rattled all his life, but nobody ever took him for a fool.