On Tuesday, March 27 the Indiana University Cinema will be screening the documentary Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story as a part of the International Arthouse Series and this year’s Science on Screen series. Hedy Lamarr was a fascinating and incredibly influential woman in America, and not just because she was an actress of the Classical Hollywood period. In order not to give away too much about the woman’s talents, skills, and brains before the film, I’ll talk about another fascinating woman of the same period, a woman who worked with Lamarr and many other Hollywood stars.
This woman is Edith Head, and she was known as many things both in and out of Hollywood but most widely she was known as the designer to the stars. Head designed gowns/costumes for Lamarr (and her costar, Victor Mature) for Cecil B. DeMille’s 1949 film Samson and Delilah. She won her second Oscar for her work on this film. Of the actress, Head wrote in her autobiography/Hollywood tell-all, The Dress Doctor (1959):
“Hedy is the most unself-concious [sic] siren ever born. She’s as relaxed and boneless as a Persian cat; she has no temper, she likes to wear dirndls and simple blouses; she has never been even momentarily confused between self and symbol. She knows what she looks like, but she doesn’t work at it; and this ability of hers for relaxation means she’ll never have a wrinkle or a bulge.” (93)
For the Hollywood costume designer, the way a person dressed spoke very much about their character; and this same principle applied to Head herself—she had an iconic look.
Head was an incredible Hollywood asset not just because of her design abilities, but also because of her status as one of the few women to become the head of a studio’s costume department in the early period of Hollywood. Although she began working at Paramount Pictures in 1923, she rose to the top of the studio’s costume department by 1933. She stayed there for almost 50 years, and then moved to Universal in 1967. Head was, what Hollywood itself called her, “The Costume Designer.”
In this capacity Head worked with many stars besides Hedy Lamarr. Here’s a not-so-short list of the stars of some of her credited (and uncredited) films: Mae West (Head was uncredited for She Done Him Wrong ), Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake (Sullivan’s Travels ), Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda (The Lady Eve ), Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray (Remember the Night  and Double Indemnity ), Olivia de Havilland and Montgomery Clift (The Heiress ), Bette Davis (All About Eve ), Audrey Hepburn (Roman Holiday  and Sabrina ), Grace Kelly and James Stewart (Rear Window ), Kelly and Cary Grant (To Catch a Thief ), Stewart and John Wayne (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance ), Paul Newman (Hud ), Robert Redford and Jane Fonda (Barefoot in the Park ), and again Newman and Redford (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid  and The Sting ).
Not only was Head a woman who held some remarkable sway within Hollywood, she also won 8 separate Oscars for Best Costume Design (the first for The Heiress the year after the category was created) and the last for The Sting. Among her other wins were Roman Holiday and Sabrina, and as I mentioned previously, Samson and Delilah starring Hedy Lamarr. She won a large number of awards for her work, but Head also received a whopping 35 Oscar nominations over her almost 60 year career. One could say she had an impeccable eye for costuming and cinematic style, as well as clout within the industry.
For an interesting interview with Edith Head, see the video below. My favorite moment is less than a minute in. Head always spoke of herself as a costumer and not a designer (as you can see in this video), focusing on authenticity rather than on fashion (see also The Dress Doctor); and she prided herself on the work she did with women and men.
In the past the IU Cinema has shown numerous films with costume designs by Edith Head: Roman Holiday , Rear Window , Ball of Fire (1941), Sunset Boulevard (1950), Shane (1953), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Vertigo (1958), and Blue Hawaii (1961). Given her long list of credits, it’s only likely that many more are still to come.
Head, Edith and Jane Kesner Ardmore. The Dress Doctor. Little, Brown and Company: 1959.
Following the screening of Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, there will be a post-screening panel discussion moderated by Center of Excellence for Women in Technology Advisory Council Chair and IU First Lady Laurie Burns McRobbie. The panel will include representatives from Center of Excellence for Women in Technology, Women in STEM LLC, and the Office of Science Outreach.
A PhD Candidate in Communication and Culture, Katherine studies film and media, genre (particularly the Western), gender, and performance. She has a BA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an MA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, and has been fascinated with film since she could remember.