TIME movies

Why Hollywood’s Diversity Problem Can’t Just Be Solved with Fancy Award Ceremonies and Gold Statues

Noble Johnson
John D. Kisch—Separate Cinema Archive/Getty Images Publicity still of American actor Noble Johnson, 1920

For most of its history, Hollywood has worked hard to identify—and undermine—the work of black actors and filmmakers

History News Network

This post is in partnership with the History News Network, the website that puts the news into historical perspective. The article below was originally published at HNN.

Last Sunday’s Oscars have once again renewed debates over Hollywood’s diversity problem. “Not surprising that an organization who’s 94% White & 77% Male doesn’t recognize diverse talent,” one critic tweeted before the ceremony, using the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag that first trended last month, after the Academy announced its all-white list of nominees for best actor and actress, and snubbed director Ava DuVernay. Meanwhile, supporters of Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu, who won for Best Director and Best Picture, argued that Hollywood was at least making progress. Iñárritu’s awards proved “compelling stories can be told by diverse talent,” Jack Rico wrote on NBC’s website the following day.

But recognizing black, Latino, and Asian talent has never been Hollywood’s problem. Hollywood has seldom overlooked the abilities of promising non-white filmmakers. In fact, for most of its history, Hollywood has worked hard to identify—and undermine—their work, which has been more detrimental to African American film than any Oscar snub. Keen to maintain its control over global film production, Hollywood wielded its political connections and economic might to establish systems that prevented independent black filmmakers from distributing their movies. When black filmmakers overcame these challenges, Hollywood responded by co-opting black cinema’s most marketable genres and directly competing with independent black film producers.

This history reaches back more than a century. When members of the first cohort of powerful American film producers, the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC),built up a national film market, they avoided offending their white audiences and censors in the South. That meant blacks wouldn’t be treated as equals either behind the camera or onscreen. Hollywood’s early producers were not members of the MPPC, but they gladly embraced and eventually strengthened these business policies as they battled their way to the top. When the first Hollywood blockbuster, Birth of a Nation debuted–a hundred years ago this month–Hollywood was already unmistakably invested in pleasing its white audiences at the expense of African Americans.

Fortunately, African Americans had their own cinema. It’s a little known fact, but long before the rise of Hollywood or better-known black filmmakers like Oscar Micheaux, black men and women began producing their own films. They developed sophisticated editing techniques, and invented new technologies for exhibiting motion pictures. In my book Envisioning Freedom: Cinema and the Building of Modern Black Life I describe how African Americans such as Harry A. Royston toured the country in the 1890s with film exhibitions “put together to please a colored audience.” Just a few years later, filmmakers like Mr. and Mrs. Conley, and William G. Hynes produced motion pictures about black progress. These pioneers of black cinema were the children of former slaves, or were born into slavery themselves. Their motion pictures broadcast ideas about black progress and raised money for black churches and other institutions dedicated to the mission of “racial uplift.” By the early 1900s, African American film could be found throughout the country.

Hollywood studios were suspicious of any threat to their markets. With few exceptions, early Hollywood producers were unwilling to invest in black film, but they still wanted to lock out any competition. To do so, Hollywood played dirty. Hollywood studios forced theaters that wanted the screen their films into “block booking,” which meant the theater could only screen films by their production houses. Later, the big players, including Paramount, Universal, and Fox, directly purchased their own theaters and conspired to corner the market by marginalizing the opportunities of independent producers to distribute their pictures, and by closing in on profits of “second run” theaters–the only places that exhibited independent black films.

Independent black filmmakers continued to produce movies, but found themselves boxed in. To grow into an industry that could produce big-budget, feature films, black filmmakers would need bigger distribution markets. But as Hollywood tightened its grip on the channels of film distribution, filmmakers like Oscar Micheaux found it impossible to place their movies in enough theaters to earn back their money. The Supreme Court eventually ruled that Hollywood’s monopolistic practices violated US antitrust laws, but not before hundreds of independent black film companies had been destroyed.

In other cases, Hollywood muscled out black independents by making their most bankable actors sign non-competition agreements. In 1917, Noble Johnson, an African American actor who played Native American, Latino, and Asian characters in Hollywood movies, co-founded the Lincoln Motion Picture Company. He produced and starred in three films before Universal demanded he disassociate himself from Lincoln Pictures or never work for Universal again. Johnson, who relied on his earnings from Universal to help finance his venture with Lincoln, had little choice but to resign. As the Lincoln Picture’s main draw, Johnson’s departure sounded a death knell to the company.

Despite the challenges that independent black producers faced, they proved there was a market for “race films.” Hollywood producers, having established a national (white) market for their films, began paying attention to the audiences they had ignored for decades. In the late 1920s, a growing number of Hollywood studios began producing “race films”; others toned down the virulent racism in their own films, and replaced white actors in blackface makeup with more African American performers. When the Great Depression hit, Hollywood, strapped for profits, doubled down on its efforts to woo over black audiences. The industry was still unwilling to offend the South, but after decades excluding African Americans actors, Hollywood producers could pitch featured roles as maids and butlers as “progress.” The 1939 film Gone with the Wind, and black actress Hattie McDaniel’s Academy award an Oscar for best supporting actress, exemplified Hollywood’s new inclusivity.

Hollywood’s strategies in Mexico haven’t been all that different from its efforts to squelch independent black film in the US. From World War I, when US films first came to dominate Mexico’s film markets, to NAFTA, the industry has relied on its powerful lobbies, tactics like block booking, and the recruitment of talented Mexican actors and filmmakers to work on Hollywood films. None of this, of course, is any secret. “Freed of fences and trade spikes, more folks in foreign countries will want to buy what Americans make and market,” Jack Valenti, former president and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPPA) wrote in support of NAFTA in 1993. Today, Hollywood controls about 90% of Mexico’s box office.

Without a doubt, Hollywood has a diversity problem, but one that can’t just be solved with fancy award ceremonies and gold statues. Above all, Hollywood is an industry motivated by profits, with a century-long history of aggressive and monopolistic business practices. So next time the Academy hands out its awards, we should remember to ask ourselves–who’s really winning the prize?

Cara Caddoo is the author of “Envisioning Freedom: Cinema and the Building of Modern Black Life (Harvard University Press, 2014). She teaches at Indiana University, Bloomington.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: February 27

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Hollywood is less diverse than its audiences — and it might be hurting the bottom line.

By Austin Siegemund-Broka in the Hollywood Reporter

2. Facebook’s new suicide prevention tools finally get it right.

By Ashley Feinberg in Gizmodo

3. How will we understand the power of the bacteria in our bodies? Meet the crowdsourced American Gut project.

By American Gut

4. The road to artificial intelligence begins with computers mastering video games like a human being in the 80s.

By Rebecca Morelle at BBC News

5. Salting roads and plowing snow is inefficient and costly. A smart algorithm can save cities millions.

By Marcus Woo in Wired

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME celebrities

Detectives Are Investigating the Theft of Lupita Nyong’o’s Pearl Dress

US-OSCARS-ARRIVALS-NYONG'O
Mladen Antonov—AFP/Getty Images Actress Lupita Nyong'o poses on the red carpet in this combination image for the 87th Oscars on February 22, 2015 in Hollywood, California.

No arrests have been made yet

Detectives from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department are investigating the theft of Lupita Nyong’o’s $150,000 gown.

The department received a call reporting the missing dress around 11:30 pm on Wednesday, the L.A. Times reports. Thursday morning, they were investigating around the London West Hollywood Hotel, but have not yet made any arrests.

The dress, whose 6,000 pearls made headlines during the 87th Academy Awards on Sunday, was designed by Francisco Costa for Calvin Klein.

[L.A. Times]

Read next: Everyone on the Internet Wants to Know What Color This Dress Is

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

MONEY Hollywood

Fifty Shades of Grey Box Office Already Tops 7 Best Picture Nominees Combined

FIFTY SHADES OF GREY
Chuck Zlotnick—Focus Features/Courtesy Everett Collection Fifty Shades of Grey

In light of the glaring disconnect between the movies celebrated at the Academy Awards, and the movies that people actually pay money to see, the critique that the Oscars are out of touch seems more valid than ever.

The one overarching criticism of the 2015 Oscars isn’t exactly a new one. People have been complaining for years that the Academy Awards—who gets nominated, and who eventually wins—are generally too snobby, too elitist, and just plain too out of touch with mainstream American culture and the movie-going masses. This year, the near absence of minority nominees was especially glaring, noted by host Neil Patrick Harris’s joke that the night’s purpose was to honor “Hollywood’s best and whitest—sorry, brightest.”

“Members of the Academy have simply grown too old to appreciate, understand or even notice pop culture,” noted one USA Today column, citing data indicating that Oscar voters are not only past their prime (median age: 62) but also are overwhelmingly male and white.

As one film expert explained to the New York Times, the 2015 show gives much credence to the critique that the Academy Awards are snobby, and perhaps are growing increasingly irrelevant:

“It’s sad, but most people have to finally accept that the Oscars have become, well, elitist and not in step with anything that is actually popular,” said Philip Hallman, a film studies librarian at the University of Michigan. “No one really believes anymore that the films they chose are the ones that are going to last over time.”

For one indication of how out of touch the Oscars are with what fans want to see in theaters, look no further than how the current most popular film, Fifty Shades of Grey, compares at the box office with the Academy Awards’ darlings. Best Picture winner Birdman has taken in a total of $37 million in domestic ticket sales, while Boyhood—universally regarded as the runner-up in the category—did about $25 million at the box office in 2014. Together, that’s $62 million, or about two-thirds of the $94 million in revenues that Fifty Shades of Grey made in just four days around President’s Day weekend.

Overall, in less than two weeks, Fifty Shades of Grey has surpassed the $400 million mark in global ticket sales. Remove American Sniper—the one Best Picture nominee with truly blockbuster sales, to the tune of $320 million and counting—and the box office take of Fifty Shades already handily trumps that of the remaining seven Best Picture nominees combined. (Collectively, they’ve earned roughly $300 million in ticket sales, per BoxOfficeMojo.com.)

Based on this disconnect of the movies the Academy wants to celebrate and the films that the public actually wants to see, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that TV ratings for the show were exceptionally lackluster. The number of viewers dropped 16% compared with the year before, making for the fourth worst performance in four decades. Twitter usage related to the awards was down as well, by about 6%. Insult to injury: The show’s most tweeted moment didn’t feature a movie star or a new film, but was Lady Gaga singing a medley from The Sound of Music.

In the aftermath of the 2015 Oscars, which opened with a musical number in which Jack Black—star of Kung Fu Panda, Kung Fu Panda 2, and (soon) Kung Fu Panda 3, mind you—bashes Hollywood for focusing on box office results and pushing sequels and superhero films, James Gunn, writer and director of Guardians of the Galaxy, took to Facebook to defend comic book movies and, by extension, popular movies in general.

“The truth is, popular fare in any medium has always been snubbed by the self-appointed elite,” Gunn wrote on Monday:

“What bothers me slightly is that many people assume because you make big films that you put less love, care, and thought into them then people do who make independent films or who make what are considered more serious Hollywood films… If you, as an independent filmmaker or a ‘serious’ filmmaker, think you put more love into your characters than the Russo Brothers do Captain America, or Joss Whedon does the Hulk, or I do a talking raccoon, you are simply mistaken.”

Perhaps The Lego Movie—like Guardians, in the top five at the box office in 2014, but mostly snubbed at the Oscars—had the best response to the Academy’s elitism. The film was featured in what had to be the show’s Most “Awesome” Performance, with an wild and energetic version of “Everything Is Awesome” by Tegan and Sara and The Lonely Island. And in the middle of the song, dancers handed out “Oscars” built with yellow Lego bricks to the audience.

The move could be viewed as just some clever product placement, much like the movie itself. But it also might have sent a little message, along the lines of: Members of some elitist “Academy” aren’t the only ones who get to give out awards. Heck, anyone can make their own awards and hand them out however they please.

Isn’t that essentially what we’re doing when we plunk down good money to buy tickets to a movie?

TIME movies

Blame Male Geniuses for Hollywood’s Diversity Problem

THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING, Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking, 2014. ph: Liam Daniel/©Focus
Focus Features

Science has shown that "genius" obsession is bad for women and minorities

The Best Picture nominees at this year’s Oscars have one thing in common: if they’re not about a broody, flawed, male genius, they’re made by one. Maybe the Academy should announce the Best Picture winner by scribbling it down furiously on an Ivy League dorm window with a Sharpie.

Whether it’s Alan Turing or Stephen Hawking or Martin Luther King, Jr., a drumming prodigy or a Navy SEAL or a theatrical powerhouse, six of the eight movies nominated for the Best Picture Oscar have the same agenda– a glimpse inside the dark and twisty mind of an exceptionally gifted man who is not like most mortals. The other two movies, Boyhood and The Grand Budapest Hotel, are passion projects of men who have long been heralded as geniuses themselves — Richard Linklater and Wes Anderson.

In the aftermath of the mostly-white, mostly-male Oscar nominations earlier this year, many pundits lamented the fact that the Oscars seemed so focused on the “complicated genius” profile. Alexandra Petri of the Washington Post even wrote a hilarious fake movie script that incorporates all the tropes of movies about geniuses. In a single line, she sums up the message of pretty much every Best Picture nominee this year: “Being a genius like me is hard.”

But the focus on genius is more than just a weird coincidence — it also could explain the lack of diversity at the Oscars this year, especially for women.

MORE This is How to Fix the Oscars

So all the Oscar films are about male geniuses — who cares? What’s wrong with grandiose celebrations of male intellectual accomplishments? Some of the world’s greatest triumphs were won with the brains of super-smart ubermenches! Well, for one thing, scientists have shown that genius-obsessed environments may be toxic for women. According to a new study published in January in Science, women and minorities are underrepresented in academic fields that are seen to value “innate brilliance” over hard work, like physics and math (ahem, Stephen Hawking and Alan Turing.) That’s because women are often stereotyped as not having the “spark of genius” that seems essential to that field. Even outside the academic sphere, professions that are wrapped up in an aura of “genius” don’t seem to be particularly hospitable to women. Just look at classical music, which reveres prodigies like Beethoven and Mozart — and four out of five of American orchestra conductors are male.

So is it a coincidence that an Oscar season that is so fixated on “genius” is also so feeble when it comes to women and minorities? Probably not. Between Ava Duvernay’s Best Director snub, the all-male nominations for screenwriting and the fact that no Best Picture nominees had a female lead, this year’s Oscars is considered one of the worst for women in recent memory. Considering the all-white acting nominations and snubs for Selma in all categories but two, this Oscars season is a low point for racial diversity as well.

For the Academy, it’s also an image problem. Considering all the bad press this year’s Oscars has gotten for the worst representation of women and minorities in almost 20 years, the fixation on genius doesn’t seem so brilliant after all.

Read next: Everything You Need to Know About the Controversies Surrounding This Year’s Oscar Movies

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: February 20

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Hollywood’s diversity problem goes beyond “Selma.” Asian and Latino stories and faces are missing.

By Jose Antonio Vargas and Janet Yang in the Los Angeles Times

2. Shifting the narrative away from religion is key to defeating ISIS.

By Dean Obeidallah in the Daily Beast

3. Innovation alone won’t fix social problems.

By Amanda Moore McBride and Eric Mlyn in the Chronicle of Higher Education

4. When the Ebola epidemic closed schools in Sierra Leone, radio stepped in to fill the void.

By Linda Poon at National Public Radio

5. The racial wealth gap we hardly talk about? Retirement.

By Jonnelle Marte in the Washington Post

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

MONEY

Binge-Watch Every Oscar-Nominated Movie for $65 (or Less) This Weekend

THE IMITATION GAME, from left: Allen Leech, Benedict Cumberbatch, Matthew Beard, 2014.
Jack English—Weinstein Company/Courtesy Evere THE IMITATION GAME, from left: Allen Leech, Benedict Cumberbatch, Matthew Beard, 2014.

It's not too late to get up to speed on all—or at least some—of the movies up for Academy Awards this Sunday.

So you plan on watching the Oscars on Sunday (who doesn’t?), but because you haven’t seen many—or any—of the films up for the big awards, it’s hard to figure out who to root for. Most of the jokes and references in the show will probably go over your head too. First off, you’re in good company. For the most part, the films with the most Academy Award nominations in 2015 skew anti-blockbuster, with only one Best Picture candidate (American Sniper) crossing the $100 million mark at the box office.

Second, there are ways to get up to speed on this year’s Oscar-nominated movies in a hurry. The simplest strategy is to seek out one of the select AMC Theatre locations around the country selling special “Best Picture Showcase” tickets. One $65 ticket grants admission to marathon back-to-back showings of all eight Best Picture nominees, starting with Boyhood at 10 a.m. on Saturday, February 21, and ending early Sunday morning, after the credits roll for the final film, Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel.

The start time on Anderson’s film is … 3:45 a.m. And remember, the screening comes at the end of a movie marathon, following The Theory of Everything at 1:05 p.m., Birdman at 3:30 p.m., Selma at 5:50 p.m., American Sniper at 9 p.m., The Imitation Game at 11:30 p.m., and WHEW! Whiplash at 1:45 a.m.

This ticket is not for everyone. It wouldn’t be all that surprising that anyone who spent nearly 24 hours watching these films in a movie theater would wind up sleeping through the Oscar ceremonies on Sunday night. What’s more, while the price of admission breaks down to a reasonable $8 per movie, filmgoers should probably factor in $20, $30, or more in concession costs to make it through all eight movies. (The fine print on the AMC Theatre offer states: “Outside food and beverage is not allowed for this event. Limited seating. No passes or coupons accepted.”) Considering what you’ll be ordering at the movie theater—hot dogs, nachos, popcorn, Raisinets, giant sodas—you should plan ahead and factor in the cost of some Pepto Bismol too.

Sitting through a marathon showing at the movie house isn’t the only way to prepare for Sunday’s Academy Awards, however. In order to have a clue what host Neil Patrick Harris and everyone else is talking about during the show, you could utilize some combination of the following cost-effective strategies:

Buy tickets to a few matinees. Again, the $65 ticket breaks down to around $8 per film. Matinees and early-bird seatings at movie theaters are often cheaper than that. Plunk down $5 or $6 apiece for the two or three nominated films you really want to see in the theater.

Rent DVDs. Best Picture nominee Boyhood has been available for rent at Redbox locations for weeks. And while they’re not BP contenders, films up for other Oscars, such as Gone Girl (Actress in a Leading Role: Rosamund Pike), and The Judge (Actor in a Supporting Roll: Robert Duvall) are rentable as well. So are Animated Feature Film nominees Boxtrolls and How to Train Your Dragon 2, and The Lego Movie, which was robbed of a nomination in that category but is up for best Original Song (“Everything Is Awesome”). One day’s DVD rental from Redbox starts at $1.50, and there always seem to be coupon codes bringing costs down even lower.

Borrow DVDs. Your local library may have copies of Oscar-nominated films available to borrow at no charge. This is only an option for movies that were released in theaters many months ago. DVDs of The Grand Budapest Hotel, for example, first went on sale last June, giving libraries plenty of time to buy copies of their own and lend them out to locals.

Rent Online. Among other options, Google Play is renting films such as Birdman and The Theory of Everything for $4.99 apiece.

Video on Demand. Check out what Oscar-nominated movies are being offered VOD by Dish, Comcast, or whatever pay TV service provider you use. The prices and options are usually similar to what’s available at Google Play and other online services.

MONEY Hollywood

The Big Dollar Figures Behind Hollywood’s Biggest Night

Oscar statues on stage at Academy Awards
Adam Taylor—ABC via Getty Images

At this Sunday's Academy Awards, all the glitz and glamour of Hollywood will be on display—at a price, of course.

The 87th Academy Awards, being held on February 22, is heavy on film nominees that were made on (relatively) small budgets, with (relatively) meager box office grosses to match. Even so, like any Oscars, a small fortune will be spent on the buildup to this year’s awards ceremony, as well as the big night itself.

Here’s a breakdown of some of the big and small dollar amounts—OK, mostly BIG—behind the Academy Awards.

1: Number of 2015 Best Picture nominees to earn more than $100 million at the box office, in what’s shaping up as an especially blockbuster-light Oscars ceremony. Clint Eastwood’s war drama American Sniper walks away with the honor, but it hardly compares to Avatar, which earned a whopping $2.8 billion in 2010, the highest on record for any BP nominee. Ironically, Avatar lost out to The Hurt Locker, which is the lowest-grossing movie to win Best Picture, pulling in only $14.7 million at the box office before the awards.

$400: The surprisingly low estimate for what one of the Oscar statuettes is actually worth. Mind you, an Oscar isn’t solid gold but is merely gold-plated. Besides, the real value comes with the name connected to the statue: Joan Crawford’s only Oscar, which she received for her performance in Mildred Pierce, sold at auction for $426,732 in 2012, while Orson Welles’ Best Screenplay Oscar for Citizen Kane sold for $861,542 at auction in 2011.

$25,000 – $30,000: The cost of the much-hyped 16,500-square-foot red carpet that Hollywood stars stroll down before the Oscars, according to Red Carpet Systems in Los Angeles. (Installation’s included in the figure.)

$85,000: The per-ticket price scalpers were trying to command by selling seats to the awards show in 2008. Since attendees sign a contract that prohibits them from selling or even giving away their seats, scalped Oscar tickets are all but unheard of today.

$125,000: The value of the swag bag given to Academy Award nominees in 2015. Besides lavish vacations and accessories, this year’s bag includes a $20,000 gift certificate to have Olessia Kantor, the founder of Enigma Life, meet with the nominees to discuss their 2015 horoscopes, analyze their dreams and teach them… mind control techniques.

$500,000 vs. $3.9 million: Hollywood agents estimate that winning an Oscar results in a pay increase of about 20% for the performer’s next project. However, much like in the real world, there’s reportedly a notable gender wage gap. Actors can expect a $3.9 million increase, on average, while actresses may only take home an extra $500,000.

$1.9 million: The cost of a 30-second commercial airing during this year’s TV broadcast of the awards ceremony.

$3 million: The average bump in earnings at the box office for an Oscar-winning film. It’s impressive, but nothing compared to the Golden Globes, where a win can supposedly help pull in an extra $14.2 million in ticket sales.

$18.1 million: The cost of Cate Blanchett’s ensemble at the 2014 Oscars, the most expensive of the night. Her Armani Prive gown was valued at $100,000, while Blanchett wore some $18 million worth of jewelry. More “normal” designer gowns worn at the Oscars run anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000, and celebrity stylist Phillip Bloch estimates that jewelry completing the outfit can easily hit $750,000.

$100 million+: The amount spent collectively by Hollywood for the purpose of campaigning for Oscars during awards season. Studios often pay Academy PR consultants $10,000 to $15,000 to run their campaigns; in 2013, Harvey Weinstein actually hired President Obama’s former deputy campaign manager to push Silver Linings Playbook. Meanwhile, the going rate to advertise your film in the Hollywood Reporter during Oscar season is $72,000. It all adds up, and the average campaign for a Best Picture winner costs $10 million on its own.

$130 million: Filmmakers and Hollywood stars aren’t the only winners during the Oscars. Greater Los Angeles is the beneficiary of an economic boost of $130 million thanks to increased spending on everything from florists to limo drivers.

$1 billion: The estimated value, in terms of equivalent advertising dollars, of Ellen DeGeneres’ famous A-list selfie taken during the 2014 Academy Awards.

TIME Icons

Meet the Actress Who Performed the First Onscreen Orgasm

Eight decades before Fifty Shades of Grey, Hedy Lamarr shocked audiences around the world with a passionate performance of female sexuality

“Indecent and morally dangerous.” “Unsuitable, immoral and lascivious.” “Extremely audacious.” Reviews for 50 Shades of Grey? Not quite. Those are some of the criticisms which greeted Ecstasy, which first aired in theaters in 1933.

The Czech movie was the first non-pornographic film to feature a woman performing an orgasm onscreen, and it catapulted that woman—18-year-old Hedy Kiesler—into international stardom. In the movie, Kiesler—who would later be forced to change her name to Hedy Lamarr in an effort to distance herself from her salacious debut—played Eva, a young woman married to a much older man who also happens to be impotent. One day while swimming nude in a lake, her horse runs off with her clothing draped across its back. A naked Eva chases the horse through the countryside, in a scene that was scandalous for its nudity but G-rated compared to what comes later. The naked chase leads to what can only be called now, anachronistically, a meet-cute, with a strapping young man whom she later takes to bed.

At this point, it should be noted, Eva has fled her passionless marriage, but she’s not technically divorced. So when she does the deed with her young lover, it constitutes adultery, which was in 1933 as much a reason for public outcry as her sexualized performance. The sex scene itself—not surprisingly quite tame by today’s standards—cuts between her hand grazing the rug on the floor, the pearls on her necklace scattering as she wrings them from her neck, and, most scandalously, her face contorting in accordance with the ecstasy of the moment (read: an orgasm). It ends, naturally, with a cigarette.

The film’s reception was, as with 50 Shades of Grey, divided chiefly between two camps. There were those, like the crowds at the International Film Exposition in Venice, who were entranced by its sensual beauty and received it (unlike 50 Shades) as an art-house film. And then there were those who deemed it filth, like the Pope (who denounced it in the Vatican newspaper); Kiesler’s then-husband (who sought to buy and destroy every copy he could find); the Catholic Legion of Decency (which condemned it); and U.S. officials (who confiscated the film under the indecency provisions of the Tariff Act).

The movie finally made it to the U.S. seven years later, though it was shown in limited theaters, without the seal of the Motion Picture Production Code, or Hays Code, which set out moral guidelines for the industry (banning profanity, nudity, images of childbirth, ridicule of clergy, miscegenation, and other now-outdated taboos) until it was replaced with the MPAA rating system in 1968. Kiesler, soon to be Lamarr, also made her way to America, escaping a controlling husband who also happened to be a Nazi.

While it’s tempting to celebrate Lamarr as a pioneer of female sexuality, she later claimed that as a fledgling teen actress, she hadn’t really know what she was getting into when she took the part. And the publicity the role generated would plague her in the years to come. She was known for years as simply “Ecstasy Girl,” and she told LIFE in 1938 that people gawked at her like “I am something in a zoo.” Her studio was careful to desexualize her image just the right amount for her next film, Algiers. As LIFE put it, “Extase, naturally, focused attention on her bodily charms. With these under Hays Office taboo, Algiers has to be content with her face. It is no hardship.”

Anne Helen Petersen, author of the book Scandals of Classic Hollywood, has noted that although Lamarr was not the most talented actress of her day, she nonetheless found it difficult to be taken seriously for anything beyond her sultry looks. “Over her Hollywood career, she would be cast as one ‘high class whore’ after another—women whose beauty, and sexuality, make them natural victims of the world around them.” And with her six failed marriages, she was a regular fixture of the Hollywood gossip mill.

Lamarr’s beauty also made it difficult to get much recognition for her brains. Along with the composer George Antheil, she invented and patented a frequency-hopping technology that allowed missiles to go undetected. Though not implemented in time for use during WWII, it did play a role in the Cold War, even contributing to the deescalation of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Lamarr, who died in 2000 at 85, helped create the world of modern cinema where Dakota Johnson can now be (for better or worse) tied up, blindfolded and whipped onscreen more than 80 years later. But she also, with her patent, laid the foundation for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and cellular technology. Though she was honored later in life for the latter achievements, she spent most of her life living with the fallout from the former.

LIFE Magazine Cover - June 1, 1942

Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.

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