Thursday, May 10, 2007

Rosalind Franklin and Hedy Lamarr movies in the works

In a report filed with Nature News on the Science and Technology Series at the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival, Emma Marris notes that there are two movies about women in technology and science may be in the works:

The rumour mill has it that the life of Heddy Lamar [sic] — the glamorous actress and inventor of the cryptographic strategy of hopping between radio frequencies to keep a message secret — is slated to be turned into a film called Face Value. I heard the name Anna Paquin (Oscar-winning child star of The Piano, now grown up) floating around for the lead role. Broken Code will take as its subject Rosalind Franklin, the molecular biologist involved with the discovery of DNA, and may be directed by Peter Bogdanovich (acclaimed director of The Last Picture Show amongst others).
The Franklin movie isn't much of a secret; the Time Out Movie Blog reported on Bogdanovich's "Broken Code" a year ago. According to its IMDB entry, it's based on Anne Sayre's biography, Rosalind Franklin and DNA, which was written in response to Watson's The Double Helix.
After reading James Watson's The Double Helix (1968), Anne Sayre began working on an account of the role of Rosalind Franklin in the discovery of the structure of DNA. Sayre felt that the portrait of her friend Franklin (who had died in 1958) that emerged from Watson's book was not only unflattering, but wrong.
Sayre herself was an interesting woman. After her death in 1998, her husband wrote an appreciation of her life for the International Union of Crystallography which explains her special relationship with Franklin:

Anne was not a scientist. In 1943, having gone to Radcliffe College and gotten a degree in government, she joined the Radiation Laboratory at M.I.T. to do her bit for the war effort; her job had to do with ordering special-design transformers for the lab. She never really came to know what a transformer was, and within a few months, feeling that her efforts were really helping our opponents more than ourselves, she left the lab for a job she could handle. She was there long enough, however, for us to meet, and shortly after the war we married.

But if not a scientist herself, she cared for scientists and in an important sense, understood their work; married to a scientist, she often said that she was a camp-follower to the scientists. And she was articulate. From about the mid-40s to the mid-70s, she was a successful writer, mainly of short stories, of which several found their way into the Foley's and the Best American Short Stories collections. When in 1949 we went to England so that I could study crystallography under Dorothy Hodgkin, she helped keep us financially afloat with her sales of stories, and with her job as an editor at the Oxford University Press. It happened too, in 1949, that she met Rosalind Franklin, and they became fast friends. We saw Rosalind fairly frequently through the next two years, while we were in Oxford and she in London, this period covering most of the period of Rosalind's work on DNA, though not the final months, as we came home to the U.S. in Sept 1951, a few months prior to the solving of the DNA structure. In the next few years she visited us several times in the U.S., and I think it was in 1957 that Anne helped nurse her in England following her unsuccessful operation for cancer. Rosalind died in 1958.

After completing the Franklin biography, at the age of 52, Sayre went back to school, getting her law degree from NYU. She did pro bono work in environmental law and served as a court justice up until a year before her death. It's a shame she won't see the movie made from her book.

As for the the Lamarr biopic, that does sound like a bit of a scoop. I couldn't find any additional information online. I've always been fascinated with Lamarr as a brilliant and beautiful woman that embodies the contradictions between stereotypical femininity and the stereotype of the male technical mind. Her invention supposedly came out of a conversation with co-inventor George Antheil that started with boob jobs and shifted to military communications (not that surprising, perhaps, since Lamarr had attended business meetings with her first husband Fritz Mandl, one of the largest armaments manufacturers in Europe).

He met Hedy Lamarr in the summer of 1940, when they were neighbors in Hollywood and she approached him with a question about glands: She wanted to know how she could enlarge her breasts. In time the conversation came around to weapons, and Lamarr told Antheil that she was contemplating quitting MGM and moving to Washington, D.C., to offer her services to the newly established National Inventors Council.

They began talking about radio control for torpedoes. The idea itself was not new, but her concept of "frequency hopping" was. Lamarr brought up the idea of radio control. Antheil's contribution was to suggest the device by which synchronization could be achieved.
You can read the whole story at There is definitely the potential for an interesting movie in her story.

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