Lights, camera, Einstein! Hollywood's connection to the world's favorite genius
Whether it was in front of the camera or hanging out at movie studios, the beloved scientist was made for the big screen.
Albert Einstein may have lived in New Jersey and gone sailing in New York, but another place he could call home – at least metaphorically – was Hollywood.
For decades, Einstein has played an outsize role in cinema, at least when ranked against other Nobel Prize-winning physicists. His pop culture cameos not only play off his historical status, but also his iconic appearance. “Einstein's face is the most recognizable face worldwide,” said Hanoch Gutfreund, the director of the Albert Einstein archives at Hebrew University in Israel, a school the physicist helped establish. "If one can say anything about this, the interest in Einstein increases with time. It's greater now."
The marriage of Einstein and film was the subject of a recent Facebook Live event hosted by the Museum of the Moving Image in New York. The discussion – between the museum's chief curator David Schwartz and Sonia Epstein, the executive editor of its online publication Sloan Science and Film – was moderated by the official Albert Einstein Facebook account.
One of the first movies they discussed was the 1985 film "Insignificance" from British director Nicolas Roeg. The film takes place in the 1950s around the time that Marilyn Monroe was filming that famous subway grate scene for "Some Like It Hot" while Albert Einstein was, apparently, staying at a nearby hotel. The two of them eventually meet and discover they have more in common than you would expect.
In the clip below, you can watch Monroe (well, the actress who plays her) try to explain the theory of relativity to Einstein:
"There are very few films where Einstein is depicted as a major character," Schwartz pointed out, with the notable exception of the 1994 romantic comedy starring Walter Matthau as Einstein the matchmaker.
In the 1988 film "Young Einstein," Yahoo Serious portrayed the budding scientist as if he were from Australia instead of Germany. There was also the 2008 co-production of BBC and HBO where the titular genius was played by actor Andy Serkis, who would later go on to accolades and fame for his award-winning motion-capture performance of Gollum in "The Lord of the Rings" movies.
As for smaller roles, an Einstein character once appeared on "Star Trek" and the physicist's fingerprints are all over "Star Wars." And, of course, there's the Doc Brown character from the "Back to the Future" trilogy who named his dog Einstein and, with his shock of white hair and dreams of time travel, bore a certain uncanny resemblance to a real-life scientist.
Looking ahead to what's on the horizon, there's the upcoming film based on Walter Isaacson's definitive biography of Einstein. Lionsgate Studios announced they had acquired the rights back in 2007, but have yet to make the film. "They could have finished the movie by now, three times over," Roni Grosz, the curator of the Einstein Archives in Jerusalem, told From The Grapevine. In addition to helping Isaacson with his research, the archives in Israel also retain the life rights to Einstein and are in regular contact with the producers of the film. "We help them with material and so on," Grosz said.
As for the man himself, the real-life genius had an affinity for Hollywood.
In 1931, Einstein traveled to California for a research trip and ended up visiting MGM Studios. Einstein, who didn't drive in real life, was famously photographed with his wife in a car at the Warner Bros. backlot. The next day's New York Times proclaimed: "Trick exposure shows scientist and wife speeding in auto and ascending to clouds."
During a tour of Universal Studios, Einstein met Charlie Chaplin. "Chaplin invited him over for a dinner party, and they struck up a friendship," Schwartz explained. "It must have been quite exciting, seeing the two of them walk down the street." The star of the silent screen invited the physicist to the premiere of his masterpiece "City Lights."
Einstein also struck up a friendship with Carl Laemmle, the founder of Universal Studios, who invited the scientist to private screenings. Carl's niece, Antonia Carlotta, produces a Web series where she discusses the early days of Universal. In the video below, she talks about her uncle's friendship with Einstein:
Einstein was also fascinated with what went on behind the scenes. He and Chaplin discussed the music in his films and Einstein took out a patent for one of the first automatic cameras, with a self adjusting aperture and lens.
"He often talked about the power of imagination," Schwartz said of Einstein, as the event came to a close. "He often came to his theories through visualization. There was something very cinematic about it."
Want to see the entire Facebook Live video event? Grab a bucket of popcorn – it's nearly a half hour! – and you can stream it below:
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