The Hollywood story of Hedy Lamarr is one of fame, fortune, scandal, and thwarted ambitions. But the 1940s starlet is getting a revamped third act, with the provocative documentary Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, which reveals the glamour girl’s hidden streak of genius.
Written and directed by first-time filmmaker Alexandra Dean, Bombshell explores the stranger-than-fiction life of Lamarr. As a Jewish girl raised in Vienna, Hewig Kiesler was encouraged to appreciate art and invention. By age five, she’d begun tinkering with music boxes. By 17, this daring bohemian starred in the notorious German drama Ecstasy, wherein she not only appeared naked, but performed cinema’s first simulated female orgasm. The 1933 film was denounced by the Pope and banned by Adolf Hitler. Years later, it tainted Lamarr’s reputation in Hollywood. Yet by today’s standards, this pioneering representation of female sexuality seems tame, though no less groundbreaking. Lamarr was often ahead of her time.
Through interviews with Lamarr’s surviving family, friends, and Hollywood historians, she’s revealed as a woman who lived, loved, and struggled behind the face that made her an icon. Lamarr’s story proves a perfect exploration of the double-edged sword of beauty. On one hand, it got her a string of husbands and the attention of Louis B. Mayer, who helped her escape Hitler’s grasps for Hollywood’s dazzle. But it also brought her a marriage to a suspicious Nazi-collaborating brute, a career where her looks was valued more than her talent, and the infuriating assumption that she must be as dumb as she was beautiful.
Lamarr was at war with her persona, famously quipping, “Any girl can look glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.” It’s this quote that kicks off Bombshell, but her greatest achievement was one of astounding ingenuity. During World War II, this Austrian Jew hiding out in Hollywood with an ambiguous screen name was determined to help the war effort. And so, she put her underestimated mind to the problem of English torpedoes being easily dodged by German subs, inventing frequency hopping. With the help of charts and animation, Bombshell explains its finer points–the key thing is that Lamarr’s revolutionary concept became the base of technology that led to secure forms of communication like wifi, Bluetooth, and military satellite feeds. For decades, Hedy’s invention was ignored; after that, her role in its creation was.
Often, historical figures can feel opaque and unknowable, as if they were marble statues, and not flesh-and-blood humans. But Bombshell gives audiences incredible access to the complicated Hedy Lamarr. Her children–now in their 70s–recall stories of her both as a warm mother who loved to cuddle them at bedtime, and later as a strung out junkie, hooked on the “pep pills” and “Vitamin B shots” (a.k.a. mislabeled meth) that starlets of her era were given to keep them going and perky. But they look back now with a sophisticated hindsight that forgives their mother her faults, and revels in her virtues.
There’s a bittersweetness that threads through the documentary, recognizing the many ways this remarkable woman was eaten away at by a society that demanded she be ever cheerful, glamorous, and dumb. It wore on her. Through the talking heads with her loved ones, her story envelops the audience with empathy, and seduces us with her sheer resilience. Sure, she suffered battles with addiction, a string of ugly divorces, attacks of self-doubt that led to botched plastic surgeries and last days reclusion. But Lamarr was also the daring trophy wife who fled her abusive husband with an escape plan that included a body double, a disguise, jewelry sewn into the lining of her coat, and a bicycle to spirit her away. She was nonetheless the intrepid refugee who challenged Mayer for more money on her contract when most were happy for a ticket out of war-brewing Europe. She was still the inventor who toyed with chemistry, engineering, and housewares design until her final days in 2000.
But for all the details these interviews bring to Bombshell, its most impactful comes from Lamarr herself. In 1990, the largely forgotten film star made one last ploy to earn recognition for her greatest invention. Speaking with Forbes magazine writer Fleming Meeks over the course of four cassette tapes, the then 76-year-old Lamarr unspooled her tales of inventions and sexist dismissals, and her bitterness that the U.S. Navy used her frequency hopping but never compensated her for it. She was fading, scraping by on a paltry union pension, and still dreaming that her legacy would be as an inventor, not an actress. She was ferocious and inspiring to the last.
Bombshell becomes not just a stupendous tribute to Lamarr, but also a tribute to every brilliant woman ignored, thanking them even if they never snagged the spotlight, and inspiring a new generation to go looking for theirs.
Rating: 4 out 5
Images: Reframed Pictures