Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story
Hollywood documentary embraces beauty and brains
Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (2017)
Directed by Alexandra Dean
Austrian bombshell Hedy Lamarr—billed by Hollywood studio head Louis B. Mayer as “the world’s most beautiful woman”—isn’t remembered so much these days for her film roles (1933’s Ecstasy, 1942’s White Cargo, 1949’s Samson and Delilah, 1951’s My Favorite Spy among them). By the 1970s her name survived as little more than the punchline to an odd Mel Brooks joke. (In Blazing Saddles, Harvey Korman plays a corrupt attorney general named “Hedley Lamarr.”) Today, if anything, she’s memorialized as a string of Facebook memes pointing out the odd fact that the actress helped invent a radio guidance system for torpedoes using spread spectrum and frequency hopping technology—the scientific principals of which have arguably been incorporated into everything from Bluetooth technology to Wi-Fi. Now, Lamarr—the actress as well as the inventor—gets the documentary biopic treatment she so sorely deserves with Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story.
Lamarr’s curse, in many ways, was that flawlessly photogenic face. It made her famous, of course. But it also prevented people from seeing what was below the surface. And according to the evidence of Bombshell, there was a lot below that beautiful surface.
Lamarr spent a lot of time threatening to write her autobiography but never really did. (The scandalous Ecstasy and Me from 1966 was ghostwritten and largely disowned by the star.) So it’s a relief that someone has finally put in the time and energy to enshrine Lamarr’s life story on film. Turns out it’s quite a story.
Writer-director Alexandra Dean (The Player: Secrets of a Vegas Whale) lays it all out in standard documentary mode. There’s nothing aggressively stylistic in this chronological recounting. We get all the expected archival footage and talking head interviews with friends, family and admirers. But Lamarr makes her presence known—and not just in old film clips. Woven throughout the film is Lamarr’s own voice: a crucial collection of long-lost interview tapes from a 1990 interview with a reporter at Forbes magazine.
Lucid and free of regret, Lamarr narrates her own story: A sensation in her early teens as a model and actress in Vienna, married off to an Austrian munitions magnate supplying arms to Hitler’s Nazi army before the age of 20. Her first lead role in 1933’s Ecstasy, in which she famously (and scandalously) appeared nude, made her a sensation. Hitler later banned the film because its lead actress was Jewish—which only made her more famous. By the time she ditched war-torn Europe for America, Lanarr was already a bona fide sensation in the entertainment industry.
Throughout the swirl of movie premieres and tabloid stories, Lamarr relates her dissatisfaction with the movie industry. Boring and shallow, it provided no challenge to the brilliant European. A chance meeting with aviator, industrialist, engineer and film producer Howard Hughes sparked Larmarr’s secret, deep-seeded interest in science and engineering. He even gifted her with a portable chemistry lab for her dressing room. But sadly, as one film historian notes, “You don’t get to be Hedy Lamarr and smart.”
Bombshell gives a blow-by-blow account of Lamarr’s involvement in the creation of frequency hopping technology. Though some old-school braniacs dispute Lamarr’s credentials, it’s clear she was responsible. Inspired by the plight of European emigrants trying to reach England and America safely, Lamarr labored over the idea of creating a tool that could take down the seemingly invincible Nazi U-boats. Decades old patents, hidden by the government, are now easily recovered. Lamarr’s old sketchbooks, still held by her descendants, are filled with calculations and schematics. Sadly, the government dismissed Lamarr’s ideas at the time, filing them away in a warehouse somewhere—only to conveniently dig them up again after the patent expired.
After World War II ended, Lamarr’s star in Hollywood began to fade. She eventually dumped the controlling studio system and started producing her own independent movies—an act of rebellion virtually unheard of in the era. Alas, fame and fortune continued to wane for the actress. Mental illness, prescription drug abuse and a string of broken marriages followed. It’s a sad story, but a familiar one for Hollywood. Bombshell doesn’t exactly avoid Lamarr’s thornier moments—but it doesn’t precisely dig into them either.
Eventually, of course, the film circles back to Lamarr’s groundbreaking invention and the belated recognition (not to mention the continuing lack of financial recompense) she received for it. Though it tells its story without a great deal of cinematic flair, Bombshell serves as an elucidative epitaph to the fascinating, unexpected, complicated life of an oft-forgotten matinee idol. Plus, its subject—brains, beauty and all—is luminous enough to provide her own incomparable cinematic flair.