BOMBSHELL: THE HEDY LAMARR STORY: Overdue Recognition For The Brains Behind The Beauty
With Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, Alexandra Dean shows who Lamarr truly was: a genius inventor who was denied recognition most of her life.
At her peak, Hedy Lamarr was thought of as the most beautiful woman in the world. She also had one of the most remarkable backstories: after fleeing her homeland of Austria to escape her unhappy marriage to an arms dealer and the infamy brought by her starring role in the scandalous erotic film Ekstase, the young woman originally known as Hedy Kiesler made her way to Hollywood and made a name for herself as one of the most glamorous stars of the silver screen.
Yet her show-stopping beauty and the lingering effects of her role in Ekstase meant that it was hard for her to be taken seriously in sexist Hollywood. She wanted the parts given to character actresses; instead, she was mostly given flimsy roles (and costumes) that typecast her as an exotic seductress.
It wasn’t just Hollywood that didn’t appreciate the full range of Lamarr’s talents. When not acting, Hedy Lamarr was an inventor came up with the idea of “frequency hopping” as a way to send secure radio signals that could not be tracked or jammed by the enemy during World War II. Her invention is the foundation of modern WiFi and Bluetooth technology, but until relatively recently, no one gave her the credit – let alone the money – she deserved for her accomplishment.
Writer-director Alexandra Dean’s documentary Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story shines a light on the legendary Lamarr’s life and all of its highs and lows, combining old footage of Lamarr (who passed away in 2000) with new interviews with friends, family, historians and celebrity admirers like Mel Brooks and Diane Kruger to create a full, fair portrait of an incredibly complex woman.
Not Your Typical Hollywood Starlet
In just ninety minutes, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story guides audiences through Lamarr’s beginnings in her beloved Vienna to her disastrous first marriage to a wealthy man who sold arms to the Nazis and treated her like a trophy, from her Hollywood debut in Algiers to her years of frustration over being typecast because of her looks.
Homesick for Vienna and bored in Hollywood, Lamarr turned to inventing to brighten her days. During her relationship with infamous tycoon Howard Hughes – one of the few men in her life to truly respect her intelligence and inventiveness – he gave her access to his team of engineers, telling her that they would help her create whatever she wanted.
Lamarr claimed it was at this time that she came up with a new design for the wings of Hughes’ airplanes by combining features of the fastest fish and the fastest bird to create a more aerodynamic shape. Not a trained scientist or engineer, she relied solely on her clever and creative mind to come up with ideas and had others assist in the execution.
This is how she ended up collaborating with composer George Antheil on her greatest invention: frequency hopping, designed to help the Allies launch radio-controlled torpedoes without worrying about the enemy intercepting and tracking the signals. The design was patented, but at the time, it came to nothing; only starting in the 1960’s would Lamarr and Antheil’s design be utilized.
In the meantime, Lamarr tried to join the National Inventors Council so that she could continue to focus on using her talents to help the Allies win the war. This Austrian woman with Jewish ancestry wanted nothing more than to help crush the Nazis that had taken over her homeland and killed her people. Instead, she was told she’d be better off using her famous face to sell war bonds – just one of the many examples of how Lamarr’s brains were dismissed as a result of her breathtaking beauty.
The story of Hedy Lamarr is more tragedy than comedy; her ongoing struggle to defy societal conventions and force people to look beyond her pretty face brought a great deal of anxiety and unhappiness to her life. Dean clearly aims to use her documentary to help Lamarr get the posthumous recognition she missed out on for most of her life, but she also doesn’t gloss over any of the more unsavory details of Lamarr’s character.
After all, people only got part of the story of Lamarr in the first place; there’s no point in only telling a different part of it now. Rather, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story gives Lamarr the well-rounded portrayal she deserves.
In interviews, Lamarr’s children – one of whom was adopted but promptly shipped off to another family at the age of 12 and barely saw her for fifty years – generally describe her as a loving mother, but also one who fell prey to pills and violent mood swings. She married six times – and divorced six times, too. She was arrested twice for shoplifting and, despite various attempts to reignite her career, eventually retreated from public life altogether. It wasn’t until the end of her life that she finally got the recognition she deserved as an inventor.
Beyond Skin Deep
There is one particularly disturbing example of the tragic nature of Lamarr’s life that I want to highlight, as it is one that I think still applies to so many women today – especially in Hollywood. In a world where only her looks were valued, Lamarr did whatever she could to extend the lifespan of her youth and beauty, spending thousands of dollars on plastic surgery. Even in that area, Lamarr was groundbreaking, advising surgeons where to nip and tuck for maximum effect and minimum scarring in ways they had never tried before.
As one interviewee tells it in the film, her surgery was so exceptional that women in Hollywood began going to their doctors and demanding to get whatever it was that Hedy Lamarr had done. However, as she grew older her attempts to preserve her beauty grew more drastic, and soon, it was one bad operation to fix another bad operation. Eventually, she retreated from public life, spending hours a day talking on the phone with family and friends but living in seclusion so no one could see what she looked like.
Learning that Lamarr was so afraid of aging naturally that she spent thousands of dollars having her famous face cut up, only to then stop leaving the house entirely when she decided she just couldn’t let anyone to see what had become of her, is just one tragic example of how women are wronged by society’s pressure to be perfect.
Lamarr’s not the only glamorous star who fell prey to this, either: when an aging Marlene Dietrich fell and was no longer able to use her famous legs, she retreated to her bed and never went out in public again. When women are trained to think that all they have to offer is their looks, they’ll go to extreme measures to keep those looks intact. Knowing how much else Lamarr had to offer, and how little the world cared about it, saddened and infuriated me.
Conclusion: Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story
Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story should inspire audiences, but it should also anger them and upset them. We need to look at the way the world treated Lamarr and say, “Never again.” But I worry that, despite the strides women have made in the decades that have passed since Hedy came to Hollywood, we still have far to go before we can confidently make that promise.
What do you think? Does the story of Hedy Lamarr sound like it makes for an intriguing movie? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story is released in the U.S. on November 24, 2017. You can find more international release dates here.
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