Although she was born in Austria, Hedy Lamarr was born in the right circumstances to become a Hollywood icon, even if she could have been more. Fleeing Europe before the outbreak of World War II, Lamarr got the attention of the mogul Louis B. Mayer (of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer fame). He was actively looking to scoop up European talent, and Lamarr was one of his most promising finds. This would be an incredible story on its own, but Lamarr was too smart and extraordinary for just that. She was also a genius, and her most noteworthy invention paved the way for modern communication as we know it today. Yes, you read that correctly.
Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story is a traditional biographical documentary, complete with the usual mix of archival footage and talking heads. Director Alexandra Dean mostly handles the material with tact, yet there are some moments and flourishes that undermine her film’s credibility.
Lamarr’s son Anthony narrates most of the story, and the opening section is most interesting because Dean dovetails Lamarr’s biography with Hollywood sexism and the American propaganda effort during the War. She had a keen mind for invention: Alongside composer George Antheil, she developed “frequency hopping” technology for the U.S. Navy, and yet everyone thought she was only good for her looks and celebrity, so she helped sell war bonds.
Once the war ended, she went through many husbands, produced her own films, and starred in the megahit Samson and Delilah. This material would be dry, even a little obtuse, if Dean did not have a series of interviews with Lamarr and a journalist. These interviews would be the basis for the news story of her as an inventor, and here they serve as a diary of her past exploits.
Dean is selective in her handling of Hollywood’s institutional sexism. She returns to the paradox of being a great beauty—when you’re a bombshell, no one cares about anything but your looks—yet there are also scenes that undermine her attempts for empathy. One of the talking heads is Mel Brooks, who made running jokes at Lamarr’s expense in Blazing Saddles, and at one point he describes his plans for courtship: “If I can’t marry her, I’ll take her out to dinner and feel her up under the table. Whatever I can get!”
Dean lets this comment pass, perhaps chalking it up to Brooks’ age and the sensibilities of his heyday, and yet the comment is jarring since it’s precisely the sort of thing that would make Lamarr herself feel uncomfortable (there is also archival footage of Woody Allen—arguably the most controversial figure in the film world—drooling over her on The Merv Griffin Show).
Another strange thing about Bombshell is how it tells half-truths by omission. Through shrewd editing, the Lamarr recordings seem like a long-lost discovery, almost as if Bombshell unearths new details about her life. As the documentary continues, we realize that there is nothing new here except the feature-length presentation. Anyone with a passing interest in Lamarr could learn about as much from reading her Wikipedia page.
To her credit, Dean includes footage from many of her films, including the controversial Austrian drama Ecstasy in which she appears nude at age 18. Dean and her subjects rarely comment on or observe these episodes, so most of the footage only appears for posterity’s sake. Contrast this with the Hollywood history podcast You Must Remember This, in which host Karina Longworth digs into Lamarr’s filmography, arguing that even her most controversial work is a secret camp success.
The latter half of Hedy Lamarr’s life was nowhere as glamorous as the first. She was a regular patient of “Dr. Feelgood,” an unethical physician who would prescribe methamphetamine to his addict celebrity clientele. This would cripple Lamarr’s life, leading toward legal troubles, many failed marriages, and financial ruin.
By the time the scientific community acknowledged her contribution to everything from WiFi to Bluetooth, she was living as a recluse (years of plastic surgery changed her appearance considerably). These final scenes have a somber note to them, without much of the frustration or bitterness Lamarr must have felt.
Bombshell is a decent, albeit uninspired introduction to a unique figure who secretly succeeded at everything she attempted. A more interesting film would be angry, not wistful, about what her life could have been under fairer circumstances.
Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema.