Film Review: Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (2018) DIR. Alexandra Dean
By Belle McIntyre
Hedy Lamarr (née Hedwig Keisler), the well-born daughter of wealthy assimilated Jewish parents in Vienna was gifted with two conflicting characteristics. She was extraordinarily beautiful and phenomenally intelligent with a particularly original and actively curious mind. Growing up she was constantly asking questions about how things worked, processes, chemistry and mechanical engineering. Early on she was a tinkerer, taking things apart and putting them back together as well as making new things. By her teenage years her stunning looks could not be ignored which put her on the path to movie stardom for which she is best known. But this film’s aim is to paint the whole picture of the woman and to illuminate her other side which was equally important to her, if not to the rest of the world.
The film relies heavily on recorded interviews which the 76 year old Lamarr gave to Fleming Meeks for an article in Forbes Magazine published 1990, which recounts the amazing story of her brilliant invention which she patented and developed with the composer, George Antheil, and then offered to the US Navy to enable a radio-controlled device for directing torpedoes which could not be intercepted or jammed. It involved randomly switching frequencies or “frequency hopping” as she called it. The Navy, to it’s eternal discredit, did not take it seriously and put it in a drawer where it remained until the 1950’s. When it was unearthed and put to use by the Navy. No credit was given for the source material until later when one of the scientists who had seen and used the drawings verified it’s authorship.
Intertwined with that seminal episode in Lamarr’s life we learn about her film career beginning with her appearance, at age 16, in a film called “Ekstase”, in which she appears nude and feigns an orgasm alone. It was hugely scandalous in 1933 and even caused the Pope to speak out against it. It did not help her career. At 19, she married a successful munitions tycoon 14 years her senior and became a trophy wife. But that role did not suit her either especially as he was too jealous of her beauty and tried to reign her in too much. When she literally escaped from him she went to London. There she caught the eye of Louis B Mayer, who was recruiting refugee Jewish actors to bring to Hollywood. She booked passage on the Normandie to the US knowing that Mayer would be on board. By the time the ship docked she had been re-named Hedy Lamarr (of the sea) and was signed to MGM. Her arrival was heralded with great fanfare.
The film tracks her story with interviews with her son, daughter and a couple of grandchildren, Mel Brooks, her biographer, Richard Rhodes, Peter Bogdanovich, Robert Osborne, a very dear friend, among others. There is wonderful archival footage from interviews and film clips. There is a really touching segment about her efforts to help the war effort which affected her deeply, and was the impetus for her major invention. She was rebuffed and told that the best way for her to help was to use her star power to sell war bonds. That she did, and raised millions of dollars is to her credit as a patriotic American. It was a recurring and nagging theme in her life, having her value based solely on her beauty. Howard Hughes appears to be one of the few who took her mind seriously and they collaborated on some of her ideas for airplane designs, which he used. He gave her an inventing table to have in her trailer on movie sets and access to his scientists. She was always at work on designs and projects.
Her film career was seldom up to her expectations of what she was capable of doing. When she was not given the roles she aspired to she started her own production company, a very bold move at the time. That worked for awhile but not long. She made and lost a lot of money. Typically, at that time, the actors were provided a generous regimen of pills to get them through the rigorous hours on sets. Amphetamines to wake up and sleeping pills to bring them down. This took a toll on her relationship with her children and her behavior became erratic and unfathomable to them. After four more marriages, with her looks gone from age and too much plastic surgery and limited resources, she becomes a recluse. She makes an attempt to claim royalties on her patent which the Navy had finally put to use, to no avail. One of the last scenes is her son receiving an award from a Scientific Club for her invention, which is the basis of today’s GPS, Bluetooth and secure Wi-Fi. She interrupts his speech with a phone call which he plays for the audience. It is a small note of redemption.
What gives the film it’s flavor and authenticity is the voice of Lamarr, on the Fleming tapes. To hear her tell her story in her own words makes it feel totally personal and one gets a sense of her personality, intelligence, sense of humor, her dry wit and wry philosophy. It is a fascinating portrait of a truly interesting and admirable humanitarian. Or in her own words “a simple complicated person”.