By Anthony Uzarowski.
Hedy Lamarr was a movie star for whom the term glamour might have been invented. As far as celluloid goddesses go, she was the crème de la crème, perhaps the most beautiful face to ever have graced the silver screen. During the Second World War, Lamarr offered legions of fatigued servicemen a cinematic vision of perfect womanhood, or at least what was then fashionably seen as such. But physical beauty was only one of many layers that constituted this fascinating woman, and while she struggled her whole life to prove to herself and to the world that she was more than a perfectly photogenic image captured by movie cameras, few people ever looked beyond the glorious surface. And there was more, or as the new documentary Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story reveals, much more to see.
Coincidently, the screen name of Lamarr (who was born Hedwig Kiesler) was inspired by Barbara La Marr, the silent movie star once known to be ‘too beautiful’. The element of tragic fate associated with this publicity tagline seems to have loomed over the Austrian émigré who inherited the name – Hedy Lamarr was indeed too beautiful for the public to take her seriously as an actress, and more significantly, too beautiful to ever be permitted the luxury of being intelligent, let alone brilliant. Bombshell is refreshingly bold and unapologetic in its exploration of the social and historical landscape which shaped Lamarr’s story: at once elevated and shattered by her physicality, she appeared nude in the scandalous Czech movie Ecstasy (1933), escaped an oppressive marriage to a Nazi-sympathising arms dealer, left her native Austria, and secured a contract with Hollywood’s biggest studio, Metro Goldwyn Mayer – all before her twenty-fifth birthday.
Alexandra Dean makes it clear from the outset that her primary goal as a director is to recognise Lamarr’s achievement as a pioneering inventor, whose ground-breaking ideas are considered crucial in the development of modern wireless communication. The film achieves this, and much more. By including never before heard tapes of Lamarr’s 1990 telephone interview, Bombshell affords viewers a unique insight into the person behind the legend. What emerges is a warm, down-to-earth woman, much more confident in the capabilities of her mind than in the beauty of her body (“I never I thought I looked that good anyway”). There are notes of sadness and longing for recognition, but no bitterness. “The biggest people with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest people with the smallest minds. Think big anyway” – she paraphrases; a perfect mantra for the woman whose big ideas were shot down and buried for decades.
While at the height of her MGM fame in the 1940s, Lamarr was one of the top box office stars in America, but as she remarked, although everyone knew her face, few actually really saw her. After a day of performing before the cameras, unlike many of her famous colleagues, Hedy rarely went out to dance at the Mocambo. Neither was she getting her beauty sleep. The most beautiful woman in the world was at home working on her inventions. In 1942, aided by her friend, composer George Antheil, Lamarr created the blueprint for frequency hopping, a technology she hoped would create a radio-controlled torpedo, undetectable for German submarines. The Navy saw it as a cute but ridiculous idea and suggested that if the lady really wanted to help the war effort, she was better off selling war bonds and entertaining troops at the Hollywood Canteen. It wasn’t until the late 1950s that the patent was rediscovered and put to use, laying ground for further development, which eventually led to its modern use in wireless communications, including mobile phones. Hedy Lamarr was unaware of this until the late 1990s, when stories of her brilliant invention begun circulating in the media. By that time she was broke, reclusive, and largely forgotten.
Bombshell also sheds some light on the more controversial areas of Lamarr’s life: the uneasy attitude, if not denial, of her Jewish heritage; complicated relationships with her children (both biological and adopted) – but in the end it is clear that Dean’s aim wasn’t to expose a dark side of the legend. Rather, it is a celebration of a woman who was in many ways ahead of her time, a heroine whose full significance can only now begin to be appreciated. It is also a film about a woman made by women (aside from Alexandra Dean serving as both writer and director, Hollywood icon Susan Sarandon is the film’s executive producer) – a refreshing and much needed example of the slowly changing landscape of representation. Although produced before the Harvey Weinstein scandal, the documentary is certainly riding on the wave of female empowerment which is sweeping through Hollywood – by positioning Hedy Lamarr as the perfect icon of the Time’s Up era, Bombshell seeks to reclaim one of the many female stories lost in the sea of sexism and misogyny, which has for decades spread between Hollywood and Washington.
The film includes a choir of diverse and insightful voices, from Lamarr’s children, to film experts like Jeannine Basinger and the beloved TCM host, the late Robert Osborne. It also contains oddly out of place comments by Mel Brooks, whose purpose is perhaps to remind the viewer that old attitudes die hard (if not his ongoing joke about her in Blazing Saddles): “When I was a kid I saw her in Algiers, I said, I’m gonna get to Hollywood and I’m gonna marry her. If I don’t get to marry her, I’ll get to buy her dinner and feel her up under the table. Whatever I can get”. It is encouraging to see that Brook’s is a solitary voice in a narrative which gives its subject the respect and recognition which is so long overdue.
Anthony Uzarowski is a Film Studies MA graduate from University College London, currently perusing his doctoral research at Queen Mary University of London. His first book (co-authored with Kendra Bean) is Ava Gardner: A Life in Movies (Running Press, 2017; reviewed in Film International here). His writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Gay Times, Queerty, and Film International. His main research interests are classical Hollywood and star studies in relation to the representation of women in film and queer studies.