Film Review: Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story

Hedy Lamarr takes her rightful place as the fiercest movie star ever.
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With her turquoise pools for eyes, lush pouting mouth, ivory skin, raven mane of hair and a retrousse nose so perfect it kept plastic surgeons solvent for years, Hedy Lamarr was, for a generation and more, considered the most beautiful woman in the world. (This writer holds out for Ava Gardner, but Hedy is neck-and-neck with her.) In recent years, it has come to light that this beauty had brains as well, and actually helped to invent the process of frequency hopping, from which the bluetooth/cellphone technology of today was developed. It took this news, so late in the day as far as she was concerned, to give her another tabloid identity other than “shoplifter,” having been caught a few times with pilfered store goods on her person.

Now comes Alexandra Dean‘s completely absorbing and well-researched documentary, Bombshell: the Hedy Lamarr Story, which is so filled with new revelations about Lamarr’s extraordinary life and achievements that, all things considered, she truly emerges as the greatest diva of them all.

Other films and books—including a scandalous 1966 autobiography, Ecstasy and Me, which she disavowed—have tried to capture this singular star, but Dean’s film is framed by Lamarr’s own actual words. The director had despaired of finding anything new about her and then, while doing her research due diligence, she stumbled across former Forbes magazine writer Fleming Meeks, who had interviewed Lamarr in 1990 and still owned the cassette tapes of their conversation. As you hear her talking about her life, from her youth in Vienna, born Jewish but converted to Catholicism, and the first of her six marriages at 19 to a munitions tycoon who supplied the Nazis, to her early, notorious breakthrough 1933 film Ecstasy (with its romping nude shots of the 17-year-old and  orgasmic close-ups) and her escape to Hollywood where she was signed by Louis B. Meyer and then sat around forever before he came up with a suitable property for her, a vivid, comprehensive portrait of the woman emerges.

After the DeMille blockbuster Samson and Delilah (in which she was a trifle past her prime to portray that devastating temptress), film work dried up for her, but it’s her post-movie life that really enthralls here. Dean was fortunate enough to attain the involvement of Lamarr’s children Tony and Denise, who describe a true and quite sad account of a mother they loved, who could be difficult and then some, taking refuge in her escapes to liquor and plastic surgery when the men in her life never seemed to stick around. The irony becomes all too clear that the loveliest face was made by its owner to undergo disastrous cosmetic alterations, although plastic surgeons today still use some of the techniques which Lamarr, ever the inventor, instructed her doctors to apply.

“Frequency hopping,” which she created with her friend, composer George Antheil, revolutionized communication systems forever, and even helped win World War II, interfering with the progress of Nazi torpedoes. Unfortunately, due to lapsed patents, what should have made her an endlessly solvent billionairess earned her virtually nothing, and she wound up a destitute recluse who kept in touch with the world via telephone, not wanting to be seen as something faded, until she died in 2000 at age 85, on Denise’s birthday. Her life—and this film—did have one final grace note: On March 12, 1997, she was finally honored, in absentia, with an award from the Electronic Frontier Foundation in recognition for her contributions to science. Son Tony accepted it on her behalf and had her address the audience via cellphone. It’s nice to know that at last she was given serious propers during her lifetime for being something other than an exceedingly pretty face. As Lamarr once said, “Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to to do is stand still and look stupid.”

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