One generation may know Hedy Lamarr best as the inspiration for a running gag in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles; others remember her fondly as the glamorous star of classic Hollywood features such as Algiers and Samson and Delilah. Much of the modern public likely doesn’t know that she developed technology that led to the creation of Wifi and Bluetooth, part of a life that would make a compelling movie of its own—and now has, in Alexandra Dean’s documentary Bombshell.
Lamarr was beautiful enough to inspire the looks of Disney’s Snow White and the comics’ Catwoman, but as film historian/professor Jeanine Basinger says in Bombshell, a potential career in the sciences was “derailed by her beauty.” Her saga could stand in for the experience of any woman whose femininity led her intellectualism to be ignored or devalued, though Dean’s movie is not a tract. It’s a straightforwardly told, A-to-B-to-C chronicle of Lamarr’s history, given richness by the many points of view offered by an impressive lineup of talking heads.
One of them is journalist Fleming Meeks, whose 1990 article on Lamarr in Forbes magazine helped bring her off-camera accomplishments to light. Excerpts from his audiotaped interview with the actress, revealing her to still have a sharp mind and engaging sense of humor at age 76 (she passed away in 2000), give her a voice throughout Bombshell, which takes in both her triumphs and tragedies. Born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Vienna in 1914, she grew up in a cultured household with a father who encouraged her interest in how things work, leading her to become an inventor on the side while pursuing an acting career that began when she was a teenager. At just 18, she whipped up sensation and scandal when she starred in a 1933 Czech film called Ecstasy, in which she appeared in the nude and simulated an orgasm, leading the Pope to denounce the movie.
It was also banned by Adolf Hitler—not due to her onscreen behavior, but because of her Jewish heritage. Ironically, that same year she married a wealthy munitions tycoon (the “Henry Ford of Austria”) with ties to the Nazis. The details of her escape from that oppressive union are worthy of a classic spy thriller, and as Bombshell tracks her travels to Tinseltown and film career, a portrait emerges of a woman who went for what she wanted, and got it. She boarded a cruise ship on which Louis B. Mayer was a fellow passenger, and departed it with an MGM contract; it was Mayer who changed her name to Hedy Lamarr. When her fortunes later took a downturn, she successfully pitched herself to Cecil B. DeMille for Samson and Delilah, which became her biggest hit (on which she was billed above Samson himself, Victor Mature). When she tired of the decorative roles she was being given, she went rogue and produced her own movies, which sadly failed to catch fire at the box office. Bombshell leaves one curious to watch these films: The Strange Woman, Dishonored Lady and especially the post-Samson Italian-lensed epic Loves of Three Queens, in which Lamarr played the trio of lead roles and which never received American distribution.
While providing plenty of clips and recollections for cinema buffs, Bombshell devotes equal attention to her passion for inventing, which led her under the wing of Howard Hughes, for whom she came up with an airplane-modification design based on nature. Her greatest achievement, albeit one for which she remains underacknowledged to this day, was made in collaboration with composer George Antheil: a “frequency-hopping” system intended for application to British torpedoes during WWII. The Navy rejected their patent (encouraging Lamarr to contribute to their effort by selling war bonds instead), but Dean details how this technology would go on to application in subsequent conflicts (the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam) and later to communications devices used by millions around the world. If you’re reading this review on a mobile device via a wireless connection, you can thank Hedy Lamarr.
That she never got her due or the financial rewards for her important innovation is one of the many misfortunes of Lamarr’s life. She went through six marriages, none of which lasted long, and wound up hooked on methamphetamines and fired from what would have her last movie, Picture Mommy Dead (replaced by Zsa Zsa Gabor). Yet as Bombshell reveals, her creative mind was always coming up with ways to improve her situation. While homesick for her native country, she built a resort complex inspired by its architecture in the then-nascent ski destination of Aspen. When she first had plastic surgery done, she came up with specific procedures to apply to herself that have become commonplace.
And with all the problems that beset her, she is remembered with fondness by the family (children and grandchildren) and friends (among them film historian Robert Osborne) who speak about her in Bombshell. They contribute to a profile of Lamarr that, while recalling why she became such a star for a time on the screen, takes a big step toward granting her long-overdue attention and appreciation for her many achievements off of it.