- Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story
- Directed by
- Alexandra Dean
Conversations would stop, and men (and women) would openly stare when Hollywood starlet Hedy Lamarr walked into a room. Raven-haired and dark-eyed, she was dubbed "the most beautiful woman in the world," reputed to have been the face that inspired Disney's iconic Snow White.
But her looks were also a curse, according to a new documentary, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, by PBS journalist Alexandra Dean. Never taken seriously in her lifetime – and manipulated by powerful men like studio mogul Louis B. Mayer (sound familiar?) – Lamar never got the recognition she deserved for inventing what became a cornerstone of the wireless technology used today in WiFi, Bluetooth and GPS.
In the 1930s and 1940s, actresses like Lamarr – born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler to well-to-do Jewish parents in Vienna – worked gruelling hours. Fuelled by uppers and downers, they clocked 12-hour days, six days a week. During her off-hours, Lamarr invented things, such as a glow-in-the-dark dog collar, an aid to help people with limited mobility get in and out of the bath, and a bouillon cube that would turn water into Coke (the latter was a bust).
Her most significant, though, was "frequency hopping," an idea hatched by Lamarr and offbeat composer George Antheil, whom she met at a dinner party. Lamarr came up with the theory (and drawings) behind the technology, and Antheil provided the technical expertise. The invention was designed to be a game-changer in the Second World War, enabling the U.S. Navy to discharge torpedoes without detection by the Nazis. The Navy told Lamarr her "talents" could be better used to sell war bonds. The patent was granted but shelved and Lamarr and Antheil were never compensated.
In Bombshell, Dean sets out to prove Lamarr was far more than just a pretty face. While she had some cinematic hits – 1940's Boom Town (with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert) and Cecil B. DeMille's 1949 hit Sampson and Delilah – Lamarr was forever cast as the sultry temptress in roles such as 1942's White Cargo, where she plays an African seductress, whose line, "I am Tondelayo" was mocked by Jack Benny and Mel Brooks.
Married six times, she was often a pawn for powerful men who wanted her merely as arm candy, or to vamp it up on sets. Her first foray into film – while still a teen in Vienna – was in a racy Czech film called Ecstasy, in which she frolicked nude in a lake, and faked an orgasm (long before Meg Ryan rocked Billy Crystal's world in When Harry Met Sally). It was a cinematic scandal in Europe, where the movie was denounced by both the Pope and Hitler, and Lamarr's notoriety followed her across the ocean.
Dean is fascinated by the highs and lows of this enigmatic woman's life. Using long-forgotten tapes recorded in 1990 for a Forbes magazine piece but never used, Dean uses the audio clips, archival footage and interviews with family and friends to weave together a story about how Lamarr spent 85 years trying desperately to be taken seriously – to little avail.
At times, the documentary drags and is a bit dry. Her three children – including one adopted son whom Lamarr effectively cut out of her life for no apparent reason – give interviews that provide little insight into what made the woman tick. (In their defence, they claim not to have really known her, either.) And interviews with friends such as comedian Brooks and the late Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne are banal, singing only the actress's praises, never exploring in any depth the anger and frustration Lamarr must have felt for being constantly overlooked.
In her final days, Lamarr was a lonely old woman, estranged from her kids, arrested for shoplifting, her looks marred by a plastic surgeon's scalpel. She was a recluse who refused to leave her tiny apartment in Fort Lauderdale – even to accept a long overdue award in 1996 from a professional engineering society. Instead, her son accepted the award in Lamarr's place.
"It's about time," she told him.