Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story documentary review: beauty is a beast

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

The infuriatingly tragic true story of the Hollywood superstar whose brain was ignored because she was beautiful. A stupendous tribute to a remarkable woman.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m desperate for stories about women, especially true ones that have gone untold
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
female director, female screenwriter, female protagonist
(learn more about this)

If you were crafting a parable to explain how our culture values women for nothing but our looks and denies our intelligence, you might come up with something like what happened to Hedy Lamarr… though your parable could legitimately be criticized as too on-the-nose, too absurd to be taken even as metaphor. “What’s that? The most beautiful woman in the world is also a brilliant inventor, whose astonishingly creative idea would radically reshape civilization, but only decades after her work was denied, ignored, and belittled because she was just too pretty to be taken seriously? Ridiculous!” But it’s true.

Glamorous science...
Glamorous science…

Austrian actress Hedwig Kiesler made her way to Hollywood in the late 1930s, rechristened herself Hedy Lamarr, and became one of the most celebrated stars of the day. But her real love was inventing. A tinkerer from childhood, yet with no real path to a science career open to her, she filled the downtime on movie sets messing around with chemistry kits. She gave her friend Howard Hughes a more aerodynamic design for airplane wings; just gave it to him. And inspired by the Nazi torpedoing of a civilian ship in the early days of World War II, she conceived of a way to protect the radio transmissions that controlled torpedoes so that they could not be jammed and redirected away from their targets. You may have heard about this: the idea is called “frequency hopping,” spreading a transmission across different frequencies at unpredictable intervals. This technology would later provide the basis for GPS, cellphones, and wifi, in addition to its military applications.

The world today would literally be a very different place if not for Lamarr’s revolutionary idea. And she did receive a patent for it at the time, though she would never benefit from it, along with the avant-garde musician George Antheil, who assisted her with the implementation of it. (Antheil’s part of the story is another tale that seems too incredible to be true; I’ll leave you to discover those details.) But the Navy dismissed her, pooh-poohing her idea, and when she volunteered her lively and ingenious mind to the US government committee of civilian scientists aiding the war effort, they told her to go sell war bonds instead, that that would be a better use of her talents. (Spoiler: she sold a lot of war bonds.)

The world today would literally be a very different place if not for Lamarr’s revolutionary invention of “frequency hopping.”

With Bombshell, first-time writer-director Alexandra Dean, an Emmy-wining journalist and producer, tells Lamarr’s infuriatingly tragic story through the frame of a newly rediscovered 1990 telephone interview conducted by Forbes magazine journalist Fleming Meeks. Lamarr’s stunning contribution to modern technology was just starting to get recognized then, and much of the conversation focuses on Lamarr’s intellectual adventures and on her disappointment they had gone so long unappreciated. It’s clear that it wasn’t public acclaim she would have liked for her mind, but personal relationships that offered her a genuine connection in that aspect. Hughes may have come closest, but Lamarr’s multiple marriages often cast her in the role of trophy wife, a partner valued solely for her beauty. The overarching affliction of Lamarr’s life, as she tells it, seems to have been loneliness. No one knew who she truly was. “Maybe I came from a different planet,” she says with a miserable laugh in that audio recording. (Many women more dedicated to a life of the mind than is considered “normal” for women will sympathize with that feeling.)

The inventor with her blueprints...
The inventor with her blueprints…

There’s so much more to Lamarr’s story: Her escape from Vienna, covered in the film, is the stuff of a riveting action thriller. The way she convinced studio head Louis B. Mayer to hire her at more than his first offer is the stuff of glamorous Golden Age comedy. How she struck back at being labeled “difficult” by the movie industry by producing her own independent films — which was not a done thing then — is the stuff of feminist satire. Together with her inventing “hobby” (her word), that’s at least four riproaring movies to be made about Lamarr. Someone get on those, pronto.

Bombshell is a stupendous tribute to a remarkable woman who did her best to buck the limitations Hollywood and society at large placed upon her as a woman… limitations that are still pretty recognizable today, and, sadly, limitations that she was not able to fully overcome. So her story remains an object lesson even now, particularly with cultural pressures still denying that girls could even be interested in STEM fields, never mind that they could actually be brilliant in them. This is a beautiful film, clear-eyed and unsentimental, and very, very necessary.

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story opens at the IFC Center in New York on November 24th. See the film’s official site for future dates and cities.

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