Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (2017)
SHOULD I SEE IT?
Few stories from the Studio Era of Hollywood are as fascinating as the life of Hedy Lamarr.
Efficient, engaging, and expertly collated by first-time director Alexandra Dean.
While Lamarr's contributions to stage and screen are documented, Bombshell uncovers incredible facts about her private life, her curiosities as an inventor, and gives us a complicated and challenging celebrity to consider in an entirely different way.
Some have argued that the film tilts into hagiography, presenting Lamarr as something of a victim for all her difficulties navigating through life. Not my take, but could be yours.
In glossing over certain intriguing elements too quickly and relying on a steady stream of experts and "talking heads" too frequently, the narrative can get a little wobbly.
You tend to enjoy judging books by their covers, celebrities by how they look, and live by knee-jerk first reactions to everything. If that's true for you, Bombshell is not the movie for you.
The story of legendary actress Hedy Lamarr is one of the more fascinating slow-boil tales from Hollywood’s studio days. For some, she is remembered as an actress who shocked the world by appearing nude, at age 19, in her film debut - 1933’s Ecstasy.
Others will remember her as an actress whose beauty was unlike any other, with some, still to this day, referring to her as the most beautiful actress to ever appear on screen. Perhaps more will recall her precipitous fall from fame and seclusion late in life. For Lamarr, it seems that no matter what she did, or whom she encountered, the stories borne of those experiences proved limitless and fascinating.
In Alexandra Dean’s new documentary Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, the first-time director takes a rather conventional approach to telling a most unconventional story. Lamarr was an actress, an icon of glamour, and difficult to categorize in her later years. She was also a film producer, an inventor, a wife six times over, a mother and grandmother, and, later in life, continually turning to plastic surgery and prescription drugs to cope with her depression.
Aiding in the film’s "can’t-put-this-down" tone and feel is some incredible audio uncovered by journalist Fleming Meeks for a phone interview he arranged with Lamarr in 1990. In the audio, she is wistful, kind, stately even, with a relief in her voice that she has a person to share her stories with. Behind the veneer of the anecdotes, laughs, and reveals she provided Meeks in their conversation, we will later learn that Lamarr, 76 at the time of the interview, had renounced her Jewish heritage, cut off all ties to her family, and was living on a Screen Actors Guild pension check of $300 per month.
Dean utilizes numerous talking heads and interview subjects, as well as a wealth of archival footage to tell the story of an Austrian-born woman, brilliant of the mind and luminous in appearance. Posing nude at 16, she starred in the controversial Ecstasy at 19, a role many still associate with her to this day. She would marry a munitions tycoon soon after the film was distributed, and catch the eye of film producer Louis B. Mayer, who courted her to come to America and work for MGM. For a time, she was the belle of the ball, working with several of Hollywood's biggest stars.
Lamarr, however, was never quite satisfied being the starlet. Often dwelling in a love/hate bittersweet misery with the movie business, she quietly turned to other ventures. After a second marriage fell apart, she dated Howard Hughes, who encouraged her creativity by telling her that no idea she had was too big and he would provide her anything she needed. Lamarr reportedly found a way for Hughes' planes to increase in speed and velocity after she studied the movement of fish and certain birds.
Along with composer George Antheil, she co-owned a patent for creating a “secret communications system” known as “frequency hopping.” Together, they developed a system that used piano-based compositions to synchronize with radio signals and stop the ability to "jam" or "misdirect" torpedoes. In creating what became known as “frequency-hopping spread spectrum”, Lamarr essentially invented the technology which served as the basis for inventing Wi-Fi, global tracking, and Bluetooth technologies.
And so yeah - Hedy Lamarr essentially invented Wi-Fi.
Amazing as that may be, underneath the eye-opening reveals Dean provides us, Bombshell offers a fair, honest, and unflinching look at a celebrity who never really felt comfortable with her place in life. We hear an almost jocularity in the audio recordings, but must juxtapose that with the reality of a woman who turned to ruinous plastic surgery to try and save her aging appearance. And yes, she invented new ideas and theories on how to better improve those practices as well.
Lamarr kept working in movies and staying in the public eye to try and stay relevant, even though she just as easily wished she never had to do those things in the first place. She stayed in America, even when she wanted to return home. Endured six failed marriages and raised several children, only to then abandon an adopted child because “it just didn’t work out.” Sadly, she would eventually shun the rest of her family for years.
If Bombshell teaches viewers anything, perhaps it offers a sobering reminder that the machine of fame and celebrity can callously chew people up and spit them out, almost without prejudice. Dean never paints Lamarr as a victim, though we see how the culture of her heyday provided her, and others, the real estate to make poor decisions and live a life for someone else, as opposed to one for themselves.
At a crisp 88 minutes, Bombshell fits a lot of Lamarr’s story into a smallish package. Dean uses a number of people to help craft a visual scrapbook of sorts, full of stories and anecdotes that must be heard to be believed.
There will never be another Hedy Lamarr. In Bombshell, we are shown her unrefined vision and adroit curiosity in exploring everything she was interested in. Even if her travels and exploits left her unfulfilled, sad, and lonely for stretches of her life, Lamarr remains a celebrity we can equally admire and be puzzled by, all at the same time.
CAST & CREW
Documentary Featuring: Anthony Loder, Mel Brooks, Fleming Meeks, Richard Rhodes, Diane Kruger, Robert Osborne, Denise Loder-DeLuca, Peter Bogdanovich, Michael Tilson Thomas, Lodi Loder, James Loder.
Director: Alexandra Dean
Written by: Alexandra Dean
Release Date: November 24, 2017
Kino Lorber/Zeitgeist Films