Classic Hollywood starlets didn’t typically spend their free time working on new torpedo technology, but Hedy Lamarr was anything but typical. Once considered the most beautiful woman in the world, the Austrian-born Jewish runaway defied expectations at every turn. Hers was a life of fame and countless trials, but her inventive spirit would help lay the foundations for GPS, secure Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth.
In the new documentary Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, director Alexandra Dean looks to unearth a version of Lamarr’s life that has been largely untold. The 1966 ghost-written “autobiography” Ecstasy and Me: My Life As A Woman was frequently knocked by Lamarr as inaccurate and even outright made-up, so Bombshell—built around Forbes reporter Fleming Meeks’ 1990 audio tapes—is arguably one of the few records of her life the movie star would actually sign off on.
From the outset, it’s a fascinating tale. After gaining notoriety from a nude appearance in the Czech film Ecstasy, Lamarr—then Hedwig Kiesler—married a munitions tycoon who liked to rub elbows with Mussolini and company. When that life became unbearable, she escaped with a bunch of jewels and made her way to England where she met MGM’s Louis B. Mayer. He offered her a small contract, which she refused. She then booked passage on Mayer’s ship to America, dressed herself to the nines, and dazzled everybody aboard until Mayer inevitably offered her a larger contract.
Lamarr’s looks were always an asset, but they belied her intelligence. Under her MGM contract, Lamarr would be on set six days a week. She was given speed to keep her functional and sleeping pills to put her out. Yet during the rigors of those years, she would still find the time to work on her inventions. Howard Hughes, one of the few people who appreciated her brains, gave her access to his facilities and scientists. With WWII raging and U-boats dominating the seas, Lamarr worked with her composer friend George Antheil to patent a frequency-hopping system that couldn’t be jammed by the Germans. The government shelved the idea, presumably due to the owners’ unorthodox backgrounds, and it wasn’t touched again until decades later.
Lamarr’s story deserves a wider audience. In a world that fetishizes the likes of Marilyn Monroe, it’s a shame that Hedy Lamarr is largely forgotten, her name remembered by grandparents and film buffs or as passing trivia. The term “feminist icon” gets thrown around a lot these days, but Lamarr is an undoubtable prototype. In an era when female movie stars were only expected to be a pretty face, Lamarr was an inventor, a single mother, a producer, and more. Despite the tribulations she faced, she never lost her curiosity or the determination that a person can be more than what others think of them. If her ambition exceeded her talent in some capacities, her effort against the odds is still worthy of praise.
Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story is an intimate and empirical telling of a truly fascinating life. The film gives us newfound appreciation for an unsung hero, and that’s surely a sign of success. It’s unfortunate that it took so long for a piece like this to reach the silver screen, but it’s better late than never.
Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story
Director: Alexandra Dean
Theater: Now open, Lagoon Cinema