B+ biographical documentary
Directed by Alexandra Dean
Hollywood movie star Hedy Lemarr had a fascinating life, but not a happy one. Her striking beauty won her fame and fortune (neither of which she held onto), but it obscured her more important work as an inventor. Her greatest invention, something most of us use daily, never brought her money nor, until quite late, significant praise.
In Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, Alexandra Dean has made a clear, entertaining, but conventionally-styled biographical documentary about the actress/inventor. She was helped, of course, by having a great story to tell.
Dean’s documentary tells us that Hedy Lemarr lived a deeply unhappy life. She seemed to always be running away from herself. She hated being judged by her looks. She had six short marriages. She suffered from drug addiction late in life. She hid the fact that she was Jewish – even to her children. (Ironically, this documentary has been playing the Jewish Film Festival circuit for months.)
Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler was born in 1914 to a wealthy, highly assimilated, Jewish/Austrian family. Her father encouraged her to be curious about technology and how it works.
She grew into an extremely beautiful teenager, which got her into movies. One particular movie made a big splash: In Ecstasy, she did a full nude scene and a faked orgasm. That was extremely daring in 1933. She was 18 at the time.
Soon after that scandalous event, she married Friedrich Mandl, a very wealthy munitions manufacturer, and one leaning towards fascism (which, of course, was good for business). He demanded she be a trophy wife. In 1937, she escaped, and eventually ended up in in Hollywood’s biggest studio, MGM, as the glamorous movie star Hedy Lemarr.
In her time off, she doodled with inventing. During World War II, that creativity turned to designing weapons. She invented the concept of frequency hopping as a jam-proof way to control torpedoes. Working with avant-garde composer George Antheil, they developed a patent. Unfortunately, the Navy wasn’t interested. Long after their patent ran out, frequency hopping became a major and necessary part of cellphones, wi-fi, and Bluetooth.
A movie career based on beauty doesn’t last long. By the age of 40 she was pretty much of a has-been. She lost most of her money in an ill-conceived epic movie. The marriages came and went. So did the plastic surgeries. The first ones looked fine (and yes, her suggestions helped change that procedure). But later operations made her look horrible.
She died in 2000.
If you’ve ever seen a documentary about a 20th-century performer (such as anything on PBS’ American Masters, which produced Bombshell), you know what to expect: Plenty of movie clips – both of the Hollywood and home variety. Also newsreel footage and experts – friends, family, and historians – talking directly into the camera. It’s a common technique, but an effective one.
Hedy Lemarr had brains, beauty, and for much of her life, wealth. It didn’t help. The world wasn’t ready for Hedy Lamarr.