“The brains of people are more interesting than the looks,” Hedy Lamarr told journalist Fleming Meeks near the end of her life. Alexandra Dean’s documentary Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story shows that we don’t necessarily remember the classic film star of the 1930s and 40s for the right reasons.
Structured around interviews recorded with Meeks, Bombshell strives to give a more complete picture of the actress’s life; Lamarr herself lamented having never published a memoir, and felt her glamour was a curse that obscured her real story. Lamarr’s film career (her most familiar calling card) is covered ably, from her inauspicious start in the erotic Czech film Ecstasy (1933) to the Oscar-winning biblical epic Samson and Delilah (1949), to the self-produced Loves of Three Queens (1954).
But Bombshell’s primary mission is to showcase Lamarr’s underreported contributions as an inventor. Lamarr was the sort of clever and curious child who cracked open music boxes to see their workings, and this passion continued into adulthood in spite of her film career, as when she advised love interest Howard Hughes that mimicking the sleek shapes of fish and birds might make his airplanes faster (he followed her advice, and it worked).
Lamarr eventually turned her focus to a critical problem during World War II – Allied torpedoes often missed their targets because the Germans excelled at jamming their radio guidance systems. Inspired by a primitive remote control for radio cabinets, Lamarr invented “frequency hopping,” an encryption scheme that would effectively thwart the Germans’ meddling. With the help of her friend George Antheil (the American composer) and a physicist, they worked out the technical hurdles and gave a formal proposal to the United States Navy, which rejected her invention outright. The Navy would later secretly implement Lamarr's ideas, depriving her of a fortune in patent royalties. Eventually acknowledged by the scientific community, Lamarr’s frequency hopping arguably forms the basis for many of today’s secure communications, including the wi-fi signal you’re probably using to read this review.
The film’s interviewees range from Mel Brooks to Diane Kruger to Lamarr’s own children, and Bombshell is often an engaging, well-crafted honoring of one woman’s underappreciated brilliance. But beyond these pleasures, Bombshell can feel thin. The film glides over Lamarr’s post-Hollywood life, and some moments felt uncomfortably misjudged, as when Lamarr’s innovative ideas for plastic surgery – an obsession which would leave her a disfigured recluse – are played for a wry laugh (at least, my audience chuckled).
And for a film that seeks to give Hedy Lamarr new dimension, Bombshell might have dared to mine her thornier contradictions for insight. In spite of her feminist bona fides, Lamarr sometimes fell into the very traps she seemed desperate to avoid. Lamarr was willing and able to use her beauty as a tool to cunningly manipulate the system, as when she jump-started her Hollywood career by insinuating herself into the orbit of Louis B. Mayer. But she also repeatedly entered the sort of marriages – to an older munitions manufacturer, a bland British actor, a Texan oilman – that would virtually guarantee her status as a bored trophy wife. And if Lamarr was an inspired inventor, she could also engage in self-destructively stupid behavior, as when she sent a body double in her place to a divorce hearing, an action with devastating financial consequences.
Far from mere tabloid fodder, these stories raise some of the most fascinating and complex questions about Hedy Lamarr: how could such dark dichotomies exist within the same person? Bombshell at least mentions these facets, but largely goes with the agnostic, c’est la vie perspective of its talking heads. To dig deeper would have enriched, not undermined, Bombshell’s celebratory narrative tact.
Then again, it’s hard to fault Bombshell’s priorities in this cultural swell of female empowerment – as a corrective to Lamarr’s legacy and a showcase for her important contributions to technology, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story is a welcome and enjoyable watch. And even if some parts of Lamarr’s story remain enigmatic, Alexandra Dean’s appreciation of a feminist iconoclast may be exactly the kind of film we need.