Review: Bombshell—The Hedy Lamarr Story

This is a repost of a review that also appears at Third Coast Review.

Even if you’re not a fan of classic Hollywood cinema (and why the heck aren’t you?), you know the name Hedy Lamarr. According to IMDb, Lamarr has only 35 film credits, but among them are the likes of Boom Town (alongside Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable) and Cecil B. DeMille’s Sampson and Delilah. Though she was never nominated for an Oscar, so iconic was the Austrian-born actress that other starlets working at the time followed her trend-setting ways, copying her hair, her fashion choices, even her ability to generate a headline.

Image courtesy of Music Box Films

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, opening Friday in Chicago, digs into the complicated life, loves and career of the legendary actress, turning up a few surprises along the way. The first feature documentary from Emmy-winning filmmaker Alexandra Dean, the film started as a passion project when Dean was in search of female inventors to profile and coming up short.

Yes, you read that right. Dean was looking to profile female inventors and she landed on movie star Hedy Lamarr. Lamarr, you see, is about as complex a person as they come, with a European childhood upended after World War I, no shortage of men falling in love with her throughout her life, and the mind of a genius behind what’s remembered as the most beautiful face to ever grace the silver screen.

The movie star, we learn over the course of the documentary’s rich 90 minutes, would spend her time outside the spotlight entrenched in the war effort, raising money through war bonds and, more importantly, thinking long and hard about the technology that was helping to win the war on the front lines. In approachable and uncomplicated terms, Dean spells out just how Lamarr used radio frequency hopping technology to create a way for the military to communicate without being detected by the enemy. Today, this technology is the basis for bluetooth and wifi services, among other tech necessities of 2018.

Far from a paint-by-numbers biopic about yet another pretty face, Bombshell explores Lamarr’s multifaceted life from childhood through her years on screen, over the course of her several marriages and finally as a recluse before her death in 2000. Anecdotes, including her trans-Atlantic journey with Louis B. Mayer, from which she emerged on American shores as Hollywood’s newest starlet, are recounted by her children, Hollywood historians and even a few familiar faces like Peter Bogdanovich and Mel Brooks. Dean has managed to present the quite ordinary—a life, though full and well-lived, like any other—as a sort of real-life super hero story.

For all her beauty and brains, and the image projected across history in her films, Lamarr wasn’t perfect (no, she was human). Her children and those who knew her can attest to the temperament that saw her cycle through no fewer than six husbands over the course of her life; and in her later years she devolved into a vain obsession with plastic surgery (no doubt prompted by her career-defining yet disappearing youth and beauty). And though her radio frequency invention literally changed the course of modern technology and the entire world with it, she never saw a monetary windfall from any of it, failing to sue for rights when the patent was set to expire.

By coloring Lamarr’s life story in with shades of gray rather than distilling it to the black and white of “film star” or “inventor” or the like, a full picture of the woman—inquisitive, talented, flawed—comes into focus. Chronicling her life nearly two decades after it ended, the film succeeds in finally giving Lamarr credit for her full impact on both technology and film. In a world where smart, ambitious, brave women are needed more than ever, Bombshell starts the year off on the right foot.

2017 [in films]

Sneaking this in both under the wire (I will get this post up on January 1!) and on a blog I bet you’ve forgotten about by now. Resolution in 2018: write, write, write.

This year marked a whole bunch of change for me, chief among them my leap into self-employment. It’s been a scary and exhilarating six months of working for myself, and I’m looking forward to what 2018 will bring professionally. Between working my own hours from home and stepping in as Film editor at Third Coast Review, I broke a personal record this year for films watched: 181. (My previous highest year was 160 in 2015.)

In case you’re curious, I track every new-to-me film that I watch. I don’t count series (though I may start in 2018) and I don’t count it if I’ve already seen it. Here’s a breakdown of those 181 films:

  • I saw 56 movies in theaters, or roughly one per week.
  • Forty-two of the 181 (or 23%) films I watched in 2017 were documentaries; 23 were foreign films (this number always seems low to me each year. Must improve that.)
  • I watched 23 movies in both May and September; in August, I somehow only watched two. I have no idea why.
  • The oldest movie I watched was Rebecca from 1940 (go watch it!), followed by The African Queen (1951), Bonnie & Clyde (1967) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, on a freaking gorgeous, new 70mm print at Music Box Theatre).

Now, onto the good stuff: what I liked best.

With the caveat that as of writing this I haven’t yet seen Call Me By Your Name or Phantom Thread, I’m more than comfortable declaring Mudbound the best film of 2017…according to me.

Mudbound

A stunningly beautiful, remarkably devastating and surprisingly inspiring drama by Dee Rees (Pariah) based on the novel by Hillary Jordan, Mudbound is set in the deep south following World War II. Two veterans – one black and one white – return to their farming families, one share-croppers on the other’s land, and both men find themselves navigating very different homecoming experiences. With a gentle but very serious vision, Rees creates a world weighed down by racism, poverty and ignorance, where the wrong look or a misspoken word can literally get you killed.

Boasting a stellar cast (Carrie Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, Jason Clarke, Mary J. Blige and one Jason Mitchell who should be at the top of every Best Supporting Actor list), the film weaves together two parallel but intensely different post-war stories, forcing us to come to terms with the disparate American dreams available to each of us, given our skin tone, education or income. The film is not always easy to watch (in fact, it may have one of the most difficult scenes of the year), but it is essential viewing, and Rees deftly guide us into a very, very dark place only to show us the way out of it, too.

Mudbound didn’t get the attention it deserved, as Netflix opted to give it a small theatrical release before dropping it on the streaming service. But that just means you can see this masterful film now, right this minute. I urge you to turn off your phone and set aside chores for a couple of hours and check out Mudbound, the best film of the year, from the comfort of your own living room.

Of course, I liked a whole bunch of the movies I saw this year, so here’s a quick rundown (and yes, these are in order from most liked on down):

Continue reading “2017 [in films]”

Listen to This: Christmas 2017

It’s that time of year again: the time of year I take a moment away from movies (and just a moment, there are a lot of movies this time of year) and put some of my attention into music. Specifically, holiday music. A genre I love only slightly less than show tunes.

I’m proud of each playlist I’ve made over the years, but I really like this one. It took me a few weeks of exploring new releases and digging for lesser-known classics, but I was eventually able to craft together twenty festive songs I hope will help get you in the spirit of the season.

Per usual, the playlist includes a broad spectrum of artists and styles. This year, you’ll find the likes of Hanson (yes, that Hanson) next to LCD Soundsystem (still kicking myself that I didn’t go to that show this month); there’s an ABBA song in there that sounds depressing at first pass but really, it’s not; and you’ll find a touch of soul with holiday favorites by The Temptations and Stevie Wonder. You won’t find anything from Gwen Stefani’s new holiday album (it’s not good), but you will find a gem from one Francesca Battistelli, a lovely new discovery of mine.

It’s going to be a crazy month, friends. The holidays always seem to add a layer of intensity to even the simplest plans. Hopefully somewhere in the frenzy you’ve got some time to queue up this playlist, pour yourself a mug of hot chocolate and take a few deep breaths.

Oh, and if you’ve made it this far, I thought I’d share some bonus links (all will open in Spotify):

Here is a link to my Christmas SuperCut – every playlist from the last six years (!) in one long, wonderful mega-playlist.

And here are links to 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013 and 2012. I was making annual playlists before that, but they only exist on actual CDs I burned and sent off to friends and family as presents. Lucky them!