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.
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.