Bombshell recounts the life of Hedy Lamarr: Austrian émigré, Hollywood diva – and inventor.
“Any girl can look glamorous, aLL she has to do is stand still and look stupid.”
The opening quote of the documentary Bombshell The Hedy Lamarr Story neatly sums up how the diva felt about her claim to fame.
Considered one of the most beautiful women of her time, she was a movie star who inspired the look of Walt Disney’s Snow White and DC’s Catwoman, yet was exasperated that her other talents went unrecognized. While other stars earned Oscars, Lamarr held the patent for what became the basis for all cellphone, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi technology. After decades of anonymity, she was finally recognized in 1997, at age 82, with the Pioneer Award of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, one of Silicon Valley’s most prestigious honors.
Indeed, her life makes for excellent watching: Born Hedwig Kiesler in 1914 into a wealthy and cultured Jewish family, she grew up in Döbling as a curious child who loved taking her toys apart to see how they were made; in a different time and place, she might have become a scientist or engineer. Instead, puberty happened: By 14, Hedwig was already turning heads; by 15, she was secretly posing nude for photographers. At 16, she walked into a local film studio and talked her way into a job. By 18, she had achieved international infamy by starring in Ekstase (Ecstasy), which featured the first female orgasm on screen; the following year she played Empress Elisabeth in Fritz Kreisler’s operetta Sissi, the basis for the later film trilogy starring Romy Schneider. Still a teenager, Kiesler married the wealthy Fritz Mandl, a munitions dealer cozy with Nazis and Italian Fascists. An extremely jealous husband, he kept her a virtual prisoner in Schwarzenau castle – until one night she dressed up as a maid and snuck out.
Escaping to London, Kiesler then walked in on Louis B. Mayer of MGM, and meeting him again on the SS Normandie, signed a contract for $500 a week. He renamed her Hedy Lamarr. By the time the Normandie arrived in New York, the paparazzi were waiting to meet MGM’s newest star.
What followed was a glamorous career – but Lamarr never gave up her passion for discovering how things worked. She spent her free time tinkering, even on set, thanks to a mini-workshop installed in her trailer by Howard Hughes, one of her many lovers. Her proudest achievement came during WWII: Terrified of German U-boats, Lamarr sought to devise a guided torpedo. But radio waves could be easily intercepted and jammed, so she devised a method of “frequency jumping” – secured by switching frequencies before they could be traced.
Her friend, the avant-garde composer George Antheil, created the means. Taking inspiration from player pianos, he created two identical punched paper rolls that would keep the frequencies perfectly synched. Elated, Lamarr and Antheil presented their concept to the National Inventors Council, who issued a patent. The US Navy was less receptive. Suggesting Lamarr sell war bonds instead (she did, about $25 million worth), they seized her patent under eminent domain as she was technically an “enemy alien.” And while her basic principle was later developed into the foundation of wireless technology, Lamarr never saw a cent.
Like all good documentaries, Bombshellpresents its ample sources, interviews and archival footage and leaves conclusions to the viewer, using a lost interview with Lamarr to structure the narrative. The result is a portrait of a headstrong woman who made her own luck – but also confirms Lamarr’s view that her beauty was a curse. Married six times and having numerous affairs, she was savvy enough to use her looks to her advantage, but was frustrated by people’s inability to get past appearances. She never knew whether the men in her life loved her or her screen persona – an unreachable ideal she found impossible to keep up in private.
She sometimes felt she acted more in real life than in front of the camera, she told an interviewer. In the end, aside from an enduring homesickness for Vienna, her biggest desire was to be loved – but for her brain, not her body. Today, decades after her passing, it seems she finally got her wish.
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