“Any girl can look glamorous…all she has to do is stand still and look stupid.”–Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000)
Screen queen Hedy Lamarr (Algiers, Boom Town, Samson and Delilah, White Cargo) learned quickly how far a pretty face could take her in the male dominated Hollywood film industry of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. She also knew that her fascination with science and technology and her talent as an inventor, encouraged by her beloved dad from a young age, were best kept under wraps from the fans and Hollywood suits who would make her a star.
Today, when women are still fighting to be taken at more than face value as artists, scientists, politicians and industry leaders, director Alexandra Dean’s fascinating feature-length documentary, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, couldn’t be more timely. The 2017 film festival favorite debuts tonight, Friday, May 18, 2018, on the PBS American Masters series, at 9:00 p.m. ET/8:00 p.m. CT. Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region and http://www.pbs.org/americanmasters for online viewing immediately after its broadcast premiere.
Ms. Dean and her team (including Ken Burns’ master cinematographer Buddy Squires) utilize a lavish array of period and personal photos and vintage film clips to introduce the cultural and political landscape that defined Hedy (Kiesler) Lamarr’s milieu as an upper class Austrian Jew, before and during the Nazi occupation.
The teenage Viennese beauty first made a splash in the 1933 Czech film, Ecstasy. Her sensual nude scenes in that film gave her acting career a boost internationally and secured the film’s long shelf life as a sexually explicit groundbreaker ( I saw it in film school in the early 1970s). It wasn’t too long before she married a much older wealthy munitions tycoon (the first of her six husbands), surreptitiously freed herself from his jealous grasp, and snagged a contract from M-G-M’s Louis B. Mayer on board a ship en route to the States.
Telling reminiscences from her son, daughter and granddaughter, as well as friends, colleagues and film historians, footnote Hedy Lamarr’s creative endeavors, personal foibles, feature film and TV appearances. She was one of the few major stars who challenged the binding contract system that shackled actors and actresses to individual studios for seven years and the rare actress who attempted to produce her own films.
But it is Ms. Lamaar’s thoughtful, intelligent voice over commentary that ignites Bombshell. Her audio reflections were pulled from interviews recorded in 1990 on four audiotapes by Forbes magazine contributor Fleming Meeks. Threaded throughout the film, the audio bytes provide a rich first person narrative in which she recalls her roles as an actress, mother, daughter, clandestine inventor and, most challenging of all, a great beauty whose face inspired the look of Snow White and Catwoman.
We learn the genesis of her WWII-driven invention (with avant-garde composer George Antheil) of a “frequency hopping communications system,” which they created to stymy German submarines from detecting radio-guided torpedoes headed their way. Instead of being honored at the time for this life-saving contribution to the WWII effort, Lamarr was instructed to entertain the troops and sell kisses for war bonds.
She and Antheil were awarded a patent but never saw a penny for their invention. The patent expired and their communications system was ultimately employed successfully during WWII and the Cuban Missile Crisis and has served decades later as the basis for secure WiFi, GPS and Bluetooth technologies.
My only gripe with Bombshell? It’s chock-a-block with so many tantalizing plotlines that I came away from it with questions galore. I’d love to know more about Hedy Lamarr’s early life with her parents as a young Jew living in Vienna, circa the 1920s and 1930s; how she managed to meet, marry and shed all six of her husbands; and why her picture perfect memories of being a mom contradicted her children’s recollections.
In the end, her obsession with plastic surgery tragically seemed to disfigure her beautiful face, and she was one of notorious Dr. Feelgood’s unfortunate victims (she admits to thinking he was injecting her with special B-12 shots not meth). She even claims to have dated another client of Dr. Feelgood’s…JFK.
While you may find, as I did, that Hedy Lamarr’s life story has more than enough substance and drama for three or four films, the best place to begin navigating the Lamarr minefield is Alexandra Dean’s Bombshell.
Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story debuts tonight, Friday, May 18, 2018, on the PBS American Masters series, at 9:00 p.m. ET/8:00 p.m. CT. Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region and http://www.pbs.org/americanmasters for online viewing immediately after its broadcast premiere, as well as its availability via such services as Amazon, iTunes and FandangoNow. –Judith Trojan