The pretty faces that give Hollywood its glamour eventually fade, but Alexandra Hall’s documentary reveals a remarkable woman who parlayed her beauty into an incredible life — from nude scenes in a notorious 1933 Austrian film, to eleven years in Hollywood as MGM’s ‘most beautiful girl in the world’, to a seemingly incompatible achievement: she invented a revolutionary communications technology for the WW2 war effort, and only belatedly received credit for it. A remarkable audio interview with the legendary lady brings a fabulous life into focus.
Bombshell, The Hedy Lamarr Story
Kino Lorber / Zeitgeist
2017 / Color & B&W / 1:78 widescreen / 88 min. / Street Date April 24, 2018 / available through Kino Lorber / 22.99
Starring: Hedy Lamarr, Jeanine Basinger, Peter Bogdanovich, Mel Brooks, Gillian Jacobs, Wendy Colton, Jan-Christopher Horak, Diane Kruger, Guy Livingston, Anthony Loder, Jimmy Loder, Lodi Loder, Denise Loder-DeLuca, Art McTighe, Fleming Meeks, Robert Osborne.
Cinematography: Buddy Squires, Alex Stikich
Film Editor: Alexandra Dean, Penelope Falk, Lindy Jankura
Original Music: Jeremy Bullock, Keegan DeWitt
Produced by Alexandra Dean. Katherine Drew, Adam Haggiag
Written and Directed by Alexandra Dean
In documentaries they say choosing a subject is everything, and if you want anybody to see your film you’d better have access to some special resources. Bombshell, The Hedy Lamarr Story is Alexandra Dean’s account of one of Hollywood’s most glamorous actress. It succeeds because Dean has found new material making possible a much richer portrait of a previously private life, beyond the screen image. In our new age of Women Ascendant it’s a toss-up whether Hedy Lamarr was more helped or hindered by the great beauty that starting at age 13 gave her a life completely out of the ordinary. Men worshipped her from afar, but her attempts to further her phenomenal inventions were dismissed, simply because she was a woman. Rita Hayworth once lamented that men had no interest in who she really was, and that her love affairs failed because her husbands really wanted Gilda. Hedy Lamarr’s case was more frustrating because there was a great deal more to her than her looks. Even when the evidence was placed in their faces, the men in her chosen field of science refused to take her seriously.
There probably wouldn’t be much of a call for a Hedy Lamarr biography without the revelation made widely public around 1990 — that the movie star was also an accomplished scientist and inventor. With the composer George Antheil, Lamarr invented and received patents for a revolutionary communications invention. She finalized it in hopes of helping her adopted country America in WW2, but the technology wasn’t used until much later. It is now the functional basis of most forms of wireless communications security.
No, America seemingly assumed that actress with the accent was as shallow as the movie characters she played. Lamarr volunteered for USO tours to the front, earning recognition on the cover of Life magazine. Her historically noted contribution to WW2 was playing the sultry Tondelayo in a weak remake of an earlier film, starring opposite the lightweight leading man Richard Carlson. Tondelayo is a half-savage ‘native’ woman very interested in sex; MGM surely got the character through the censors with the idea that servicemen abroad deserved some saucy glamorous fun come movie time. Hedy became a standard joke, with her character’s key dialogue line “I am Tondelayo” commonly changed to “Come-on-I-wanna-lay-ya.”
Writer-director Dean has the photos to illustrate Lamarr’s Hollywood years, and the tabloid and tell-all headlines to cover her problem years later on. As Lamarr was mostly a private person, getting at her interior life wasn’t as easy. Her family history in Austria is a story of a beautiful child who loved her father, who excelled in most everything she studied including science. Young Hedwig Kiesler was so beautiful that she only had to show up where Austrian filmmakers could see her, to begin a film career. Three years later, Kiesler’s role in the then-shocking artistic drama Ecstasy made her simultaneously famous and notorious. The poetic picture included nude scenes filmed in the countryside. Another scene holds her face in soft-focus close-up as she experiences an apparent orgasm.
We’re told that her first husband, a munitions manufacturer in Fascist Europe, unsuccessfully tried to buy up the prints of Ecstasy. More out of boredom than for political reasons, Hedwig fled her marriage like a spy following a carefully planned escape route. Hedwig wasn’t in London for long before she managed to cross paths with Louis B. Mayer. His response was the same as every film mogul who ever laid eyes on her. She was sufficiently clear-eyed to hold out for more money, and she got it. With a contract, a name change and the might of the MGM publicity department behind her, Lamarr became a pre-eminent Hollywood dream girl. But because her roles mostly consisted of posing for beauty shots, nobody thought she could act. She knew had to campaign to win good roles.
Threaded through this bio is a story not widely known until just a few years before Lamarr’s death: she was also a visionary inventor. Thinking about the military’s need for secure radio transmissions in WW2, Lamarr envisioned a way to use ‘frequency hopping’ to encrypt radio signals. She and George Antheil proposed that torpedoes could be steered by radio control, with a frequency switcher based on the same principle as a music roll in a player piano. The navy rejected the idea at the outset, saying that they had no interest in putting a player piano in a torpedo. But they really rejected it because its inventor was a woman.
Lamarr gave up trying to petition the Pentagon, and turned back to her film and USO work. Years later, after MGM dropped her contract, she produced her own movie, directed by Edgar G. Ulmer. Her lasting fame was reassured at age 34, with the leading role in Cecil B. DeMille’s colorful, hugely successful but otherwise awful Samson and Delilah.
Bombshell uses a lot of mostly well chosen on-screen interview testimony. Some interviewees seem to be reading from prepared copy, essentially narrating the complicated turns in Lamarr’s undeniably glamorous rise to fame and fortune. Mel Brooks has no personal connection to Hedy Lamarr, and is utilized to make her ‘relatable’ because he used her name as a dirty joke in his comedy Blazing Saddles. That Brooks ends his account of adolescent lust for Lamarr with more respectful words doesn’t help much. (To be truthful, a full decade before Brooks’s film, the play How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying had used Lamarr’s name as comedy shorthand for bimbo-dom.)
The interviews make Lamarr seem a bundle of contradictions. Her children by actor John Loder didn’t know her well, and seem to have spent considerable time going through their memories and keepsakes to fashion their own images of their sometimes remote mother. Like many expatriates, she simply abandoned her Jewish background as a career inconvenience. Although not a citizen during the war, she was highly patriotic about the United States. She also more or less gave one of her children away to be raised by others, apparently because he was a discipline problem.
Short of cash and addicted to medically-prescribed drugs that blurred her judgment, Hedy Lamarr made the scandal pages too often. When interviewed, she was sometimes abused as some kind of extreme woman who had long ago starred in dirty pictures. Her mind blurred, she became for a while a rather sad case, shutting out her family and living in isolation. Lamarr was not careful about guarding her key patent, and soon abandoned it. It was later determined that military contractors were using her invention before the copyright period had passed. When Lamarr asked about the status of her patent, she found that so much time had passed that she couldn’t sue. The frequency hopping concept ended up being essential in several forms of modern information technology, especially cellphone communications, Wi-Fi, GPS and Bluetooth.
Director Dean’s docu would have been fairly thin had she not obtained access to a special resource: around 1990, a staff writer for a national magazine recorded a lengthy interview with Lamarr. In Lamarr’s own voice, the audio document details all of the episodes in her life and clears up some of the questions and controversies. The journalist lost track of his audio cassettes for a number of years, but eventually re-found them. Lamarr’s fascinating, candid excerpts serve as the documentary’s backbone.
Through the audio tapes we learn more about Hedy Lamarr’s Hollywood liaisons — she seems to have been quite a lover off the screen as well — but also of her friendship with Howard Hughes, who was so impressed by her technical acumen that he supplied her with an on-set trailer that served as both a makeup retreat and an inventor’s shop, complete with work table. Lamarr tells us that inventive ideas came to her easily. We’re told that, if she had not been so beautiful, she could easily have been an accomplished scientist.
Bombshell, The Hedy Lamarr Story also tells us a lot about the interesting experimental composer George Antheil, through his engineering-patent relationship with the glamorous movie star-turned inventor. Official documents and good animation are used to explain the duo’s theories and patents. Overall she comes off as a complicated, remarkable woman who found that beauty opened some doors but closed others. The show ends with Hedy reciting an impassioned litany advising the listener that the secret of success, when told to give up on creative endeavors, personal relationships and great challenges, is to Do Them Anyway.
The show holds our interest throughout, which for a documentary is quite an achievement. By the finish we’re convinced that Hedy Lamarr was a genuine renaissance woman born half a century before her time.
The Kino Lorber / Zeitgeist Blu-ray of Bombshell, The Hedy Lamarr Story is a handsome encoding of this professionally shot and assembled documentary, with attractive interviews and tastefully judged photo montages. Ms. Dean doesn’t overdo the glamour photography, preferring when possible to concentrate on family shots and personal photos. We aren’t overloaded with scenes from her filmography. Relevant film clips are presented from Ecstasy, Algiers, Boom Town, White Cargo, The Strange Woman and Samson and Delilah.
Zeitgeist’s extras for Kino Lorber are some extended interviews, a new interview with filmmaker Alexandra Dean, and a trailer for the show.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Bombshell, The Hedy Lamarr Story
Supplements: Interview with Alexandra Dean; outtakes with Gillian Jacobs, Mel Brooks and Robert Osborne; trailers.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 14, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson