Friday, July 27, 2018

Movie Review: Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (2017)

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (2017) written and directed by Alexandra Dean

Hedy Lamarr is remembered as a Hollywood star who was one of the glamorous gals of the 1930s and 1940s. Many consider her the most beautiful woman to ever grace the silver screen. Her breakout role was in Algiers. Her biggest film was Cecile B. DeMille's Samson and Delilah (she played Delilah, naturally). She died a recluse in 2000.  But these facts are hardly the most interesting part of her life.

She was born in Austria as Hedwig Eva Kiesler and her first interest was tinkering with mechanical things. She had a music box that she took apart and put back together when she was six. Her father would take her around 1920s Vienna and they shared a fascination with the technology of the day. She continued to explore mechanical things and come up with inventions throughout her life.

She was beautiful even as a child. In her teens, she went to a local movie studio where they started putting her to work. At nineteen, she starred in a movie called Ecstasy, whose semi-pornographic nature inspired jealousy in her husband (a munitions manufacturer and apparently a boring person). It was banned by Hitler in Germany since Hedy was of Jewish origin. Realizing the lovelessness of her marriage and the worsening conditions in Austria, she made a daring escape to London. There she had a chance encounter with Louis B. Mayer (of MGM Studios), who tried to recruit her for $125 a week. She at first refused but then booked passage on the same ocean liner that Mayer was using to return to America. One appearance by her in the dining room (where she turned everyone's heads) led to a $500 a week offer that she accepted.

Her career in Hollywood took off. Her looks sold her more than anything else. She is claimed to be the inspiration for both Disney's Snow White and DC Comics' Catwoman. Hedy wanted more substantial acting work but the studio system was not accommodating. With the war looming for America, she put her inventing hobby to practical use and came up with a system for ships to guide torpedoes that avoiding the problem of the enemy jamming the radio frequency. She called her invention "frequency hopping" where the ship and the torpedo would constantly switch frequencies to communicate. No one can jam a wide range of frequencies, so it was bound to be successful. Without a background in engineering, she didn't know how to make it work but the U. S. government issued a patent for the idea. They didn't know how to make it work either and classified the patent. The government's recommendation to her was to put her fame to use and sell war bonds.

Some might find that insulting (because it is), but Hedy was a patriotic immigrant who did work the war bond circuit and frequented the Hollywood Canteen where celebrities socialized and provided service for American servicemen and women during the war. Both her heart and her mind were in the right place.

After the war, the patent was eventually put to use without informing or paying her. In the meantime, she had gone through several husbands, many of whom treated her as little more than a trophy wife. She persevered. As she grew older, the Hollywood work dried up. By the 1990s, the story of her scientific contribution finally came to light and she was recognized for an idea that is today applied to wifi, Bluetooth, GPS, and satellite technology.

This documentary does a fine job telling her life story, with the good and the bad things that happened to her and that she did. Her life is a fascinating story as a piece of Hollywood history and as the struggle of a woman to do right by herself and by others. Her life is a lot more complicated and interesting than the "most beautiful woman in films" tag even hints at.

Highly recommended.

Parental warning: There are clips of Hedy topless from Ecstasy (along with examples of other Austria women going topless in that era); she did go through a period of drug addiction that is portrayed negatively; she had an adoptive child with one of her husbands that they basically sent to boarding school never to return to their family.

No comments:

Post a Comment