“Bombshell” is the perfect title for a documentary about Hedy Lamarr. Not only was Lamarr a renowned Hollywood screen siren (aka a “bombshell”), but she also helped invent signal-hopping radio-based technology that was used to guide Allied torpedoes (literal bombshells) during World War II, a system whose DNA can be seen in the Bluetooth and WiFi systems we all rely on today.
Blending archival footage and interviews with everyone from Lamarr’s children to veteran actors and directors like Peter Bogdanovich and Mel Brooks — as well as rediscovered voice recordings featuring Lamarr herself — Alexandra Dean’s film skillfully chronicles Lamarr’s fascinating life. It covers her early years in Europe, where she starred in a racy, controversial film called “Ecstasy” and married Freidrich Mandl, a wealthy Austrian arms merchant with close ties to fascism. While the marriage didn’t last, Mandl and his circle helped open Lamarr’s eyes to science and innovation, which proved extremely influential.
After leaving Mandl, Lamarr had a fateful meeting with Louis B. Mayer in Paris in 1937. He brought her to Hollywood, where she became a sensation thanks to her starring role in 1938’s “Algiers.” Acclaimed for her beauty and glamour, Lamarr was the toast of the town. But, the film tells us, she was far more than “the most beautiful woman in the world” — she was a brilliant inventor and tinkerer by nature who tried her hand at everything from designing more efficient airplane wings for Howard Hughes to, most memorably, co-inventing a frequency-hopping radio signal for U.S. torpedoes that enemies couldn’t jam.
Lamarr also tried her hand at marriage (she wed five more times between 1939 and 1965) and motherhood, but both proved challenging. As her later years unfold, dominated by unsuccessful plastic surgery and a possible pill addiction, the Golden Era goddess slips away. But anyone with an interest in Hollywood history — or World War II, for that matter — will find Lamarr’s story captivating. Smart, motivated, and headstrong, Lamarr is presented as a complex, complicated woman whose legacy will continue to live on. Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW Comments:
Nikki Baughan: Through interviews with friends, family, Industry players and the late Lamarr herself, Dean builds a richly textured portrait of a fascinating, astute and insightful woman who, despite having to build a career on her looks – the only real avenue open to her at the time – regarded her brain as her best feature. Read full review.
MaryAnn Johanson: A stupendous tribute to a remarkable woman who did her best to buck the limitations society placed upon her as a woman… limitations that are still pretty recognizeable today, and, sadly, limitations that she was not able to fully overcome. Her story remains an object lesson for today, when cultural pressures are still denying that girls could even be interested in STEM fields, never mind that they could actually be *brilliant* in them. A beautiful film, clear-eyed and unsentimental, and very, very necessary.
Esther Iverem: With “Bombshell,” director-writer Alexandra Dean and the team at Reframed Pictures produce a fascinating and heartbreaking remix of the Hollywood pin-up. It turns out that the 1940’s film beauty Hedy Lamar was also a groundbreaking inventor. This engrossing bio-doc peels back the layers of anti-woman societal norms and, with previously unreleased audio, vintage footage and still photographs, reveals more of Lamar than all those classic close-ups.—Esther Iverem
Anne Brodie: Alexandra Dean’s doc Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story reveals the truth behind the Austrian actress who was a world class beauty who invented a way of guiding torpedoes to their targets with vastly increased accuracy. Say what? Although that tidbit has been bruited about for years, the doc shows us the sheer scope of her work and her intellect. Lamarr developed the notion of “frequency hopping” the ascendant of Wi-Fi, GPS, military technology and the cellular mobile phone technology, an idea the spawned a $430B industry. Lamarr was never officially acknowledged and was certainly never paid. Great story, if sad and frustrating. The details of Lamarr’s life are astounding. She married a Nazi-connected weapons manufacturer, escaped his jealous grip by bicycling to freedom, jewels sewn into the lining of her coat, during a dinner party. She bought an ocean crossing simply to “bump into” Louis B. Meyer hoping for work at MGM. She succeeded. We hear audio tapes of a lengthy interview she did in later life revealing many moods, attitudes and versions of stories. Sadly an addiction to plastic surgery ended badly and she became a recluse refusing to see even her children. Great archival footage, research, interviews and balance come together in bringing her riveting story to life. You cant make this stuff up.
Sheila Roberts: First-time director Alexandra Dean’s biodoc, “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story,” executive produced by Susan Sarandon, constructs a fascinating portrait of one of Hollywood’s most iconic actresses who was also a brilliant technological inventor ahead of her time. Through carefully selected archival footage and interviews with family, friends, and colleagues — including late TCM host Robert Osborne, Forbes writer Fleming Meeks, and Lamarr herself– Dean reveals a woman whose intellect and imagination were as impressive as her beauty. Dean’s source material includes one of Lamarr’s most innovative design schematics for her “frequency hopping” invention which became the basis for modern wireless communication technology.
Pam Grady: In her heyday, Hedy Lamarr was one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood. But Lamarr was far more than a pretty face. When she wasn’t in front of the camera, she pursued her true passion for inventing things, including a method of frequency skipping that made possible the WiFi, Bluetooth, and GPS technologies we enjoy today. Alexandra Dean’s insightful documentary brings Lamarr’s achievements to light while also presenting an in-depth warts-and-all biography of a woman for whom personal happiness, long-lasting stardom, and respect for her brilliant scientific mind proved elusive.
Jennifer Merin: Alexandra Dean’s thoroughly engaging biodoc reveals all about the Hollywood siren who was as brainy as she was beautiful. Lamarr was hot in the gossip columns, but they never let the public know that she was a world class scientist whose inventions actually helped the Allies win World War II and are the foundation of modern wireless technology. Who knew? The film is pure inspiration.
Cate Marquis: Alexandra Dean’s well-made film covers the gamut of Hedy Lamarr’s unusual life, the ups and downs, giving us insights into this complex person. Given the technology that sprang from her brilliant invention, BOMBSHELL: HEDY LAMARR is certainly worth a look. Read full review.
Nell Minow: Alexandra Dean has given us a frank but sympathetic portrait of a woman who found that so much of what the world envies — beauty, stardom, money — obstructed what she most wanted — stability, respect, and an opportunity to contribute to her adopted country. We are fortunate to hear so much of her story in her own voice, especially the astonishing details of her world-changing invention.
Title: Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story
Director: Alexandra Dean
Release Date: November 24, 2017
Running Time: 86 minutes
Principal Cast: Hedy Lamarr (archival footage)
Screenwriter: Alexandra Dean
Production Company: Reframed Pictures
Distribution Company: Kino Lorber/Zeitgeist Films
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Nikki Baughan, Anne Brodie, Betsy Bozdech, Cynthia Fuchs, Pam Grady, Leba Hertz, Esther Iverem, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sheila Roberts, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna, Jeanne Wolf
Written by Betsy Bozdech, edited by Jennifer Merin