Overview: A documentary on the life and accomplishments of actor and inventor Hedy Lamarr. Zeitgeist Films; 2017; Not Rated; 90 minutes.
The Basics: From a series of interviews with Hedy Lamarr’s children, friends, and interspersed clips of an extended interview with Hedy herself, we learn the unusual story of a beautiful and intelligent woman who, though she had an active and inventive mind, found her intelligence valued far less than her beauty.
Lamarr was born in Austria-Hungary and first gained recognition for the controversial film Ecstasy (1933), in which she briefly appeared nude. The same year, she married her first husband, Friedrich Mandl—a wealthy munitions dealer who supplied Mussolini and Hitler. Hedy was Jewish. In her early twenties, she escaped the marriage by disguising herself and leaving during a party, and soon crossed paths with Louis B. Mayer (of Metro Goldwyn Mayer), who signed her and brought her to the United States. There, she founds success in movies like Samson and Delilah.
Yeah, So?: This much of her life story we might have known going into the film. That a beautiful Austrian actress of Jewish heritage emigrated to America and found success in Hollywood is unsurprising. It is the unexpected story, a parallel story of Hedy’s life, that makes this documentary worth seeing. While Hedy was a beautiful young actress who fled Austria and found success in the USA, she was also an Austrian inventor and tinkerer who emigrated to the US and contributed to the technological advancement of the US military. She invented in her spare time, advised Howard Hughes on aircraft design, and ultimately came up with the technology on which Bluetooth and wifi is based. Her inventions and her mind, however, were not valued by others as much as her beauty and femininity were. She wanted to assist the war effort as an inventor, for example—but she was told to raise money by looking pretty and selling war bonds, instead. She patented a frequency-hopping idea that would enable submarines to communicate securely with torpedoes and adjust their trajectory as they traveled; it was ignored, at first—then picked up and used by the US military decades later (with no compensation or recognition going to Hedy).
Timing Almost Always Matters: At the moment, a spotlight is shining unflatteringly on Hollywood and its treatment of women, and there is a broader sensitivity to sexism and gender bias (at least, in some circles). This documentary offers the story of a beautiful actress, yes, but it is also a story that almost every woman can relate to—Hedy came up with a brilliant idea, that idea was dismissed, then reintroduced at a later time when she did not get due credit for it. It’s the experience of sitting in a meeting, stating a thought, being ignored, then having a man state it as his own idea a few minutes later as though you’d never spoken…except on a much, much larger scale. On its own, Bombshell is enjoyable. In context, it becomes a statement: this shit happens to us, and it’s infuriating.
The Cost to Hedy: The interview clips in Bombshell are of a Hedy Lamarr in her old age—she sounds breezy, almost casual about her career and her disappointments. Her adult children talk of the effect of her unhappiness on their childhoods, and her grandchild notes that she rarely saw her grandmother, although she did send a signed headshot. Gradually, the impact of being valued only for what she could offer the male gaze becomes clear: Hedy valued her own mind, but over and over again it was reinforced that her value to others (and the basis of their love for her) was in her appearance. And so she did everything she could to maintain her beauty, up to and including plastic surgery, before finally retreating into a life of seclusion. Bombshell tells this part of the story, too, but without sensationalizing Hedy’s surgeries or her solitary life. Instead, it focuses on her legacy—which is everywhere.
Stylistically speaking: Bombshell doesn’t break new ground in the documentary genre when it comes to style or editing. We have family member talking heads, we have one man with an extended recorded interview of Hedy, we have old photos and movie clips. But while Bombshell doesn’t depart from the formulaic in terms of style, it tells a story that needs to be told, and thus well meets the purpose of the documentary film.
Overall: In Bombshell, we find the unexpected story of Hedy Lamarr, whose contributions as an inventor may long outlive her contributions as an actor. The title belies the story told here; it’s well known Lamarr was beautiful. The bombshell is that her inventive mind led to the technology that surrounds us, and we go about our business not knowing or not appreciating that. This film gives Hedy Lamarr some part of the recognition she deserves.
Featured Image: Zeitgeist Films