Updated: Wednesday, March 7, 2018, 2:53 PM
Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story opens with an archival photo of the glamorous Golden Age star at a nightclub table ringed with Hollywood luminaries.
There’s Marlene Dietrich, looking charming and engaged. And there’s Lamarr, holding a cigarette and looking unmistakably bored.
Like she’d rather be somewhere else, or doing something else. Perhaps inventing radio frequency hopping, the foundation for modern wifi and other modern innovations worth tens of billions of dollars. Yes — it was Lamarr’s idea, part of the strange but more or less true story told in Bombshell.
The title is a double (at least) entendre, and reaches back to Lamarr’s formative years in Vienna, growing up in an assimilated Jewish family, a bright and beautiful young woman who learned at an early age she was more valued for the latter than the former. She started making movies at age 16, and appeared in the notorious title Ecstasy, where she was photographed nude and became reputedly the first woman to do an orgasm scene in a commercial movie.
The movie was infamous — denounced by the pope and by Adolf Hitler. Also, dad was not pleased — the movie caused a rift in what Lamarr would later say was the most loving and important relationship in her life. She would have six failed marriages — the first to an Austrian munitions maker when she was just 19. Bombshell presents this first marriage as a template for future relationships with men — pursued for her beauty, but resented for her free spirit, intimidating intellect and independent nature.
There is no doubt truth in that, but this is also where we begin to sense the movie oversimplifies Lamarr. The actress had legendary power to charm men and women, and we suspect one of them may be Bombshell director Alexandra Dean. Early on, we hear biographers and fans tell us about something that “probably” happened, or that “may be apocryphal,” but it all becomes part of Bombshell‘s print-the-legend approach.
It is quite a yarn. The young Lamarr flees her prison-like marriage in the middle of the night, charms Louis B. Mayer on her voyage to America, and wrangles a lucrative MGM contract —later feuding with Mayer over her desire for better parts, eventually producing her own (unfortunately bad) movies, almost unheard of for an actress at the time.
Other accomplishments were unheard of because they were top secret. Lamarr loved her new host country and, like most actresses, worked tirelessly to sell war bonds during World War II, raising about $300 million worth in today’s money. But she “wanted Hitler dead” and wished to do something more decisive, something that drew on her talent for technological innovation — she helped design aircraft with boyfriend Howard Hughes, and invented a pill that carbonates water. She wanted to help the U.S. Navy destroy Nazi subs, and one day, fiddling with the remote control on her radio, she hit upon the idea of varying guided torpedo frequencies so that enemy could not jam the signal.
Her idea, developed with a Hollywood composer, received a patent and was accepted by the U.S. Navy. It wasn’t put into use until years later as early drone technology, by which time Lamarr had lost track of the patent and allowed it to expire — thus losing claim to its many applications and accompanying revenue.
By the time her ideas were being put to use, Lamarr’s career was in decline, and both arcs fit neatly into the movie’s thesis that Lamarr was exploited and victimized. This suggests a lack of agency that is in conflict with other aspects of her story. Lamarr describes herself — Dean draws from several hours of recently discovered audiotapes — as an “enfant terrible,” and throughout her life is headstrong and willful.
Later she is also violent — to at least one of her children, and to herself (there are a string of garish plastic surgeries), and she eventually is estranged from her family completely. Bombshell ascribes most of this to drug abuse, acquired during her studio days, but her self-medication may have had another source, and one wonders if her restless intelligence did not also accompany an agitated mind.
MOVIES Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story
Directed by Alexandra Dean. With contributions from Diane Kruger and Mel Brooks. Distributed by Reframed Pictures.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 mins. Parents guide: Not rated
Playing at: Ritz at the Bourse