Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story

Hollywood star Hedy Lamarr has long had a place of honour in Bletchley Park, at the National Museum of Computing. It’s a fascinating place, just a short walk away from Hut 8, where Alan Turing and his colleagues were codebreaking in the early 1940s. Lamarr’s work is presented next to luminaries such as Ada Lovelace, the 18th century mathematician and author of the first computer algorithm.

A lifelong inventor, Lamarr had patented in 1942, along with friend and composer George Antheil, a frequency-hopping guidance system for torpedoes. It’s an invention which has since then led to GPS, Wifi and Bluetooth. And yet her technological brilliance did not pierce through into the popular imagination. She is still mostly remembered for her beauty, and for providing the inspiration for Cat Woman, and Disney’s version of Snow White.

Director Alexandra Dean’s film is a wistful account of Lamarr’s life. It is especially haunting since Lamarr comes to life in this documentary through her own voice, in her own words. Journalist Fleming Meeks had recorded long phone conversations with Lamarr in 1990, ten years before her death, for an article published in Forbes. Decades later, he re-discovered the forgotten audio-cassettes.

Those recordings, together with some of her letters, read by Diane Kruger, make the film into something unique and memorable. The cadence of Lamarr’s words, her Austrian accent still audible, her wry wit: a free-speaking, intelligent and adventurous woman comes to life. Her words feel profound and heart-felt – and also flippant – when she says that any girl can be glamorous, they just have to stand still and look stupid.

The film is particularly strong on the earlier aspects of her life. Its account of life in 1930s Vienna feels vivid. The way social mores at that time, for women, were closer to how women live now, than in the 1950s, is particularly striking.

Decades before #MeToo, Lamarr is frank and lucid in her account of manipulative coercion in the film industry, and its treatment of women. Her explanation of how she was misused, in the making of Gustav Machaty’s 1933 film Ecstasy, is telling. She never quite lived down her part in that film.

Lamarr also shares anecdotes of her early exchanges with Louis B. Mayer, who called her the most beautiful girl in the world. She recounts how she came to Hollywood after initially turning him down. They had met in Paris, when he was trying to sign up cheaply actors who’d fled Nazism. Mayer had offered Lamarr a contract for $125 a week. She walked away from this, only to impulsively decide to board the ship he was taking back to the U.S., walking past him in all her finery. Her initiative worked. He offered her $500 a week.

This anecdote sounds typical of the Lamarr one hears in Fleming Meeks’s recordings. It shows how much courage and determination it took to start a new life, when she was running away not only from a fiercely controlling husband, the weapons manufacturer Friedrich Mandle, but also the rise of anti-semitism, and Nazism.

An inventive and lively woman, she had the good luck of finding friendships and relationships where her intelligence was respected and where her passion for research and inventions could be sustained. Her friendship with the composer George Antheil, famous for his 1924 score for Fernand Léger’s Ballet Mécanique, and her concerns over the terrible loss of life in Battle of the Atlantic, during the Second World War, led her and Antheil to devise their now famous invention. A brief relationship with Howard Hughes resulted in her advising him on aerodynamics. She showed him a better way to design plane wings. He in turn lent her his lab facilities and chemists.

Bombshell is good at showing how a combination of sexism and bureaucracy led the frequency-hopping invention to be buried for decades. Time and again, a sense of injustice surfaces in Lamarr’s story – the combined effect of being a woman, a refugee, Jewish: three times an outsider.

The making of the film has its own charm. Filmmaker Alexandra Dean had been making programmes for Bloomberg Television and Businessweek about innovation and technology, and could not understand the paucity of female inventors. She was told that this was in part due to the lack of role models. Hedy Lamarr seemed a perfect subject, but six months into the project, Dean had still not found Lamarr’s ‘voice’. When she finally reached Fleming Meeks, he told her that he’d been waiting 25 years for someone to get in touch. Meeks’s recordings allow Lamarr, to a great degree, to set the record straight about her life. It feels like a posthumous reparation.

There is another side to this. While the Lamarr recordings give life and authenticity to the film, Bombshell remains a bio-doc which follows the classic structure of films, usually television films, which recount the lives of Hollywood greats. There are the obligatory talking heads and a mix of archive material, some of it impressively sourced – the filmmakers even sourced footage on Ebay auctions.

The film also follows the usual template in terms of narrative structure. Where there is a rise, there will no doubt be a fall; the story is told in chronological order; the end of a life somehow ends up defining the whole.

There is also the matter of perspective. The film is strongest when the structure is determined by the narrative provided by Lamarr’s voice. When other voices step in, the effect is diluted. Mel Brooks’ contribution, where he jokes about his boyhood crush on Lamarr, seems to work against the thrust of the film. This is a minor quibble. What pop out though, is the voice of Lamarr’s children. This again takes the film in a slightly different direction. Where there are still living children – as there are, in this case – there is a temptation to tell the story, at least in part, through their eyes. This can be a mistake, especially where there are still unresolved emotions. It is rare that children, even adult children, have the insight to see their parents through eyes other than their own. The film lets it be understood that Lamarr became what is known as a ‘bad’ mother – and in her old age, a semi-recluse with a face botched by bad, perhaps experimental, cosmetic surgery.

The film alludes to Lamarr’s continued inventiveness, advising cosmetic surgeons on technique, but does not explore why a person who praised intelligence over looks finds herself resorting to such invasive work. She had said that her beauty had been her curse. Perhaps she knew that the society she lived in would only allow her to survive through her looks and wits.

Lamarr’s life also illustrates the consequences of what turned out to be a harsh exile, wrenched away from her Viennese home, and from a society which at the time was cosmopolitan, and thrived culturally.

What is less clear from the film is how Lamarr felt about the arc of her life. The film’s own narrative arc might not be her own. It is quite possible that, for her, her life was not at all the dying fall described in the story. Implied failures – marriages gone wrong, and astronomical financial losses – were perhaps simply part of her trial and error, somewhat impulsive approach to life. She had already achieved so much; marriages, children and money, though part of a life, need not define it.

Bombshell remains a fine, well-made, captivating film. There is a sense, as one hears Lamarr speak in the 1990 Meeks recording, and when one listens to Diane Kruger reading her letters, that she still felt the same ‘inside’ as the enterprising, energetic, determined young woman who led a gilded life in Vienna and then ran away towards freedom, not glory. Her personality seems to have been consistent throughout her life. She appears to have persisted in her drive for autonomy and self-realisation, and in this, one hopes, she remained equal to herself.

89 min, USA, Colour and B&W
Director, Writer: Alexandra Dean
Cinematographer: Buddy Squires
Editor: Lindy Jankura
With: Hedy Lamarr, Robert Osborne, Richard Rhodes, Fleming Meeks, Denise Loder De Luca, Anthony Loder, James L. Loder, Diane Kruger, Mel Brooks