Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (2017)


There’s a terrific podcast out there called You Must Remember This, in which Karina Longworth goes into great detail about the incredible lives of old-school Hollywood stars.  Many infamous figures have been covered beautifully, and nowadays, it’s become harder and harder to be excited about a documentary that essentially does the same thing only instead, we get talking heads and behind-the-scenes footage to accompany a story we could’ve either read about or listened to via audiobook.  Every once in awhile, there are exceptions to the conventional documentary rule.  Last year’s supremely cinematic journey about Jane Goodall was one of them, and here we have another compelling entry to start the year.  We know the name Hedy Lamarr, but what of her many accomplishments and life behind the spotlight?  BOMBSHELL: THE HEDY LAMARR STORY certainly does feature a particular downward spiral but does not allow this incredibly charismatic figure to be defined by weakness. In fact, we learn of a particular technological contribution that showcases a woman of invention and importance.

Starlet of the silver screen Hedy Lamarr was once considered the “most beautiful woman in the world.” By 17, this daring bohemian starred in the notorious German drama ECSTASY, wherein she not only appeared naked, but performed cinema’s first simulated female orgasm. The 1933 film was denounced by the Pope and banned by Adolf Hitler.  Few may know that the legendary actress was responsible for a technological breakthrough that has become the basis for the security of today’s WiFi and GPS, and invented a “secret communication system” to assist the Allies in WWII. Through archival recordings, director Alexandra Dean reveals that Lamarr’s struggle to have her invention taken seriously was one of resistance, but eventually, her wizardry was considered a heroic act worthy of tremendous praise.

One facet that might resonate with viewers is the sense of dichotomy and contradiction that many celebrities wrestle with.  Hedy was a recluse that also craved attention.  Thankfully, the film does not pigeonhole her into a familiar archetype, despite touching upon the status sex symbol she was to many. Hedy Lamarr narrates her trailblazing story through never-before-heard audio recordings, augmented by interviews with surviving family, friends and luminaries.  Yes, being a woman of those times, she had to face the unfortunate dismissal of her intelligence as well as her uncanny ability to deeply conceptualize a project, one of which became a remarkable success. In the most interesting part of the film, the Lamarr interviews, illustrations, and talking-head scientists explain how experience with player pianos and Lamarr’s original thinking solved the problem of signal jamming.

It’s only later in the film where we as an audience have to endure the above-mentioned downward spiral, which puts the execution and narrative in a more familiar territory.  It becomes a bit sullen and melancholy, simply because that’s also what happened to Hedy.  However, she was, in her own words, “A very simple complicated person.”  The film demonstrates the blessing and the curse of having a remarkable intellect that can be intimidating to some, exhilarating to others, particularly if young women venture out to see what a life Hedy had.  Perhaps there is a little too much idealizing of its subject at times, but by the end, it is justified. The story here is how her Hollywood success overshadowed her brains. Certainly, it can be viewed as a tribute but for many women, it might serve as an inspirational impetus and that makes it well worth seeing for anyone curious about the subject matter.

James Laczkowski