Even if you don’t know who Hedy Lamarr is, chances are she’s affected your life in more than one way. Lamarr was a Hollywood star who rose to fame in the 1930s, starring in classic films such as Algiers, Ziegfeld Girl and Samson and Delilah. She was the inspiration for Disney’s Snow White as well as DC Comics Catwoman and her dark locks were imitated by other starlets, including an up and coming Vivian Leigh. But what you may have never known is that Lamarr was an inventor whose pioneering work in the field of frequency hopping is the basis for a multitude of the technology we now rely on every day, including WiFi and Bluetooth.
Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival this week, seeks to set the record straight about Lamarr’s incredible but long unrecognized contributions to technology. As with a traditional biographical documentary, Bombshell dives into Lamarr’s remarkable life, beginning with her childhood in Vienna, Austria. But the film is bolstered but a unique discovery — a series of four cassette tapes belonging to journalist Fleming Meeks, who spoke with Lamarr in the 1990s and recorded the entire series of conversations. As Lamarr’s life is retraced, we hear her own words and recollections, giving the film a added sense of authenticity.
Lamarr was a woman filled with contradictions, complications and fierce determination. Born into a wealthy Jewish family, Lamarr eventually turned her back on her religion and identity upon her arrival in Hollywood. Although she had married one of the richest men in Vienna, she left the comfortable and lavish lifestyle behind, escaping one night during a party wearing a maid’s uniform. While seeking refuge from World War II in London, Lamarr met Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM who offered her a place in Hollywood at $150 a week. Lamarr turned him down and booked passage on the same ship to America. One night, cloaked in her best couture and jewelry, she entered the dining room and caught the attention of every single man in the room. From there, Mayer offered her $500 a week and a Hollywood contract. Hedy wasn’t just a star, she also knew how to get what she wanted.
Perhaps most importantly, Bombshell dives into the work Lamarr took on with composer George Antheil, as the two tried to devise a system that would help Allied ships communicate with torpedos without the interference of the Germans. Inspired perhaps by a wireless radio remote control, Lamarr thought of frequency hopping technology, where transmissions would jump between multiple frequencies, allowing uninterrupted communications between ships and torpedos. The technology was patented and filed away by the U.S. Navy, who encouraged Lamarr to use her good looks sell war bonds instead of inventing. Disappointed but still patriotic, Lamarr raises millions of dollars for the war effort, never knowing that her patent would be used after it had expired and implemented during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
As her career in Hollywood began to decline, Lamarr remarried several times and found herself struggling with drug addiction and the press, who ruthlessly commented on her appearance as she began to age. Lamarr was a woman who was never appreciated for her mind and who was never allowed to have value for anything more than youthful beauty, which she tried to cling to with plastic surgeries that began to warp her appearance and kickstart another vicious circle of tabloid stories. Towards the end of her life, reluctant to leave her apartment or see her own family, Lamarr finally began receiving some recognition for her work from the scientific community, but it was too little, too late.
What makes Bombshell remarkable isn’t just that Lamarr is finally getting the recognition she deserved for years, but it’s also how familiar Lamarr’s struggle is for so many women who engage with her story. No, many of us aren’t glamourous movie stars, but most women know how it feels to be denied the chance to be more, to be overlooked and underestimated simply because of gender. There’s a familiar sense of frustration at the end credits, which remind us that Hedy was never paid a dime for her invention, which changed the way we communicate with each other and with the world around us.
Bombshell doesn’t pull any punches, laying bare the more complicated and ugly aspects of Lamarr’s life alongside her remarkable accomplishments but in doing so it allows her to be what she never could be in life: a complicated but fully-realized woman.