Hedy Lamarr was a conundrum. She was one of the most glamorous icons of old Hollywood, a screen siren who appeared in films from the 1930s through the 1950s. Her face was the inspiration for Disney’s Snow White, and even Catwoman. But she was also an inventor, who patented a secret and secure frequency hopping communication system for use during World War II that now features in modern technology such as WiFi, Bluetooth, and cell phones — and she never earned a dime for it.
She was complex. She was misunderstood. And she never really got to tell the world her story in her own words — until now.
On the surface, Alexandra Dean, who wrote and directed Bombshell, set out to tell the story of a surprising female role model in STEM. Along the way, she came across four “lost” interview tapes from Fleming Meeks, who had spoken with Lamarr for a Forbes article in 1990, one of the first pieces that acknowledged her surprising scientific accomplishments — and the discovery changed the direction of the whole film. Suddenly Hedy herself could narrate her life story, with contributions from journalists, friends, and admirers (including Mel Brooks and Diane Kruger).
“Nevertheless, She Persisted” could easily be the title of this documentary. And what’s striking is just how much of the feminist narrative strikes home, perhaps better today than it would have even a year ago. Hearing her referred to as “difficult” for standing up for herself in a studio system that wanted to treat her like a piece of meat takes on new resonance today — and don’t even get me started on the dude who argued that she stole her idea for frequency hopping from her first husband, who was an Austrian munitions manufacturer with ties to Mussolini and the Nazis. If he’d come up with a secure method of communications, don’t you think the Axis powers would have used it?
She was the first woman to perform a non-pornographic onscreen orgasm, in the 1933 Czech film Ecstasy, and then had to live down the reputation that performance gave her. What made it all the more infuriating was that it was all constructed in editing. She was directed to take certain poses, but she was alone — she didn’t realize they would make it into an explicit sex scene. She was duped — the reputation for that one role followed her all the way to Hollywood, and she had to spend the rest of her career explaining herself for something she filmed at the age of 19.
She was a struggling single mother with a string of failed marriages. A female film producer in an era when that was unheard of. She was an immigrant and a U.S. patriot, who sold war bonds in order to contribute to the war effort when her inventions were ignored. She even helped Howard Hughes redesign his planes for speed. And like so many stars who survived the studio system at that time, she became hooked on drugs and plastic surgery — though even there she requested new techniques that changed the industry. Even her autobiography, written by a ghost writer, ignored her intellectual pursuits in favor of a salacious tell-all that she went on to denounce.
This documentary doesn’t have to work hard to surprise and enthrall you, simply because Hedy herself is so intriguing and so largely unknown. And sure, this is an inspiring tale of the power of intellect and inquisitiveness. It’s proof that women have always belonged in science and technology, and that even the most beautiful of women have more to contribute to society than just their looks. It’s an immigrant story. A behind-the-scenes-in-Hollywood tale. It’s even a cautionary tale, exploring the impacts that a life of disappointment can have on a person who seemed to shine so brightly, only to end up living on social security with her real contributions going unrealized. But more than all that, it’s a portrait of an incredible, imperfect woman — a powerful tribute to complexity in the face of a society that found different ways to try to force her into somebody else’s box. While there is justice to the fact that we are finally learning more about Hedy Lamarr’s real story, even after her death, I think it’s equally satisfying that her story is being told this year. Because damn, do we need more stories like this one.
Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last spring, and opens in NYC on November 24th. It was executive produced by Susan Sarandon’s Reframed Pictures, as well as PBS’s American Masters Pictures.