Hedy Lamarr’s early life was the stuff of movies: As a teenage starlet, she became the face of “Ecstasy,” one of the most controversial films of its day. By 18, she was the Jewish trophy wife of a munitions manufacturer who became the third-richest man in Austria by selling arms to the Nazis.
Lamarr fled her controlling first husband by drugging her own maid and sneaking out of her own house in a servant’s uniform with her jewelry sewn into the lining. She turned down Louis B. Mayer during one of the MGM chief’s scouting trips to Paris, where he scooped up actresses (desperate to flee Hitler) on the cheap. He’d only offered her $125 a week. Lamarr then booked herself a modest room on the same ship that took Mayer back to Hollywood and made sure every eyeball was fixated on her in the dining hall by dressing up in couture gowns and her last remaining jewels. Upon arrival in Los Angeles, she spoke virtually no English, but she was to start at MGM for a weekly salary of $500.
Lamarr died in 2000, but the exoticized star — best known for 1938’s “Algiers,” 1941’s “Ziegfeld Girl,” and 1942’s “White Cargo” – has been making headlines again for her contributions to a wireless communication system that have made our current wi-fi, cell phone, GPS, Bluetooth, and satellite technologies possible. The new documentary “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story,” from first-time director Alexandra Dean, is too sympathetic toward its subject to serve as a satisfying biography of the actress-inventor. But it’s a totally serviceable, if disappointingly uncinematic, film about a singular celebrity.
The centerpiece of “Bombshell” is Lamarr’s own voice, heard through a lengthy 1990 audio interview that had been lost until last year. The documentary is pieced together through family photos, film clips, and talking-head interviews with the actress’s family and cinema scholars. Lamarr’s daring bids for freedom and success are simply narrated; we’ll have to wait for the inevitable biopic to watch that midnight run from her first husband and the show-stopping performance for Mayer.
The film doesn’t flinch from Lamarr’s later years, which were marred by a series of bad decisions: brief marriages, fallouts with relatives, big bets as a producer that didn’t pay off, shoplifting, experimental plastic surgery, and, possibly, a drug addiction left over from the days when the studios routinely supplied its performers with uppers and downers to get them to work 12-hour days six days a week.
But the greatest tragedy of Lamarr’s life was that she was too beautiful — or so “Bombshell” would have you believe. It’s altogether credible that Lamarr was hurt that neither the men in her life nor the fans who paid to see her on screen were interested in who she really was. It’s also completely plausible that few people took her self-taught smarts seriously because MGM marketed her as “the most beautiful woman in the world,” and the idea that brains and beauty can’t exist in the same package is a pestilence still around today. The plastic surgery she felt pressured to undertake from her forties on left her a disfigured recluse, even from her own family.
But beauty was also Lamarr’s power, albeit one that faded over time. How else could she have become famous enough to have garnered an audition with Mayer in the first place? To have landed a job on the way to America? To become a cinematic sensation, at least for a little while, enough to marry a few more rich men and thus support herself, her two children, and her mother without ever pursuing an education or another line of work?
That Dean herself is entranced by Lamarr’s beauty is clear from the closing image of “Bombshell,” an excerpt from “Ziegfeld Girl” that showcases the actress at her most gorgeously otherworldly. Before watching “Bombshell,” I’d read and heard of Lamarr’s contributions to wireless communications (with her friend, the composer and pianist George Antheil) several times, but never really understood it. Through charming pencil-doodle animation, the documentary explains Lamarr’s invention as clearly as I’ve ever seen it.
Even more delightful are the tales of the actress’s other inventions: a nature-inspired wing shape for Howard Hughes’ planes, Coca-Cola in a cube (for easier transport during wartime), and plastic-surgery techniques later copied by other actresses. Lamarr’s creations suggest a brilliant dilettantism. There’s no doubt she should have been taken more seriously by others — but by herself, too.