The idea that looks and intelligence are mutually exclusive is a familiar refrain. As a result, beautiful, smart women are often objectified by men who only see skin deep and vilified by envious women. As filmmaker Alexandra Dean deftly examines in her documentary “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story,” such a combination can be devastating: a classic Hollywood actress is misunderstood and marries six times before dying a recluse in a small town in Florida.
Hedy Lamarr was born an Austrian Jew in 1914 as Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler to an upper-class family. Her journey from the Nazi occupation to the golden age of Hollywood and beyond was fraught with misadventure. There was the time she masterminded the escape from her first marriage at age 18 to an Austrian arms dealer (they threw lavish parties and entertained Mussolini). According to the film, Lamarr hired a lookalike maid, sewed as many jewels as she could into the maid’s uniform and fled in disguise. Whether or not she considered herself a feminist, one thing was clear: she was not going to accept her lot in life as mere arm candy. Dean’s film examines the complexities of an American icon as actress, wife, single mother, producer, inventor. Her tale is especially resonant nowadays for women who may struggle with the multi-hyphenate lifestyle.
Lamarr soon made her name as an actress in the 1933 Czech-Austrian film “Ecstasy” in which she swam nude and performed the first onscreen female orgasm in cinematic history. She caught the eye of studio mogul Louis B. Mayer, who changed her name and introduced her to American audiences. As the non-Jewish Hedy Lamarr, she played opposite Jimmy Stewart, Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable, in roles that ranged from seductress in native blackface in “White Cargo” to murderous seductress in “The Strange Woman” to biblical seductress in “Samson and Delilah.” Evidently, it was hard for Lamarr to shake the stigma of “Ecstasy” and, tired of being typecast, she later took to producing her own films outside of Hollywood.
While still working as a studio actress Lamarr would retreat to her trailer to pursue her inventing hobby, preferring to tinker with radio technology than rub shoulders with Hollywood sycophants. The film centers around this facet of Lamarr’s life, highlighting her aspirations and accomplishments as an inventor. She never attended engineering school but, together with avant-garde composer George Antheil, secured a patent for frequency hopping technology in 1942, intended to help torpedoes hit German submarine targets. Perhaps underestimating the patent’s potential and its unlikely inventors, the U.S. Navy declined to invest. To support the Allied effort, Lamarr instead sold war bonds and excelled despite her feeling that it was beneath her talents. It was not until the 1990s that she received belated recognition for her contribution to wireless technology by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Invention Convention, Scientific American and Google, to name a few. Ironically, Lamarr had become a recluse by the time she finally came to be appreciated for her mind. In her older age, she shunned public appearances likely due to the toll that years of plastic surgery had taken on her face.
In between, she lived many more lives, including a stint in Texas as the wife of an oilman (which ended in her fifth divorce) and one in Italy to produce and star in “Loves of Three Queens” (which was never distributed). When her memoir “Ecstasy and Me: My Life as a Woman” came out in 1966 depicting her as an oversexed maniac, she sued her ghostwriter and publisher for libel and lost (not surprisingly, considering she sent her body double to court at one point during the trial). Rounding out her story is the suspicion that the U.S. Navy stole her patent and that she never found everlasting love. Dean frames all of these events not so much as failures but more as evidence of a life fully experienced. Her story is told lovingly through interviews with Lamarr’s friends and adult children, and also in Lamarr’s own words from taped sessions with a journalist from Forbes Magazine.
“Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story” premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April 2017 and will air as part of the American Masters biography series on PBS, and is now [update June 22, 2018] available on Netflix.
The opinions expressed here are the views of the author and not her employer.