Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story

Review by Christina Newland @christinalefou

Directed by

Alexandra Dean

Starring

Charles Amirkhanian Jeanine Basinger Nino Amareno

Anticipation.

Hedy Lamarr has long deserved the documentary treatment, but films about beloved movie stars are often disappointing.

Enjoyment.

A fascinating watch, full of gorgeous photos and juicy anecdotes from her life.

In Retrospect.

A vivid portrait of one of the most remarkable, pioneering women of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

The success and scandal of one of cinema’s first glamour girls is laid bare in this vivid documentary portrait.

When dark-haired silent film vixen Barbara La Marr was still just a teenager, the papers had already started calling her the ‘too-beautiful girl’. She was always getting into some kind of trouble, and the hard-living flapper star was dead by the age of 29.

Years later, memorialising her tragic death, the sentimental MGM head Louis B Mayer had to choose a name for a promising new Viennese beauty called Hedwig Kessler. He settled on Hedy Lamarr. Like her namesake Barbara, Lamarr could quite easily be called the ‘too beautiful girl’ too. For her entire life, her beauty would be both the vehicle for her success and a tool for others to underestimate and pigeonhole her.

In Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, documentarian Alexandra Dean paints a vivid portrait of the cinema glamour girl whose active, inquiring mind was responsible for one of the key scientific inventions of the 20th century. Born to a bohemian family of Austrian Jews, she became aware of her potent visual power as a teen. She starred in several Austrian films before swimming nude in the lustful international hit Ecstasy. The film brought her worldwide fame – and scandal.

After charming Louis B Mayer and successfully negotiating her weekly salary – in spite of barely speaking English – Hedy would become one of the most desirable movie stars on the planet during the 1940’s. Refusing to lean back on her film career, she experimented with chemistry sets in her trailer between takes, eventually inventing ‘frequency-hopping’, a method of secure radio communications intended to protect Allied forces from German U-boats. It is now the basis for wifi and bluetooth.

According to Kent’s film, the invention’s market value is now estimated to be worth $30 billion. Because of military mishandling, Lamarr saw none of the profits. 
The guiding voice in the film belongs to Hedy herself, taken from a recently rediscovered interview recording between the star and Forbes journalist Fleming Meeks. It’s put to excellent use here, charting her life essentially from cradle to grave.

In her elegantly accented English, Hedy describes dating a pre-presidential JFK, running away from her wealthy fascist husband in Austria, producing her own films, and sketching airplane designs for aviation magnate Howard Hughes. A portrait emerges of a woman both highly aware of how to use her beauty and resentful of the fact so few could see beyond it to her intellect.

Yet the film is unafraid to delve into a less straightforward vision of Hedy; one where she is not simply an unblemished proto-feminist pioneer. Later in her life there was drug addiction, tabloid scandal, a courtroom trial, and difficulty with numerous plastic surgery procedures. Bombshell may be classical in its approach to documentary filmmaking – archival footage and knowledgeable talking heads – but it could never be called hagiography. Overall, it’s a surprisingly full portrait of a woman who was as multifaceted as she was talented.

Published 8 Mar 2018

Tags: Alexandra Dean Hedy Lamarr

Anticipation.

Hedy Lamarr has long deserved the documentary treatment, but films about beloved movie stars are often disappointing.

Enjoyment.

A fascinating watch, full of gorgeous photos and juicy anecdotes from her life.

In Retrospect.

A vivid portrait of one of the most remarkable, pioneering women of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

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