Written by Kristen Lopez
“Any girl can look glamourous. All she has to do is stand still and look stupid.” Never one to mince words this opening quote from actress Hedy Lamarr illustrates how actuely aware she was in recognizing what was expected from female stars of her era. And yet regardless of this fact Lamarr refused to adhere to it, using film as a means to an end when her real passion was creating items that are now household items. This remarkable woman finally gets her due in Alexandra Dean’s documentary Bombshell. Focusing on Lamarr’s career, both on and off-screen, Bombshell isn’t just about a beauty, but the shocking revelation of what she did to advance technology for our country.
Born to wealthy assimilated Jews in Vienna, young Hedy Kiesler realized she was an inventor after taking apart a childhood music box just to see how it worked. Her mind worked differently from other women; she found chemistry fascinating. But her beauty worked against her early, as it would throughout her life, forcing her into the first of several marriages where her only chore was to sit still and look pretty.
Dean’s central thesis in Bombshell is to focus on how the perception of Lamarr as a beauty, aided by the men in her life, ultimately prevented her from living her dream. After arriving in Hollywood, Lamarr was forced to endure a tour of contrition after it was revealed she’d acted nude in a film called Ecstacy. In several revealing audio interviews she did for Forbes author Fleming Meeks, Lamarr candidly says she didn’t find the film shameful. If anything, she didn’t understand why the director of the feature forced her to cover her face with her arms during a moment of orgasm.
Lamarr’s words come first in Dean’s documentary, presenting a worldview that the actress herself didn’t get to showcase. Even her autobiography, soapily entitled Ecstacy & Me suffered from ghostwriters playing up a sexually-charged woman that didn’t exist. Discussing the life of a famous actress, and how her beauty worked against her is a surface-level interpretation of Lamarr (pun intended). What’s fascinating about Lamarr, and separates Bombshell from the pack, is its focus on Lamarr, the inventor. From that intial music box rebuilding Lamarr couldn’t avoid crafting new things.
She teamed up with musician George Antheil and they created their first invention, a concept called “frequency hopping” that would allow for submarines to send encrypted signals to torpedoes. Antheil and Lamarr sold their patent to the U.S. government, where they were told it was never utilized. The documentary goes down the familiar path of featuring how Lamarr suffered from career failures – the result of Louis B. Mayer’s shortsighted belief that Lamarr was only good as a sex object in melodramatic fare like White Cargo – and eventually took to shoplifting, all the while her patent was used by the government. Not only did Lamarr fail to receive recompense for her invention – frequency hopping would come to make up wifi, GPS, and bluetooth technology – but she’s also belittled by those who say she didn’t truly invent anything, but rather stole it from her husband.
Dean’s battle isn’t just telling us why Lamarr was an important woman in a film context, but rather how assumptions plagued her life. She was too beautiful to be smart; she was too beautiful to receive intelligent roles; she was too beautiful to be considered an inventor. It’s remarkable that Lamarr could remain so nonchalant about her life, even after becoming a punchline in her later years. It’s sad watching her deteriorate, both personally and professionally.
Bombhsell is a vital piece of cinema for fans of classic film or those seeking a feminist story about an astounding inventor. Alexandra Dean makes the audience remember that a beautiful gem has far more going on than its veneer implies.