Bombshell tells the extraordinary story of the film actor and scientist Hedy Lamarr, Hollywood’s “most beautiful woman in the world”, who starred in films from the late 1930s to the 1950s opposite icons such as Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy.
Journalists have tended to focus on digging out details of her early nude appearance in an erotic arthouse film, her turbulent journey through six marriages, her plastic surgery, drug addiction and reclusive later years.
They have occasionally paid lip service to her parallel work as an inventor and, since her death in 2000, acknowledged her role in developing a frequency-hopping system for secret missile guidance — technology which forms the basis of secure wifi, GPS and Bluetooth today.
This gripping and affecting documentary feature goes much deeper. Through archive footage and photographs, new interviews with her children and others who knew her, and a recently discovered heart-stopping tape of a 1990 interview with Lamarr, it raises vital questions about the position of women in mid-20th century America, particularly in two of its booming export industries: Hollywood and war.
Lamarr was born Hedwig Kiesler to a wealthy Jewish family in Vienna in 1914. At the age of five she began to take apart and put back together clockwork toys. Film was a major emerging art form in Europe and as a teenager her talent for performance was spotted. She acted in several plays and movies before the decisive nude scenes in the 1933 Czech film Ecstasy rocketed her into notoriety, to her family’s horror.
The same year, and still only 18, she met and married the super-rich Hitler-loving financier and arms manufacturer Friedrich Mandl. Now the unhappy trophy wife of a controlling fascist-sympathiser who isolated her from her family, it was sink or swim for Lamarr.
Bombshell brilliantly tells the triumphant story of her escape on a bicycle, dressed as a maid, with her jewels stitched into her coat. She fled to Paris, where she later met Hollywood producer Louis B Mayer, who was scouting for talent among young Jewish women who had fled the Nazis. Within a year she was starring opposite Charles Boyer in the Hollywood film Algiers.
Bombshell lays bare the reality of Hollywood: the punishing hours, relentless schedule, demeaning roles, forced drugging, the constant threat of rejection, transitory wealth, predatory suitors, the loneliness and the exposure.
It brings out the painful stereotypes that were — still are — promoted, showing how actors are forced to be vehicles for feminine “ideals”, and then mercilessly judged by them. Lamarr experienced extreme highs and lows. Her artistic talent was under-used and the men she attracted abused, abandoned and defrauded her.
Throughout this time Lamarr was inventing and designing technological innovations, but this aspect of her life didn’t fit with the image Hollywood was promoting. Women, especially beauty icons, were not supposed to be scientists.
Lamarr got her mother out of Nazi-occupied Austria, but she wanted to play a bigger part in defeating Hitler. She designed an air-fighter for her friend, the aviation and arms tycoon Howard Hughes. Then, together with composer George Antheil, she came up with “frequency hopping”, a secret communications system which could counter German submarine operations.
The idea was put on ice for two reasons: she was a woman and she was a Hollywood star. Lamarr remained determined to help the US defeat Hitler, but the only contribution she was allowed to make was to sell kisses at a tawdry publicity stunt fundraiser. Her efforts as a film director and producer were also rubbished.
Despite continuing sexism today some women are gaining ground in Hollywood, and greater possibilities are opening up for actors within a more progressive independent sector of the industry. Bombshell’s director, former science-innovation journalist Alexandra Dean, and executive producer, the veteran Hollywood actor Susan Sarandon, are committed to advancing this change.
But there is a contradiction in this process. These pioneering women are businesspeople. They maintain a huge stake in a system which thrives on exploitation and profiteering. This inevitably means they are balancing their political or artistic aims with the demands of the market.
There are consequences for the content of the film: questions about underlying historical conditions are not asked.
Bombshell doesn’t ask where sexist stereotypes come from, what purpose they serve, but treats them simply as ideas to be changed. That said, the film brilliantly depicts the highly contradictory life of a remarkable woman who fought her way through the upheavals of the 20th century.
Her voice rings out at the end on the interview tape that had been lost for over 20 years, revealing a personal philosophy useful for anyone trying to be authentic in a society based on deception: “You may give the world all you’ve got and the world may kick you in the teeth. Do it anyway!”
And do see this fascinating film.