'Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story': Film Review | Tribeca 2017

A thoroughly engaging, eye-opening showbiz doc.

Alexandra Dean tells the underexposed, amazing story of a Hollywood glamour queen who could have been a scientist.

Even a fairly serious classic-Hollywood buff could be forgiven for not knowing much about Hedy Lamarr, an actress whose beauty was far more impressive than her filmography. But as Alexandra Dean's eye-opening Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story shows, Lamarr's films were far from the most interesting thing about her. An entertaining argument that we should view the Austrian immigrant as an ahead-of-her-time woman trapped by the mores of the 1940s and '50s, the doc has art house appeal and afterward would make a wonderful fit for TCM, whose late host Robert Osborne (a close friend of the star's) makes several appearances here.

Much is made of the relationship Lamarr (born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Vienna) had with her looks. A blessing and a curse, they opened doors while keeping people from accepting the possibility that she had deeper gifts. Yet she clung to them desperately in later years, undertaking many plastic surgeries that eventually left her frightful-looking; by her 60s, she was a recluse who avoided being seen in public.

How different things might have been, had she been homely! A mechanically minded, self-taught inventor, Lamarr was 5 years old when she took apart and reassembled her music box; years later, when she was dating Howard Hughes, she allegedly revised his designs for a plane she knew wouldn't be able to do what he wanted. Her biggest claim to the glam-nerd hall of fame, though, is "frequency-hopping," an idea she came up with during WWII: Hearing that Allied forces' radio-controlled torpedoes could be thrown off course by jamming the frequencies transmitted to them, she teamed with a friend, composer George Antheil, to implement a solution. Perhaps inspired by an early remote-control for home radios, the two adapted the mechanism of player-pianos to propose a system that would skip from one frequency to another as a torpedo traveled, with only the broadcaster and the torpedo knowing which frequency would be used at any moment. The two were granted a patent for the device in 1942, but the Navy rejected it. (They put her to work selling war bonds and entertaining troops instead.) But a version of the design was used in the Cuban Missile Crisis, after the patent expired, and worked its way into practically all modern wireless communications tech. "Wi-Fi and Bluetooth — that's my mother's technology," boasts Lamarr's son.

This history is not new; several authors (interviewed here) have written books about Lamarr's non-film life. But despite decades of promising to tell her own story, she never published her planned memoir. (She claimed that the 1966 autobiography Ecstasy and Me was full of fabrications by a ghost writer and published without her approval.) In 2016, former Forbes writer Fleming Meeks discovered several cassette tapes of a 1990 phone interview with Lamarr, and these provide a way for Bombshell to set itself apart; we hear a great deal from these tapes, with a world-weary but good humored Lamarr spinning yarns for the man writing her profile.

First-time director Dean does an excellent job of marshalling old source material, setting the scene for an account of Lamarr's life on- and off-screen. From her savvy manipulation of Louis B. Mayer, who wound up paying her several times what he initially offered, to her big Cecil B. DeMille hit Samson and Delilah and subsequent self-produced features, we see a promising career that never stayed on the upswing for long. Her personal life was a wreck, too: six marriages, drug problems dating back to studio-issued pep pills, money problems and bizarre incidents of shoplifting.

It's easy to trace many of Lamarr's difficulties to boredom and frustration, and to wish that the young girl in Vienna had been able to find a route into the professional sphere that didn't involve her looks. Instead of marrying at 19 (to an arms merchant who supplied Hitler and Mussolini), could she have fled the coming war in England or America and gone to college? Bolstering her innate creativity with scholarship, she might have been an engineering pioneer — instead of another of Hollywood's great "if only" tales.

Production company: Reframed Pictures
Director-screenwriter: Alexandra Dean
Producers: Adam Haggiag, Alexandra Dean, Katherine Drew
Executive producers: Susan Sarandon, Michael Kantor
Director of photography: Buddy Squires
Editor: Lindy Jankura
Composers: Keegan Dewitt, Jeremy Bullock
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Special Screenings)
Sales: Dan Braun, Submarine

89 minutes