Going all the way back to Ronald Reagan, the assumption has been that movie stars are vain creatures incapable of cognizant thought. But those folks never met Hedy Lamarr. She was the Dolph Lundgren of her day; seemingly vapid in front of the camera and the second-coming of Einstein behind it. I say this as I write a review aided by the Wi-Fi she helped invent — way back during World War II.
Don’t believe me? Look it up. Better yet, check out the fascinating documentary, “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story.” It will confirm her prowess as an inventor of much more than male fantasy. With the assistance of eccentric composer George Antheil and a roll of player piano paper, Lamarr perfected the idea of “frequency hopping,” which kept the enemy from intercepting guidance signals used to maneuver Navy torpedoes. The technology would later find its way into cell phones, GPS, Bluetooth and the aforementioned, Wi-Fi.
Guess how much dough her idea was worth? Well, according to the movie, it has a current value of somewhere in the neighborhood of $30 billion, which is SOME neighborhood. Her heirs must be stinking rich, you say. Ah, but not so fast. It turns out Uncle Sam stiffed her, never giving her a dime while letting her patent expire and making her idea fair game for the kids out in Silicon Valley. It’s a shame. It’s also an apt metaphor for a Hollywood icon who almost always got the short end of the stick, whether it was the men in her life or a movie career that was largely squandered by her Svengali, Louis B. Mayer, who insisted on casting her as villains and vamps — never the heroine.
You’d think that would render “Bombshell” bleak and depressing. Yet it’s anything but, as Dean delivers what can only be discerned as a celebration of a proto-feminist who seldom played by anyone’s rules but her own. She was tough. She had to be, escaping Adolf Hitler’s rise just in time to arrive in London and cross paths with Mayer, in town looking for new talent amid the German and Austrian refugees. He loved her heart-melting looks and seductive manner. But he hated her name: Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, which he quickly changed to Hedy Lamarr.
He’d cast her opposite Charles Boyer in “Algiers,” and the rest was history, including her show-stopping turns in Cecil B. DeMille’s sex-and-sand epic “Samson and Delilah,” and her most seductive role as the dark and swarthy sex kitten Tondelayo in the African-set “White Cargo.” Me, I’ve always been partial to her enchantment of a married Clark Gable in 1940s “Boom Town.” But there was a dark side to her stardom. Isn’t there always? Like her MGM stablemate, Judy Garland, she was put through the wringer, working 12-hour shifts six days a week, relying on pep pills and downers to keep pace. It resulted in an addiction that pestered her on and off for years to come.
With that schedule, is it any wonder she tore through SIX husbands? And judging by the reactions of her three (now middle-aged) children — Tommy and Denise Loder and James Markey, who she famously abandoned not long after adopting him — she wasn’t a candidate for mother of the year, either. Tommy even admits he’s as much in the dark over what made his mom tick as her fans. Dean does little to remedy that enigma, but it’s not for a lack of trying; it’s because Lamarr was purposely unknowable.
Dean does, however, score a major coup when a Forbes magazine reporter lends her four cassette tapes containing an hours-long interview he had with Lamarr in 1990. So, like other recent Hollywood bio docs about Marlon Brando and Ingrid Bergman (who beat out Lamarr for the lead in “Casablanca”), “Bombshell” tells her story in her own words, accompanied by a treasure trove of old photos and film clips that are evocatively stitched together. There’s even a few lascivious seconds of Lamarr frolicking nude in one of her earliest films, 1933’s Austrian-made “Ecstasy,” a picture so risqué it was banned by both the pope and Hitler. When’s the last time those two agreed on something? Needless, to say, it’s quite the clip. Bring cold water.
If there’s a problem with “Bombshell,” it’s that it drags in places, which is surprising since it runs barely 85 minutes. It also suffers from a “Behind the Music”-type sameness to the story, which isn’t all that different from Bergman’s, or Joan and Bette’s: Lots of husbands, neglected kids and run-ins with sexist studio bosses. Yes, Lamarr knew her own collection of Harvey Weinsteins and — unlike many of her peers — never suffered them lightly.
Perhaps that’s why her career wasn’t more legendary. But who will ever forget her uncommon beauty, which became the inspiration for none other than Cat Woman? Like Mel Brooks, who she would later sue for mocking her name in “Blazing Saddles,” she was a young man’s wet dream. And listening to him now, you’d swear old Mel is still in love with her. Pretty heady stuff for a Hedy who Dean reminds was far more than just another pretty face.
“Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story”
(Not rated.) A documentary by Alexandra Dean featuring Diane Kruger, Peter Bogdanovich and Mel Brooks.