Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (Alexandra Dean, 2017)

Image of Bombshell

Bombshell begins with an arresting and hilariously pointed epigraph from the film’s subject: “Any girl can look glamorous; all she has to do is stand still and look stupid.” The black-and-white still shots that follow show Lamarr looking terribly glamorous and not at all stupid. As image after image of her startlingly beautiful face appears onscreen, ghostly renderings of her own hand-written scientific notations fade in and out of view in the black field framing each photograph. Without a word of dialogue, in its opening seconds the film has already powerfully established one of its key themes: that Lamarr’s role in developing history-changing technologies has, over the decades, faded from view, having unjustly—even shamefully—taken a back seat in the public’s imagination to her beauty and glamour, as well as the numerous scandals that pocked her life. The story that follows is rendered with narrative and cinematic artistry and intelligence; director Alexandra Dean creates a fitting tribute to a figure whose true accomplishments have been too long obscured by history.

I confess that what initially struck me in the film’s images was, in fact, Hedy Lamarr’s extraordinary beauty. Early in the film, Dean chooses stunning shots from Lamarr’s movies and presents them to us in luxurious slow motion so that we are inevitably captivated by that luminous, expressive face. Very quickly, however, the improbable but true story of Lamarr’s life takes center stage, as her son recalls her private declaration to him, “I have a patent! I invented a secret communication system!” (This, we now know, was the precursor to wi-fi, cell phones, GPS, and Bluetooth technology.) The very next shot is of more of Lamarr’s hand-drawn and hand-written schematics, filling the screen with jaw-dropping detail and a language (for laypeople like me) virtually incomprehensible but intensely significant. As it proceeds, the film rescues the enigmatic figure from what the tabloids sensationalized—a life of multiple marriages and divorces, scandals, addiction, and an arrest—and presents us with a fuller picture of a real, resourceful, and complicated person.

The film has the flavor of a detective story, as Dean’s interview subjects recount, piece by piece, how they discovered Lamarr’s remarkable history, and the times it was almost lost forever (unspoken to the public by Lamarr until 1990, then audiotaped but misplaced behind a garbage can). The pacing of the film is crisp, and Dean wisely allows the story to emerge organically through the voices of its various tellers: a journalist, historians, technology specialists, military personnel, Lamarr’s family members, her friends and colleagues, and Lamarr herself via television interview footage and that twenty-seven-year-old audiotape. What unfolds would strain credulity if it weren’t so well-documented: an early and scandalous starring role in an Austrian sex film; a clever, daring, and meticulously planned escape from Hitler’s Europe; wartime service for the Allies selling war bonds; her invention of a secret torpedo guidance system; and, of course, a career as the most famed beauty in the Hollywood of her day.

Since her true history has been uncovered, what’s perhaps most surprising is that this is not a story that everyone knows. How could such a remarkable figure with such an extraordinary life who gave us so many of our most-used technologies not be famous for all of her extraordinary achievements? (Today, I asked my film studies students if they had ever heard of Hedy Lamarr. They hadn’t. I asked them if they knew who invented cell phone technology. They didn’t.) My hope is that Dean’s elegantly constructed and highly revealing documentary will help remedy this injustice, and that Hedy Lamarr’s incredible story will soon reach a wider audience—as it should.