It’s no longer news that 1940s Hollywood star Hedy Lamarr invented the technology we use in cellular phones and other wireless communications. But the story behind that seeming anomaly is still fascinating, and Alexandra Dean has told it well in her entertaining documentary Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story. How a legendary beauty devised this groundbreaking concept and never received recognition—let alone a dime—for it is at the heart of this chronicle.
Born Hedwig Kiesler in Vienna to Jewish parents, the constant in Hedy’s life seems to have been notoriety. She embarked on an acting career in her teens and caused a sensation in Gustav Machaty’s Ecstasy (1933) where she not only appeared naked but simulated an orgasm. She married a wealthy munitions manufacturer who was extremely jealous and attempted to buy up all the prints of Ecstasy, to no avail. Trapped in an unhappy marriage and surrounded by Nazis, she decided to flee from her husband and her homeland. She managed to meet Louis B. Mayer, who was visiting Europe. He signed her to a contract with MGM and changed her name.
The key to this movie is Hedy’s own voice, as heard in a lucid, amusing 1990 telephone interview with a reporter for Forbes magazine, and an equally interesting appearance with talk-show host Merv Griffin. Lamarr’s son Anthony Loder is also a valuable resource, along with other informative interviewees (from Mel Brooks to film scholar Jeanine Basinger).
Apparently, Lamarr always had a knack for inventing things: the revolutionary process she and her partner, composer George Antheil, called “frequency hopping,” was just one of many brainchildren.
I don’t want to reveal any more and spoil the fun of discovering Hedy Lamarr’s remarkable saga. Dean obviously wants to paint a positive portrait and downplays some of the star’s latter-day problems with shoplifting and drugs. My only real objection is that she never acknowledges Lamarr’s talent. Her beauty obliterated all other considerations during her lifetime and that still seems to be the case in evaluating her career: she was a good actress, as films like Algiers, Comrade X and especially H.M. Pulham, Esq. prove.
But if Bombshell inspires people to seek out her movies, it will have achieved two goals: giving her the belated credit she deserves for a critical invention, and laying the groundwork to rebuild her reputation as an actress. Her beauty speaks for itself.
Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story is currently playing in New York City at the IFC Center www.ifccenter.com and JCC Manhattan www.jccmanhattan.org. It will open in Los Angeles at the Nuart on December 8.