The upcoming documentary ‘Bombshell’ recounts the internal beauty vs. brains struggle of Hollywood star Hedy Lamarr, whose looks inspired Catwoman and Snow White
This woman was a pioneer in more ways than one.
At the peak of her midcentury Hollywood fame, Hedy Lamarr was best known for her unique beauty, scandalizing the world with a brief naked on-screen appearance in an arthouse film and starring alongside the likes of Clark Gabel, Spencer Tracy and Judy Garland. Before she died aged 85 in 2000, botched cosmetic work had turned her into a recluse and an occasional tabloid curiosity.
But that was just one face of Lamarr, who was much, much more than mere ingénue. A fervent amateur tinkerer, she co-developed frequency hopping, a technology that forms the basis of Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS. Well before #MeToo and the Harvey Weinstein sex scandal, she fought a spirited battle of wits against Louis B. Mayer, another Hollywood impresario with allegedly grotesque habits. Her life was a “tragedy with redemption at the end,” says Alexandra Dean, director of “Bombshell,” an upcoming feature documentary about Lamarr. “People are quick to damn her for her dark side, but all women are complicated. She just wore it on her sleeve.”
Lamarr lived a life fit for the motion pictures. A Jew born in Austria-Hungary, she persuaded Mayer to bring her to Hollywood at about the time Hitler rose to power. But despite her poor hand, Lamarr rebuffed Mayer’s original lowball offer. She also told him off when, shortly after their first meeting, Mayer allegedly told her that “in America, a woman’s ass is for her husband” and then promptly fondled her derrière. Years later, she walked out on Mayer on to create her own independent production company. “She had the looks but also the sense of charisma and that brilliant mind,” says Dean. “She never let him take advantage of her easily.”
”When Lana walks onto the set, all the guys whistle until she gets across. When Hedy walks on, there’s a sigh of I don’t know what. And when I walk on, they say, “Hi, Judy!”” – Judy Garland. Hedy, Judy and Lana Turner in a publicity photo for ”Ziegfeld Girl” (1941). #hedylamarr #judygarland #lanaturner #classic #1940s #vintage #oldhollywood #love
A former Emmy winning investigative reporter and producer for PBS and Bloomberg, Dean rediscovered Lamarr for the silver screen when she was trying to find groundbreaking female inventors for a program she was working on. She spent about two years of her life on “Bombshell,” a project made complex as Lamarr had repudiated her published autobiography as untrue.
"All women are complicated. She just wore it on her sleeve.” https://t.co/qcWbYAZGwl
— Moneyish (@Moneyish) October 25, 2017
The actress also didn’t speak much about her co-invention, for which she received a patent. Dean found small newspaper clips from the 1940s, when Lamarr discovered frequency hopping, but “in every case it was misreported and presented as this strange hobby this movie star had,” she says. “She had to wait for the world to catch up before she was taken seriously. That time is now.”
Like Weinstein, who exerted an undue amount of influence on the Hollywood press at the peak of his influence, Mayer didn’t help matters. “That inventing self was written out of her personality” by Mayer, Dean says. “He made sure it was [only] a little anecdote next to a sentence where Mayer said she loves embroidery. She fought her way out of the box but wasn’t entirely successful.”
Dean also wanted Lamarr to speak in her own words on “Bombshell,” but faced challenges obtaining a recording of the screen legend talking about her non-film work. After months of futile search, she eventually came across a trove of tapes made by an editor at Barron’s magazine who had interviewed Lamarr in 1990. “She was in her 70s and confused so we had to reassemble it chronologically” and coherently, says Dean. “But once there were whole sentences, it was an incredible portrait.” (Barron’s, like Moneyish, is published by Dow Jones.)
What Dean found was a woman with an intellectually curious mind, perhaps limited only by the societal constraints that made overly obsess about her appearance. She co-created frequency hopping with the piano composer George Antheil in part because she wanted to help out her adopted country in the fight against the Nazis, though the U.S. military didn’t take her seriously. (A version of Lamarr’s designs was later used during the Cuban Missile Crisis.)
“If she had lived until today, I think she’d have seen some rips and cuts in the box” she was constrained in, says Dean. “She’d see a world eager to acknowledge her for her eager mind. Her story gave me enormous hope.”
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