Illuminating Documentary

Illuminating Documentary

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story is a little-known Hollywood tale about a star who never received her due. Directed by Alexandra Dean, and with Susan Sarandon attached as producer, it’s a unique unearthing of Lamarr’s existence away from the spotlight. The spine of the story is provided by Forbes journalist, Fleming Meeks, who at the outset points to a corner in his office where he discovered a stack of cassette tapes gathering dust. On them, a half-forgotten phone interview from 1990 conducted with one-time golden girl Lamarr.

Intermittently playing excerpts from Meeks’ interview, during which a 75-year-old Lamarr comes across as a lively and spirited subject, Dean traces her life back to her childhood in Vienna, her early work (which generated controversy for risqué content) and her arrival in America when she presents herself to movie mogul Louis B. Mayer. Making quite the impact, she dated the billionaire Howard Hughes and sparkled in the Cecil B. DeMille production Samson & Delilah. Gradually, like so many, she fell from favour and into obscurity.

What really fascinates, though, is Lamarr’s hidden life. A would-be inventor, she had a natural love of machinery and understanding how things work (as a five-year-old she took apart and reassembled her music box). In WWII, together with her friend George Antheil, she came up with the notion of “frequency hopping”, a radio-controlled system to allow Allied forces’ torpedoes to skip frequencies and avoid being jammed by enemy transmissions. The navy rejected it, though a version was later used during the Cuban Missile Crisis after the patent expired.

Financially, Lamarr got nothing, which was particularly galling when her idea later found its way into the now-ubiquitous Bluetooth and Wi-Fi technology. With Lamarr married six times, what’s tragic is seeing a once-bright future cut short in her later years, as this former beauty became reclusive after several failed plastic surgeries, the result of a desperate bid to hold onto her looks. Dean, who also edited the film and makes her directorial debut here, has shone a very sympathetic light on Lamarr, telling a valid and valuable story.

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story opened in cinemas on 9 March. For more information, click here.

1. Courtesy of Dogwoof.