So long as individuals continue to masque fascinating lives behind a facade of persona, providing society hasn’t done this for them, documentaries will continue mine the treasures of history. To the world, Hedy Lamarr might have been a cut-out Hollywood beauty but as Alexandra Dean’s Bombshell reveals, genius lay behind ‘that face’.
‘Any girl can look glamorous, all she has to do is stand still and look stupid’. This is the quote that opens Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, a by-the-book documentary that tells a genuinely remarkable story. After reeling off praise about ‘the best looking movie star that ever lived’ a ever-witty and knowing Mel Brooks remarks: ‘I heard she was a scientist… is this true?’
Born in Austria, 1914, Hedy Lamarr‘s early life was troubled by war, the rise of Hitler and marriage to a man consumed with jealousy. Born to an assimilated Jewish family, her flight from Germany is the story of legend, whilst awe driven accounts by Lamarr’s family and innumerable biographers, paint her as a figure of mythology. In their eyes, she has the curiosity of Pandora and the beauty of Helen of Troy – an image that Lamarr would have herself rejected. In one interview, she declares herself ‘a simple, complicated woman’ whilst revelations come thick and fast here to explode the persona and unveil a different, no less fantastical, story.
Bombshell has been made possible by the discovery of ‘lost’ interview tapes between Lamarr and journalist Fleming Meeks from 1990 behind a bin in 2016. Captured in the opening year of her final decade, the interviews witnessed Lamarr tell of her role in the invention of frequency hopping transmissions for submarines in the war that would later lead to modern day Bluetooth, mobile, military and WiFi technology. On more than one occasion, crumbs of information are enough to drop jaws; certainly, the film reveals, some have denounced Lemarr a fraud.
As a directorial debut, this is a promising start from Dean, who perhaps rests a little to much on the laurels offered by Lemarr’s life story to create a film that matches the sparkle of its subject. The decision to cover the star’s full life in just under ninety minutes means that, inevitably, there is a spot of rushing, with narrating interviews declaring how she ‘quickly’ achieved this and that. Likewise, an early focus on Lemarr’s alleged aesthetic impact is a touch overplayed in making us wait for more intriguing headlines.
In a throwaway line early on it is mentioned that Lemarr was, in part, the inspiration for Catwoman and there’s profound truth there that goes beyond the motives of the character’s creation. Hedy Lemarr was a woman of glamour by day and grit by night and, as Dean’s pace here proves, her life could fill a dozen documentaries.