Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story


Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story
"Her life story plays out like an adventure novel overflowing with intrigue."

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, having its UK premiere at the Glasgow Film Festival, throws a large net and catches many treasures that might make you rethink some of what you thought you knew about the movie star who was lauded in the Thirties and Forties as the most beautiful woman in the world. Alexandra Dean's revelatory documentary shows us a brilliant mind who, on the side, was developing innovative technology that ended up being used by the US military during the Second World War.

Lamarr, born Hedwig Kiesler in 1914, grew up in an assimilated Jewish family in Vienna. Her swim in the nude in Gustav Machatý's 1933 film Ecstasy (Ekstase) made even the American press notice the young actress. "She goes through her role thoroughly, her facial expressions are most expressive and the lack of dialogue on her part is not greatly missed," wrote the New York Herald Tribune. People wanted to look at her and not hear what she had to say - a curse that followed her throughout her life.

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With interviews (including Mel Brooks, Peter Bogdanovich, Jeanine Basinger, Robert Osborne, Michael Tilson Thomas, and her family), expertly edited (by Dean, Penelope Falk and Lindy Jankur) the film is assembled with care. Her life story plays out like an adventure novel overflowing with intrigue.

We learn how she fled from her arms-dealer husband, Fritz Mandl, "the Henry Ford of Austria", who was aligned with the Nazis and hosted Mussolini at their villa. The cherry-picked archival footage shows a Vienna swathed in swastikas while a bus with a Nivea ad goes by.

Hedy, whose job was to be beautiful in her prison-like existence with her Rules Of The Game lifestyle in Vienna, was "bored out of her mind" and plotted to escape. Her son Anthony Loder describes her cloak and dagger vanishing act which included a maid's uniform, a bicycle, sewn-in jewels and sleeping powder.

MGM studio boss Louis B Mayer when he was snatching up, for cheap, Jewish talent, looking to flee Europe in the late Thirties was rebuffed in London by Hedy who knew how to bargain.

The details, where legend competes with truth as it usually does, are fascinating. We hear how Mayer's wife helped with the new name while they crossed the Atlantic, how Algiers co-star Charles Boyer was smitten with her and how the middle part in her hair started a new fad that soon showed up in movie magazines on the beautiful heads of Myrna Loy, Joan Bennett or Vivian Leigh.

Diane Kruger reads from Lamarr's letters and also gets a chance to remark on the star as herself on-camera. You rarely get both. And the recently unearthed audio cassette tape interviews by Fleming Meeks for Forbes Magazine in 1990, allow Hedy herself to guide us through her life. They give the film a freshness, immediacy and audacity that would have been impossible to achieve with any other narrative voice.

There is plenty to see in the realm of what almost becomes a guilty pleasure - Hedy's looks and style remain irresistible catnip. And why not? The woman who helped to sell war bonds and kissed soldiers at the Hollywood Canteen for the war effort while her patent on secure radio communication was seized, could never be contained. In 1942, she was cast in Richard Thorpe's White Cargo in blackface. In 1946 she started to produce movies herself, starting with The Strange Woman.

Ill-advised medication and plastic surgery - ever the inventor she experimented with new methods on herself - turned her into a tragic figure and laughingstock in later years. Bombshell exposes the cruelty she encountered. She knew it and some of the advice Hedy gave to herself relates to precisely this point. "The biggest people with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest people with smallest minds. Think big anyway."

Few knew how important it was, what the woman who inspired the looks of Catwoman, as well as Disney's Snow White, actually had to contribute. As an inventor, her patented secure communication systems, via frequency hopping, not only helped defeat the Nazis, but are still in use in the present, contributing to the workings of GPS, WiFi, satellites and Bluetooth.

Watch for a clip of Mel Brooks's tribute to Hedy Lamarr in Blazing Saddles near the start of the film and later his Trump-like comment about what he would do if he had taken her out for dinner.

In 1969, Merv Griffin asked Hedy Lamarr on his TV show if her salacious and later disowned ghost-written autobiography didn't hurt her image. She responded that she didn't know "what is an image," and forwards the question to the other guest on the show. "What's your image, Woody?" Allen responds, quick on his feet, "Same as yours." A stimulating quip to ponder then has become an even more compelling one now.

Hedy Lamarr is impossible to put into a box.

Reviewed on: 28 Jan 2018
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Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story packshot
A documentary about the celebrated actress and inventor.
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Director: Alexandra Dean

Writer: Alexandra Dean

Year: 2017

Runtime: 90 minutes

Country: US

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