Hedy Lamarr: Gorgeous Movie Star, Punch Line, Inventor

Alexandra Dean's documentary of the actor and wartime inventor depicts a complex woman who was egregiously underappreciated and misunderstood.

Hedy Lamarr was ridiculously lovely. Both Catwoman and Snow White were based on her look. As a teenager, Lamarr was cast in the controversial Czechoslovakian film Ecstasy, where she ran naked through the woods and simulated an orgasm on camera. Then she fled to Paris, leaving her wealthy Austrian husband. In Paris, she met Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM, who offered her a contract, and she went to Hollywood, going on to star alongside actors such as Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and James Stewart.

Lamarr’s beauty and glamor got her noticed, but they also meant her intellectual talents were ignored — and she was a brilliant woman. One of her inventions was frequency skipping, which she and her friend composer George Antheil came up with during World War II so that the Axis powers wouldn’t be able to jam radio transmissions. This invention led to the creation of wireless phones, GPS and wifi technology. Lamarr tried to give it to the Navy, but she wasn’t taken seriously and was told to go sell war bonds.

This is all detailed in Alexandra Dean’s documentary Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story. Dean, who produced documentaries for PBS and Bloomberg and wrote for Businessweek, heard about Lamarr, who died in 2000, while doing a series about inventors and looking for women inventors.

“I thought a lot about invention and how it shapes the world we live in and how we’re kind of obsessed with innovation right now, and it didn’t seem right to me it was so gendered,” she said in an interview over the summer. “I began to have this niggling question in my head — were there all these people who shaped our world and invented these crucial things that we didn’t give any recognition to. This was a really big question for me, because we kind of revere invention right now.”

Looking for an answer to that question, Dean read Hedy’s Folly, which covers her work with Antheil to come up with a secure communications system to help the military. Dean wanted confirmation of Lamarr’s participation and went searching for someone who Lamarr had talked to, emailing and calling everyone who had interviewed Lamarr. One of these journalists was Fleming Meeks, who had profiled Lamarr in 1990 for Forbes. When Dean finally reached him, he said, “I’ve been waiting 25 years for you to call me.”

He had four cassettes of Lamarr telling him her life story. When Dean asked why Meeks had gotten so much material for one article, he responded, “Wouldn’t you?”

Lamarr’s son and daughter appear in Bombshell, and you can see how much it means to them to have their mother get credit for her amazing mind. In one of the more moving parts of the movie, her son talks about his memories of her when he was little as a wonderful, warm mother and how the pills she was given by Mayer’s doctor changed her and made her high strung and irrational.

Along with her children, Dean interviewed others who knew Lamarr or otherwise interacted with her, including Mel Brooks — who Lamarr sued for his “Hedley Lamarr” character in Blazing Saddles — and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, who met her in an unusual way. In an interview in Vanity Fair, Lamarr, a classical music lover, named him as the person she would most like to meet. He called her and Lamarr, who wasn’t leaving the house much due to some botched plastic surgery, struck up a friendship over the phone with him.  

Lamarr’s life was extraordinary, Dean says, known as a great beauty to one generation and, as Hedley Lamarr, a punch line to another.

“Then there’s the generation who know her as this superhero at night story,” Dean says. “It’s kind of incredible, isn’t it? Who else can you think of who has these radically different identities in different generations?”

Bombshell is now playing.

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