There have always been movie stars whose primary, sometimes only, asset was their looks. A famous exemplar was Hedy Lamarr, the Austrian import who arrived in Hollywood already notorious for an early instance of cinematic nudity, and whom MGM promoted as the most beautiful woman on the screen, if not the entire world. Many at the time agreed. However, few thought much of her acting, then or since.
Alexandra Dean’s new “Bombshell” pleads the case for Hedy that she was a brilliant woman trapped by a stunning appearance no one could see past. Hers was an eventful life that makes for an entertaining documentary, though its thesis isn’t entirely convincing. Presenting her entirely as a victim oversimplifies the contradictions of a complex character whose vanity participated in her own stereotyping, and whose life decisions often seemed as dank as her intellect was supposedly bright.
Born Hedy Kiesler to well-off, cultured Jewish parents in 1914 Vienna, she fast grew into enough of an “enfant terrible” (her words, from a 1990 audio interview providing much of the narration here) that by age 16 she was posing nude for photographers and brassing her way into the local film industry. But it was a Czech film, Gustav Machaty’s 1933 “Ecstacy,” that made her world-famous — a poetical triangle drama in which she appeared skinny-dipping and mimed a first orgasm. (She later claimed she somehow didn’t know what she was doing in either sequence.)
The same year at 19 she married her first husband, a munitions tycoon with ties to Hitler and Mussolini. (However, the former banned “Ecstacy” from Germany, not for obscenity but because its star was a Jewess.) Once that soured, she successfully attracted the attention of Louis B. Mayer, then scouring Europe for talent fleeing the Nazis and fascists. Her first U.S. film was a loan-out, “Algiers,” a “Pepe le Moko” remake with Charles Boyer in the Gabin role. Needing only to be glamorous and mysterious, she caused a sensation. But MGM — probably not the ideal studio for this siren — wasn’t sure how to best use her, a predicament only exacerbated by such ad copy as “You will be ‘Hedy’ with delight… and your verdict will be ‘Lamarrvellous!” Despite some hits and prestigious co-stars (Gable, Tracy), she was unhappy there.
It was in the middle of that contract, with WW2 now engulfing Europe, that her lifelong interest in “gadgets” and “how things work” turned to hatching ideas on how to help the Allied effort. Though there are some who doubt the nature of her contribution, it seems she and composer friend George Antheil hatched the idea of “frequency hopping” in the hopes of saving remote-controlled missiles from being detected and stopped en route by the enemy. The Navy dismissed the concept, filing it away until the patent expired. But there is strong evidence it was dusted off later on, playing an eventual role in the development of GPS, wifi, cellphones, military satellites and other technologies. Lamarr never saw a penny in royalties for her innovation.
This became an issue later on, once her screen career faded. Leaving Metro, she made the then-bold move of producing some vehicles for herself independently. Alas, the results did not suggest her taste in material was superior to that of those who’d been choosing for her. She did have a last hit when Cecil B. DeMille got the genius idea of casting her and prime-beefcake Victor Mature as “Samson and Delilah,” a spectacle as hugely popular as it was widely ridiculed. But it was not a movie to suggest either star’s talent had been underrated. Hedy’s sliding cinematic fortunes came to a full stop toward the end of the 1950s, though she continued to occasionally appear on TV through the next decade. By then she’d wed and fled the last of six husbands.
Her children and a few other surviving intimates are interviewed here (along with too many latter-day speculators). They allow a partial glimpse at a “woman of extremes” who became “erratic” and sometimes a “monster” under the influence of a “Dr. Feelgood’s” speed injections, and who claimed disinterest in her “most beautiful” image, yet became a full-blown plastic surgery addict. When that last pursuit reached a point of no return, she became a recluse.
But too much of “Bombshell” skims over Lamarr’s more troubling and troubled aspects to paint her in somewhat stock terms as the victim of keep-her-on-that-pedestal misogyny. Resourceful and restless as she was, however, this leaves quite a few questions dangling: Why, for instance, wasn’t she able to manage her financial affairs better? Why didn’t she try her hand at other inventions that might have profited her? Why did she blow a potentially fat divorce settlement (when separating from a Texas oil millionaire) by inexplicably sending a body double in her place to court? Why continue to deny her Jewish ethnicity? Why did she greenlight a lurid ghost-written “autobiography” (“Ecstasy & Me”), only to denounce it upon publication? At least she lived long enough (till 2000) to enjoy belated acknowledgement from tech and science sectors for “frequency hopping’s” long-term impact.
Many a highly intelligent person has led a messy life. Aiming for the inspirational, “Bombshell’s” revisionist tilt inadvertently ends up reducing its subject by exalting her. The tomes by biographers interviewed here presumably offer a more balanced portrait.
A somewhat over-large cast of talking-head commentators aside, the film is smoothly if somewhat conventionally assembled. Diane Kruger reads Lamarr’s correspondence and miscellaneous writings on the soundtrack. The archival clips (including several TV appearances) are in understandably variable condition, though given the relatively short runtime here it’s odd that some of the star’s better films (“H.M. Pulham, Esq.,” “Tortilla Flat”) are neither glimpsed nor mentioned at all. Their absence doesn’t help ballast the claim that she was a better actress than given credit for — and in truth, she seldom deserved much credit in that department.