You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story’

Documentarian Alexandra Dean reassesses the life of a famous screen beauty.

Alexandra Dean
Release Date:
Nov 24, 2017

1 hour 28 minutes

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt6752848/

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.

Film Review: 'Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story'

Reviewed online, San Francisco, Nov. 20, 2017. (In Tribeca Fim Festival.) Running time: 88 MIN.

Production: (Docu) A Zeitgeist Films release of a Reframed Pictures production, in association with American Masters Pictures, Submarine Entertainment, Artemis Rising. Producers: Adam Haggiag, Alexandra Dean, Katherine Drew. Executive producers: Susan Sarandon, Regina K. Scuilly, Michael Kantor. Co-producers: Dan Braun, David Koh.

Crew: Director, writer: Alexandra Dean. Camera (color, HD): Buddy Squires. Editors: Lindy Jankura, Penelope Falk, Dean. Music: Jeremy Bullock, Keegan Dewitt.

With: Anthony Loder, Mel Brooks, Jennifer Hom, Wendy Colton, Fleming Meeks, Richard Rhodes, Jeanine Basinger, Peter Bogdanovich, Anne Helen Petersen, Diane Kruger, Stephen Michael Shearer, Robert Osborne, Denise Loder-DeLuca, Roy Windham, Manya Breuer, Guy Livingston, Tony Rothman, Danijela Cabric, Nino Amarena, Michael Tilson Thomas, Guy Livingston, Arthur McTighe, Lodi Loder, James Loder, William J. Birnes, David Hughes, Maj. Darrel Grob.

More Film

  • Walt Disney Archives Founder Dave Smith

    Walt Disney Archives Founder Dave Smith Dies at 78

    Walt Disney Archives founder Dave Smith, the historian who spent 40 years cataloging and preserving the company’s legacy of entertainment and innovation, died Friday in Burbank, Calif. He was 78. Smith served as Disney’s chief archivist from 1970 to 2010. He was named a Disney Legend in 2007 and served as a consultant to the [...]

  • Oscar OScars Placeholder

    Cinematographers Praise Academy Reversal: 'We Thank You for Your Show of Respect'

    Cinematographers who fought the decision to curtail four Oscar presentations have praised the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for reversing the exclusions. “We thank you for your show of respect for the hard-working members of the film community, whose dedication and exceptional talents deserve the public recognition this reversal now allows them to enjoy,” [...]

  • Peter Parker and Miles Morales in

    'Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse' Colored Outside the Lines

    The well-worn superhero genre and one of its best-known icons are unlikely vehicles for creating a visually fresh animated feature. But Sony Pictures Animation’s work on the Oscar-nominated animated feature “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” shows throwing out the rule book and letting everyone play in the creative sandbox can pay off big. “I think we [...]

  • Denis Villeneuve

    Denis Villeneuve's 'Dune' Gets November 2020 Release Date

    Warner Bros. has scheduled Legendary’s science-fiction tentpole “Dune” for a Nov. 20, 2020, release in 3D and Imax. “Aquaman” star Jason Momoa is in negotiations to join the “Dune” reboot with Timothee Chalamet, Javier Bardem, Rebecca Ferguson, Stellan Skarsgard, Dave Bautista, Josh Brolin, Oscar Isaac, and Zendaya. Production is expected to launch in the spring [...]

  • James Bond Spectre

    Bond 25 Moved Back Two Months to April 2020

    James Bond will arrive two months later than planned as MGM moved back the release date on the untitled Bond 25 movie from Feb. 14 to April 8, 2020 — a Wednesday before the start of Easter weekend. It’s the second delay for Bond 25. MGM and Eon originally announced in 2017 that the film [...]

  • Fast and Furious 8

    'Fast and Furious 9' Release Date Pushed Back Six Weeks

    Universal Pictures has shifted “Fast and Furious 9” back six weeks from April 10 to May 22, 2020 — the start of the Memorial Day weekend. It’s the second backwards shift for the title. In 2017, Universal moved the film back a year from April 19, 2019, to April 10, 2020. Both dates fall on [...]

  • Alita Battle Angel

    'Alita' Inching Past 'Lego Movie 2' at Presidents Day Weekend Box Office

    James Cameron’s “Alita: Battle Angel” has a slight edge over “The Lego Movie 2” in a tight race for domestic box office supremacy during Presidents Day weekend. Both are aiming for about $27 million, early estimates showed on Friday. The two titles are the only current bright spots as overall moviegoing for 2019 trails far [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content