×
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.

Director:
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

  • 'Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project': Truth-Teller

    Tribeca Film Review: 'Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project'

    VHS tapes now have a weird sort of stodgy magical aura. Long ago, they were standard. With the arrival of DVD, they were behind the curve. Then they were totally outdated and unworkable (at a certain point, who besides Quentin Tarantino still had an operational VCR?). But now they’re so old they’re like mystic electromagnetic [...]

  • PLAYA VISTA, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 24:

    Shorts Encourage Women to STEAM Careers

    Straight Up Films created the anthology “Power/On” of five shorts focused on encouraging girls in STEAM (science, technology, engineering and math with the arts thrown in) directed by actresses Rosario Dawson, Julie Bowen, Ana Brenda Contreras, Lisa Edelstein, and Nikki Reed. With support from YouTube, the shorts premiered Wednesday at the Google campus in Playa [...]

  • Stefanie Sherk obit

    Stefanie Sherk, Actress and Wife to Demian Bichir, Dies at 43

    Canadian actress and model Stefanie Sherk died on April 20 of an apparent suicide by drowning. She was 43. The Los Angeles Medical Examiner-Coroner confirmed the ruling and cause of death. Sherk appeared in the TV show “CSI: Cyber” and the movie “Valentine’s Day.” She also starred in the show “The Bridge” alongside her husband [...]

  • Ron HowardBreakthrough Prize, Arrivals, NASA Ames

    Ron Howard Talks New Luciano Pavarotti Documentary

    If one is an anomaly, two are a coincidence and three are a trend, then Ron Howard might strictly become a music documentarian after “Pavarotti” hits theaters. The documentary about the world-famous Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti comes on the heels of Howard’s “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week” and “Made in America,” a look at [...]

  • Mary Elizabeth Winstead

    Mary Elizabeth Winstead to Star in Netflix Assassin Thriller 'Kate' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Mary Elizabeth Winstead is set to star in the Netflix actioner “Kate,” sources tell Variety. “The Huntsman: Winter’s War” director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan is helming from a script by Umair Aleem. The story revolves around a female assassin, who, after being poisoned and given less than 24 hours to live, must go on a manhunt through [...]

  • Shannon Hoon

    Blind Melon Frontman's Home Movies Captivate in Tribeca Doc 'All I Can Say'

    For a period of five years, Blind Melon frontman Shannon Hoon diligently chronicled his own life, videotaping himself with a Hi-8 video camera through every step of his musical journey — starting out in Indiana, through his meteoric rise to alt-rock icon, up to the day of his death in 1995. These captivating moments finally [...]

  • 'The Edge of Democracy' Review: A

    Film Review: 'The Edge of Democracy'

    How the hell did we get here? It’s a question that political liberals are asking themselves in many parts of the world, reeling as they are from a global tilt to the right that has yielded the tumultuous Trump presidency, the ceaseless, squabbling chaos of Brexit and, albeit less prominently in international headlines, Brazil’s submission [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content