Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story commemorates a Jewish immigrant woman who had reason to believe that “the biggest people with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest people with the smallest minds.” For years, the Austrian-born Lamarr was known as the hottest, most sophisticated lady in Tinseltown. But Alexandra Dean’s documentary, using archival footage, testimony, and some recently rediscovered interviews with Lamarr, reveals just how shallowly studio executives viewed their scandalous asset. When still a teenager, Hedy Lamarr (born Hedwig Eva Kiesler) was quite possibly the first person to simulate an orgasm onscreen. After fleeing a bad marriage in the Third Reich for the safety of Hollywood—despite her lack of English—she became frustrated with her pigeonholed status as a European sex symbol. But worse than the limitations on her acting career was the dismissal of her intellect.
This, the film asserts, was a loss to the US war effort as well as a tragedy for Lamarr. An untrained but brilliant inventor, she spent breaks between shoots in her trailer experimenting, and lost sleep in favor of tinkering in an upstairs lab. She collaborated on a frequency-hopping torpedo signaling system with the American composer George Antheil. While the Navy ignored their idea, their patent inspired the creation of technology essential to secure wifi, bluetooth, and military communications. In the most interesting part of the film, the Lamarr interviews, illustrations, and talking-head scientists explain how Antheil’s experience with player pianos and Lamarr’s original thinking solved the problem of signal jamming.
Although frequency-hopping may be her most notable achievement, she was also an independent film producer in the 1940s when such a thing was extremely rare. Like many women ahead of their time, she was punished for her refusal to compromise. Bombshell becomes more somber as it progresses to Lamarr’s post-fame life. Still, it’s an essential re-examination of the fascinating woman obscured and cheapened by Hollywood mystique.