Hedy Lamarr has always been a bit of an enigma. Beautiful, glamorous, and mysterious, Lamarr seemingly took cues from 30s sensation Greta Garbo, eventually embracing a reclusive lifestyle. Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, a 2017 documentary produced by Susan Sarandon, attempts to introduce the world to the “real” Lamarr through interviews, film clips, newspapers and rare, candid photographs. Bombshell tries to paint Lamarr as a victim of Hollywood pressure, a victim of the U.S. government (who turned their nose up at her communication technology but eventually utilized the invention after her patent ran out) and above all, a victim of her own beauty.
Because of her beauty, Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM, signed Lamarr to a contract and her time at the studio is equated to a form of modern-day slavery. While that is a relatively fair assessment, the studio system was also clear about what employees were getting into before signing. Contracts to establish employment with a studio were usually upwards of 20 pages. During the era, combinations of sleeping pills and amphetamines were a common prescription for people from all walks of life, not just movie stars. Yet that film ignores these facts, and Lamarr is portrayed as a victim of both the studio and her beauty.
Lamarr and her inventing partner, George Antheil, approached the U.S. government with their frequency-hopping spread spectrum invention in the early 40s. However, the United States Navy claimed to have misunderstood the technology, based off the same indented rolls utilized by player pianos, and rejected Lamarr and Antheil’s bid for the invention to be utilized (it would eventually be used to create WIFI and GPS systems). Instead, the United States government asked Lamarr to raise war bonds (she ended up raising over $25,000,000 for the US war effort).
Bombshell doesn’t help distance Lamarr from her appearance by opening with clips from 1932’s notorious Ecstasy, the film that would box Lamarr into a gilded-cage because of her beauty. Bombshell doesn’t talk about her childhood in detail either; it jumps to Lamarr’s first marriage, completed when she was only 19, with arms manufacturer, Fritz Mandl. Again, Lamarr is classified as a victim of her beauty who elaborately escapes from her domineering husband by giving a maid sleeping powder. The filmmakers insinuate that her marriages were created and centered around her appearance; the failures because of it. Yet, one cannot help but feel that the film could have gone deeper. Yes, Lamarr was a beautiful woman, but divorce was unlikely to strike six times simply because her husbands got over how beautiful she was.
Film historian Jeanine Basinger claims in the film that in another life Lamarr could have been a scientist, but she was a victim of her own beauty and relegated to film stardom. While this could be true, Lamarr’s beauty was not the main hinderance she faced; being female in the male-dominated 40s was. Bombshell ignores the fact that Lamarr started her own production company, Mars Film Corporation, in 1945, instead labeling Lamarr as merely being a producer. When one is looking at Lamarr’s achievements, the removal of that pivotal business venture seems a bit blasphemous. The film ends with focusing on Lamarr’s appearance towards the end of her life, drastically changed by plastic surgery. For a film that focuses so heavily on removing Lamarr from her appearance, focusing on her changing appearance seems a bit ironic. The rushed thirty minutes for the last 50 years of her life leaves the viewer wanting more.
Overall, the movie is beautifully crafted but quite grating for anyone who has more than a passing interest in Lamarr. Lamarr was more than her appearance, yes, but she was also more than a victim of her face and those she encountered. Lamarr’s achievements outside of her beauty and inventing seem ignored and one doesn’t leave feeling like the know Hedy Lamarr as a person; they leave feeling like the know Hedy Lamarr the victim.