Widely recognised for her striking beauty (Walt Disney is said to have modelled his version of Snow White on her), Hedy Lamarr was one of the greatest luminaries of the old Hollywood ‘star system’ era.
Famed for her effortless style, witty repartee and at times antagonistic nature, the star of films such as Algiers and Samson and Delilah came to epitomise old Hollywood in all its excesses and glamour, before fading into obscurity and living out the rest of her days as a penniless recluse.
In her new documentary Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, director Alexandra Dean delves into the extraordinary life of a complex individual who also happened to possess a briliant scientific mind. She is credited with inventing a complex system of wireless communication which was used in World War II by the US War Department and is still in use in our mobile phones today.
Born Hedwig Kiesler in 1914 in Vienna to Gertrud and Emil Kiesler (both from Jewish families), Hedy was a bright and studious child who inherited an inquisitive mind from her banker father, who in turn encouraged and nourished the young girl’s love for science. As a teenager Hedy decided to drop out of school and seek fame as an actress, staring in several small German productions, including Gustav Machatý’s sexually explicit Ecstasy.
After a short-lived film career, Hedy went on to marry Fritz Mandl, a wealthy munitions manufacturer and a prominent member of the Nazi party who attempted to buy every single copy of Ecstasy to stop people finding out about the scene. Nevertheless several copies of the film still exist to this day. Hedy later left Mandl and made her way to Hollywood after managing to attract the attention of MGM boss Louis B. Mayer, who had been scouring Europe on the look-out for actors fleeing the Nazis.
Relying for the most part on recently rediscovered tapes from a phone interview given by Lamarr to journalist Fleming Meeks in 1990, Dean uses in-depth interviews and extensive archival material of films and home movies to offer a commendably honest and tender look at a woman who simply refused to be defined by her beauty alone.
German actress Diane Kruger, who became a fan and champion of Lamarr posthumously, is used as a stand-in for Lamarr as she reads some of her correspondence off screen, and is interviewed alongside a number of Lamarr aficionados and the star’s own family members.
Whilst offering a commendable amount of insight, perhaps one of the most regrettable aspects of Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story is its inability to give a more balanced account of the actress’s more controversial actions. For example, the film barely touches on the star’s refusal to talk about her Jewishness openly, even to her own children, at times even denying it. We are also told in passing about how she adopted, then later abandoned a small boy after the birth of her own biological children.
On the whole, the film does a decent enough job in rehabilitating Lamarr and cementing her rightful place in history, however do not expect its makers to challenge the star’s own accounts further than expected from them.