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Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (2017)

Bombshell the Hedy Lamarr Story.jpg

Aka Hollywood’s Brightest Bombshell.  The story of Hedwig Kiesler aka Hedy Lamarr, the daughter of assimilated Austrian Jews who started acting as a teenager; achieved infamy for the Czech film Ecstasy in which she appeared naked and simulated an orgasm; married a Jewish arms dealer who traded with the Nazis; and eventually fled Europe as World War 2 approached. Her dealings with Louis B. Mayer at MGM and the dissatisfaction she experienced at the studio with her roles are offset by the revelation that she kept an inventing kit supplied by friend Howard Hughes (to whom she suggested aircraft design modifications) in her dressing room and at home.  She wanted to help the war effort any way she could. Eventually she would team up with composer George Antheil to invent a frequency-hopping system to make Allied comms elude detection by the Nazis:  the US Navy had already given her idea for radio-controlled torpedoes short shrift. She was told to go out and be a good obedient little woman and sell war bonds instead. It was decades later that she realised the military had taken the idea for wireless communications and ran with it, birthing bluetooth, GPS et al, without giving her credit or a cent. By the time she found out it was outside the statue of limitations;  Antheil had died in 1959. She produced two films with Jack Chertok which was verboten for actors in Hollywood in the immediate post-war period;  both made a small profit. Her marriages to older men repeatedly broke down, she adopted children and gave birth to children, and moved from city to city; her stardom disappeared by the late 1950s and she was hooked on the drugs the studio had been supplying to keep her going for those long six-day weeks. She wound up in court in 1966 for shoplifting $80 of goods – she had $14,000 in her purse at the time. Or rather, she didn’t go to court because her son was injured in a car crash – she sent her body double instead! She then put her name to a memoir she didn’t write and went on the chat show circuit. She was upset by the ‘almost use’ of her name in Blazing Saddles and sued.  She attempted a comeback but it coincided with another shoplifting incident. She was still staggeringly beautiful yet she became a recluse, having more and more facelifts to fix the preceding mistakes boosting her bust and distorting her looks … Alexandra Dean’s film about arguably the most beautiful star in Hollywood is a mixed bag – not in a bad way, but because Hedy Lamarr’s life was complex and interesting with her scientific bent obscured by her beauty and her devotion to her father mirrored in her regular marriages to much older men who abused her. The ease with which she dispatched one adopted son (only admitted  latterly to her daughter who didn’t recognise a boy in a photograph) first to military school and then to a different home is shocking:  they didn’t speak for another forty years but today he doesn’t blame her (albeit he sued to control her estate – he lost). He had hit her across her face and that was that. At that point Lamarr was hooked on the speed the studio had been giving her and it showed in her appearance. Her later years were mired in one cosmetic surgery after another – to repair the previous damage:  but even in this she was on the frontier of change as she instructed surgeons where to make incisions (behind the ear, the knee, wherever there were naturally occurring folds of skin). Her first adopted son transpired to be her actual biological offspring by her third husband, John Loder, whom she married after divorcing then-husband, screenwriter Gene Markey. The first third of the film deals with her background and her years as an actress in Hollywood;  the middle section deals with her inventions. The final third is primarily about the multiple marriages and decline, looking at the way her celebrity was prized by cheap magazines and Andy Warhol and how she was so cruelly mocked by Lucille Ball. The coda to her invention of wireless technology stolen by the US military and now valued at in excess of $35 billion is her son’s appearance at an event in 1999 broken up by her phonecall to him as he accepts an award on her behalf. She declared she had no regrets;  she died shortly thereafter. This, then, was no dumb actress:  a product of a terrible time for women during which she paradoxically found personal liberty by becoming involved in the arts and cinema, she stifled her own true voice as an engineer and inventor and wound up becoming the helpmeet to one incompatible husband after another. She had no idea what she was doing during the shoot for Ecstasy – she recalled being asked to move her arms together over her face. That’s how the director achieved her famous orgasm on film. She was filmed naked on long lenses hidden behind trees. Her son James bemoans the fact that no man was ever worthy of her. Fans of her films will be disappointed at the lack of attention given to her performing style and her impact on cinema outside of her physical allure – we see photo after photo of Hollywood actresses who changed their style after she arrived with such a breathtaking bang in Algiers, a Mitteleuropäische sophisticate from the most elegant city in the world afloat in a sea of shopgirls and waitresses, refusing to sign autographs and happiest on her own. She played historic women with verve and sexual threat – Empress Sissi on the Viennese stage, Helen of Troy, Empress Josephine, Genevieve of Brabant:  it never translated into her place in cinema. Forever a fish out of water, Lamarr was never happy in any of the roles assigned to her, denying her Jewish origins, her true talents and criminally treated by the powers that be who took advantage of her inventions to feather their own research nests. Her ashes are buried in the Vienna Woods:  she finally came home to her beloved Austria, decades after the jackboots had been stopped from stomping all over. In 2014 she was admitted to the National Inventors Hall of Fame for her creation of broad-spectrum technology. This is a salutary tale, told in a beguiling mixture of photos, newsreel, film clips and interviews, from a solid base of audio recordings with the redoubtable Lamarr herself. It is practically a refutation of the glamour of celebrity and the idea that we can ever truly know the stars of the silver screen. Hedy Lamarr changed the course of the twentieth century and we are only now beginning to catch up with her staggering achievements. This laudable film is just the latest addition to a burgeoning industry of books and shows and movies about a woman who was completely misunderstood in her own time. You could say she was lost in translation.

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About elainelennon

An occasional movie-watching diary.

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