Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story

When I was a kid, I’d sometimes glance at the books my mom was reading, and if they looked interesting, I’d read them. Sometimes it was a Stephen King novel, other times a biography. I remember reading Mommie Dearest and learning all about Joan Crawford.

Lana Turner’s autobiography blew me away. I knew nothing about her, but learning about the craziness this famous actress was involved in, blew my mind.

I had the same experience watching this documentary, since most of what I knew about Hedy Lamarr was from Harvey Korman in Blazing Saddles being named Hedley Lamarr, and always correcting people that called him Hedy. So it was funny that they start off with Mel Brooks talking about her (although they never mention that he was sued, and had to pay Lamarr money for using that name).

As a teenager in 1933, Lamarr made a film called Ecstasy — in which she was nude, and it’s probably the first non-pornographic movie that showed a woman having an orgasm. At 18, she was married to a much older man who, like her, was Jewish. He was significantly older, and was a successful businessman who was also a munitions manufacturer for the Nazis. She got out of that abusive marriage in an intriguing way — she drugged the maid’s tea, took her uniform, and sewed jewelry into the lining. She rode her bicycle to a ship, and was lucky enough to have a meeting with Louis B. Mayer. He was in Paris picking up actresses that wanted to flee Hitler. He’d pay them $125 a week and put them under contract. She decided that wasn’t enough, despite having no job offers and not being able to speak a word of English. Yet she got on the boat taking him back to California and made sure he, and everyone else, noticed her. She was able to get Mayer’s attention, and a weekly salary of $500 with MGM.

It was fun to hear the late Robert Osborne (Turner Movie Classics), as well as Lamarr’s children talk about her. What works better than just having talking heads, is hearing Lamarr, since there’s a recorded interview that chronicles a lot of her life. However, writer/director Alexandra Dean often does some formulaic storytelling that, considering the subject, could’ve been a bit more enthralling. At times, it started to feel a bit repetitious. It was also a little too sympathetic towards her. There were times I wanted to hear from somebody explaining if she was bipolar or a manic depressive.

Just like Lana Turner, Lamarr had many marriages (six, compared with Turner’s seven) and many lovers. They shared one — Howard Hughes, although it’s safe to say, Hughes probably preferred Lamarr’s genius and inventive mind. In fact, she redesigned his airplane wings after researching the fastest fish and fastest birds, and designed wings shaped like a combination of the two. Now, you might just think that was a lucky guess, but no. This was one intelligent woman. And in 1942, while getting rich with MGM, she and composer George Antheil got a patent for a device they invented that helped the Navy in the war. It involved broken frequencies, so torpedoes could better reach their targets. The Navy thought they could get better use out of Lamarr. They had her sell war bonds (she did well at that, too…generating $25 million). It’s now regarded that Lamarr’s invention is the basis for Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, and had the patent been renewed, she probably could’ve been a billionaire.

The film could’ve been covered in a more interesting way. There was her breakout role in Boom Town. The movie that came out the same year as her patent — White Cargo, where she plays an African seductress (which was parodied a few times). There was also her money losing attempts to self-finance with Love of Three Queens.

Some of the stories make your jaw drop. It’s hard to fathom how somebody could lose all this money, especially when she’s not only a highly paid actress, but she’s marrying men that are wealthy. The Texan she married let her build a huge resort in Aspen. She would’ve gotten that in the divorce (it’s probably worth $50 million), but instead of showing up in court, she thought she’d have the body double from her films show up to testify. This ticked off the judge, who awarded her a lot less because of that.

She became a recluse later in life, probably because of her botched face lifts. Although even when it came to plastic surgery, she was an innovator. She came up with techniques for the doctors to use to make the scars less visible, and other actresses started following suit.

There’s a nice comedic moment seeing the creepy Woody Allen drooling over her on the Merv Griffin Show in the ‘60s.

This documentary would bookend nicely with The Imitation Game.

If you’re a fan of old Hollywood, it’s a must see. If you enjoy documentaries, and finding out interesting stories about people you knew little about, you should check it out.

3 stars out of 5.