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BOMBSHELL: THE HEDY LAMARR STORY (2017) review

January 19, 2018

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written by: Alexandra Dean
produced by: Alexandra Dean, Katherine Drew and Adam Haggiag
directed by: Alexandra Dean
rated: not rated
runtime: 90 min.
U.S. release date: April 23, 2017 (Tribeca Film Festival) and January 19-25, 2018 (Music Box Theatre, Chicago, IL)

 

Some of you may only know of the name Hedy Lamarr from “Blazing Saddles“, the comic classic from Mel Brooks, which is something director Alexandra Dean is counting on. Going into her film, “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story”, I at least knew that Lamarr was a Hollywood movie star back in the 30s and 40s, but I had no idea of the surprises that would smack me upside the head when I watched the film that covers on who she was when she wasn’t in front of a camera. I have a feeling many viewers will have the same response when they learn the revelations this enlightening and informative documentary provides.

Born Hedy Kiesler in Vienna in 1914, she would go on to be hailed as Hedy Lamarr “the most beautiful and glamorous woman in the world”, but “Bombshell” is set on reminding viewers that there is always so much more to outward appearances.  When she wasn’t being photographed or filmed, the Austrian-born movie star was busy tinkering away in her own lab, creating gadgets and working on inventions. Her ravishing image may have been the inspiration for Snow White and Catwoman, but it’s her mind that made her a trailblazer who developed a radio system called frequency hoping that would throw Nazi torpedoes off course during WWII, something that would later be put to use in GPS, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technology.

 

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That’s incredible! How come no one knew about this or did anything, you say? Well, that’s the point of Dean’s documentary. Sure, we get to know some background about Lamarr – how she came to the States, the origins of her scandalous nude scenes in the movie “Ecstasy”, how she could never find true love after six failed marriages, the estranged relationship she had with her family, as well as how she was charged for shoplifting and relied heavily on plastic surgery in her later years – but what stands out is how the world could never see past her beauty and acknowledge the brilliant mind behind it. In that sense, “Bombshell” is as frustrating and sad as it is eye-opening and fascinating.

The film also sheds light on how women have been (and still are in many ways) overlooked or pushed to the side when it comes to their contribution to science and math, not to mention contributing to the benefit of mankind. In that sense, this documentary could easily be a viewing companion to “Hidden Figures”. We learn that Lamarr did get the frequency hopping method that she co-created with composer George Antheil patented and offered it to the government for them to use during the war. It was shelved for years, only to be used effectively in the war, yet Lamarr never received the credit or the benefits that she deserved. She was written off as an alien since she didn’t have U.S. citizenship at the time, but it becomes clear that it was mainly because no one could believe someone so beautiful could come up with what she developed.

Like other documentaries focusing on a specific person, Dean incorporates interviews with family members and biographers, as well as filmmakers like Peter Bogdanovich and Mel Brooks (it’s bittersweet to see the late Turner Classics hist Robert Osborne here too), along with seldom-seen video clips, but the way in which “Bombshell” stands out among other bio-docs is how the subject comes alive and feels very present throughout the entire film. Lamarr’s voice can actually be heard thanks to a journalist that Dean tracked down named Fleming Meeks who had interviewed Lamarr over the phone for a 1990 Forbes magazine article and recorded all of it on cassette tapes. Through an arduous process, Dean was able to make sure of those old cassette, essentially resuscitating Lamarr’s voice from a recording that was over 25 years-old. Hearing her voice draws us in even more, especially considering how candid and off-the-cuff she was in the interview. It makes “Bombshell” a more personal doc than one would expect.

 

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The other way in which we hear Lamarr’s voice is when Dean employs the voice of German actress Diane Kruger to read letters Lamarr had written long ago. Any other director could’ve had Lamarr’s son, Anthony (who features prominently throughout the film) read the letters – but again, it’s more personal to hear her voice – even if it’s essentially voice-over work, it’s still quite riveting to imagine what we’re hearing is a young Lamarr.

For those who are unaware of her Hollywood story, the side of “Bombshell” that details her trajectory is equally interesting and also quite revealing as to how her beauty had limited how she was perceived as a person. She probably had no idea how controversial (mostly to American eyes) her sensually titilating role in one of her earliest features, the 1937 Czech romance “Ecstasy” would be received. After being hired by a persistent MGM head Louis B. Mayer in 1937, she starred opposite Charles Boyer in “Algiers”, another controversial film “White Cargo” in 1942, and at the height of her career would star in Cecil B. DeMille’s blockbuster Biblical epic “Samson and Delilah” in 1949, in which she played the alluring and spirited Delilah. It wasn’t lost on Lamarr that she was hired for her looks, but she always seemed to wrestle with how others perceived her, stating, “Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.”

“Bombshell” is a documentary that lives up to its name. It’s less about the typical definition of a sexy and attractive female entertainer and more about a surprising and/or disappointing revelation. What Dean presents is indeed surprising to those who knew very little of Lamarr (there’s certainly enough here for those who think they knew her), but it’s also saddening, maddening even, the more that is revealed of Lamarr away from the camera. This timely documentary does a great job relaying her complex, bizarre and inspiring story.

 

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RATING: ***1/2

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