Film Review: “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story” — Bold, Brainy, and Beautiful

The documentary Bombshell illuminates Hedy Lamarr’s enigmatic legacy with gentle scrutiny and justifiable awe.

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, directed by Alexandra Dean. Screening at Kendall Square Cinema, Cambridge, MA

Hedy Lamarr — her talent as an inventor was eclipsed by her legendary beauty and glamour.

By Peg Aloi

It’s been said that beauty is a curse. But beauty, in and of itself, does not bring misfortune. The lightning flare of its surface blinds people to the inner fire of the brain or the soul. Unfed and undervalued, those fires may dim or be extinguished. This new documentary by Alexandra Dean explores the life of movie star Hedy Lamarr, whose talent as an inventor was eclipsed by her legendary beauty and glamour. Interviews with her children, grandchildren, and friends along with archival photos and film clips, (highlighted by a fascinating taped 1990 interview) shed light on the little-known facts of Lamarr’s tumultuous career and personal life, illuminating her enigmatic legacy with gentle scrutiny and justifiable awe.

The film begins by examining Hedy Lamarr’s mythic legacy as a glamorous star whose beauty was unparalleled in Hollywood’s glory days. She’s a topic on TV’s What’s My Line? and a celebrated guest on the Merv Griffin show in 1969 (alongside Leslie Uggams and Woody Allen). Mel Brooks crows about her beauty, but seems surprised to hear she was a scientist. Lamarr’s talent as an inventor has become more widely known in recent years (since her death in 2000); Bombshell shows how Lamarr’s work was a source of immense pride to her, despite not bringing her immense wealth or recognition. Her patent for the concept of “frequency hopping” (a way of avoiding the jamming of frequencies that can interfere with targets of submarines) expired before it became widely used, though it eventually became instrumental in wi-fi, Bluetooth, and space travel technologies.

The film portrays Hedy’s early years as a whirlwind of activity and ambition. Born Hedwig Kiesler in Vienna, Austria in 1914, Hedy’s family was wealthy and cultured; she was taken to the opera and sent to private school. As a teenager, her dazzling natural beauty was noticed by film producers and by 1933 she had starred in a controversial film called Ecstasy. The film’s frank eroticism and nude scenes led to it being widely banned and denounced by Hitler. Hedy’s family was Jewish and she married a Jewish munitions tycoon who sold armaments to the German army. As the Third Reich’s power grew, Hedy’s beloved father died: his death was apparently precipitated by his anxiety and fear for the safety of his family. In a scene straight out of a Hitchcock film, Hedy hires a maid who’s her lookalike, slips her a mickey at a dinner party, steals her uniform and, wearing an overcoat whose lining had been stitched full of jewelry, makes her way to London.

There, she met Louis B. Mayer, who was eager to employ (as cheaply as possible) performers who fled Europe. She turned down his offer of $125 a week and stormed out of their meeting. Thinking better of it, she made her way onto the ship Mayer was taking back to the U.S. and, dressed in her last bit of finery and turning every head in the dining room, she approached his table and managed to finagle a weekly salary of $500 out of Mayer —thus her Hollywood career began. Her name was changed, she learned English and, by 1941, the same year she applied for her “secret communication system” patent, she made a celebrated appearance as a Ziegfeld girl. After a few years her roles dried up, but she successfully demanded Cecil B. DeMille cast her as Delilah to Victor Mature’s Samson in a blockbuster that made millions.

Despite a glamorous life, a string of stormy marriages (one leading to financial ruin), along with dealing with a sexist Hollywood system that mainly saw her as an object, took their toll. The film mentions that long hours and grueling shooting schedules led studio staffers to make sure actors had an easy supply of amphetamines and sleeping pills. Years later, in the 1960s, trendy “vitamin shots” full of methamphetamine led to destructive addiction in many Hollywood stars and starlets. Drug abuse afflicted Lamarr as well: she went through a troubled period of reclusive, antisocial behavior before agreeing to the phone interview for Forbes magazine, tapes of which provide gloriously rich material for this film.

Bombshell is a visually thrilling ride, full of archival stills and footage, as well as clever and illustrative use of animation to explain the complex workings of Lamarr’s inventions.Click To Tweet The star’s voice, in her conversation with Forbes writer Fleming Meeks, is soft and lilting, her manner humble and unassuming. We learn the market value of her frequency hopping patent is somewhere around $30 billion. It’s daunting to consider what Lamarr’s life might have been if she’d been able to focus on her scientific interests, but it was her beauty that sent her aloft and buoyed her forward. In the end, it defined her and shaped her life. This sympathetic, enthralling film is a tribute to her talent and courage, the gifts behind the alluring impact of her unforgettable face.

Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She taught film and TV studies for ten years at Emerson College, and currently teaches at SUNY New Paltz. Her reviews also appear regularly online for The Orlando Weekly, Cinemazine, and Diabolique. Her long-running media blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at

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