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Making Hedy Whole

Hedy Lamarr was once thought of as the most beautiful woman on earth. Looking at a still photo or viewing one of her films makes it easy to understand why. I suppose someone could find another woman more beautiful back in the 30’s and 40’s. There’s no accounting for taste after all. What I can’t imagine is anyone arguing with you if your choice was Hedy Lamarr.

“Hey, Joe. Who’s the most beautiful girl in the world?

“Well, Mac. I’d have to say Hedy Lamarr.”

I suspect that’s how a lot of conversations on that subject began and ended once upon a time. Which, speaking of once upon a time, Lamarr was actually the inspiration for the face of Snow White, and the inspiration for Catwoman.

So yes, she was beautiful. And that’s how Hollywood treated her. Like a beauty. But she was so much more. A fact the documentary Bombshell aims to make plain and does so with aplomb.

Born in Austria in 1914, of Jewish lineage, Hedwig Kiesler turned heads early and often. At just 18 years of age, she made the infamous film Ecstasy. Created before the censorship years, the film not only showed her fully nude, it also depicts her in the throes of an orgasm. A first on film.

The movie made her internationally known but would become something of an albatross for her once she reached Hollywood. There’s that old cliché about beauty being a curse. One that is often dismissed by those of us in the normal majority. However, for Hedwig Kiesler, the trope was fact.

Her first marriage of six was to a man named Fritz Mandl. A manufacturing magnate who provided the Nazis and fascist Italy with munitions despite being Jewish himself. Mandl was a terribly jealous man who not only tried to keep her from acting, he attempted to buy all the prints of Ecstasy to destroy them.

Kiesler escaped the Mandl home by dressing up as a maid and bicycling away from her former life. She didn’t stop moving until she reached London. There she met the famous MGM producer Louis B. Mayer. She would step on a boat with him, dress herself to the nines, speak the few words of English she knew, and by the time she was done, Hedwig Kiesler would walk off that ship as Hedy Lamarr.

Her first production, Algiers, made her a massive star. Women began parting their hair down the middle and darkening it to get the Lamarr look.

Her success on film was intermittent. Mayer thought of her as a beauty, not an actor. He often often placed her in second rate films that few took note of.

There were notable exceptions. Boom Town with Clark Gable was a huge hit. H.M. Pulham, Esq. showed what she could do with a good role. But far too often she would end up in movies that were beneath her like White Cargo. A film that remarkably cast Lamarr as an African woman who drives a plantation owner mad. To make matters worse, the film was a hit, and later, an object of parody.

Lamarr had a secret life though. One that was far more interesting than her films. She was an inventor. Frustrated by her career, and wanting to do something for the war effort, she set out to create a secure transmission system to be used for radio wave control of torpedoes. The Nazi U-boats were destroying the British fleet with little resistance. Lamarr saw a way to improve allied ship defenses and came up with the idea of frequency hopping.

With the help of composer George Antheil, they married her concept to a system based on player piano sheets and were awarded a patent in 1942. When Lamarr presented her work to the Navy, they dismissed it, and told her if she wanted to do something useful for the war effort, she would sell bonds. So, she did. $25 million worth.

This is the theme of Bombshell, as well as her life. Whenever Lamarr would attempt to be taken seriously, no one could, or perhaps moreover, would, see past her beauty.

To add to the insult, the Navy would later claim her patent in the interest of public safety due to Lamarr not yet being an American citizen. Here was a woman who had practically donated groundbreaking technology to the military, sold millions of war bonds, and not only did they take her invention and put it in a drawer, they locked it away from its creator.

Lamarr would throw herself back into acting. She fought with Mayer for better roles, and when they didn’t come, she produced her own movies to star in. A remarkable feat at the time for any actor working within the studio system. When the two films she made on her own were unsuccessful, she lobbied Cecile B. DeMille for the lead role of Delilah in his biblical epic, Samson and Delilah.

It would become her greatest success. Despite being overwrought and a bit campy, Samson and Delilah sold more tickets than any other movie during the 40’s, save Gone With The Wind.

Her career soon faded after that, and less than a decade later, she was out of films altogether, living in Texas with husband number 5, oil man W. Howard Lee. What followed was a long, slow decline. She divorced Lee, married briefly one last time, became addicted to pills and plastic surgery. Short on cash, and with the one thing she could always count on, her face, beginning to age, Lamarr would end up living in a cramped apartment, on $300 a month.

What she was unaware of was her invention did get put into use by the Navy. When the Cuban Missile crisis imperiled America in 1962, her technology was being used on all of the ships.

Not only had her frequency hopping concept get implemented in the military, it is also the basis for secure WIFI, Bluetooth, and GPS technology.

While Lamarr would eventually be recognized for her creation prior to her passing, she never saw a dime from it.

What Bombshell does for Hedy Lamarr is that which life never did. It sees beyond her face. The film makes the viewer painfully aware of how important it is to be born at the right time. Perhaps twenty or thirty years forward, Lamarr could have owned a more fulfilling career on film. Maybe her work as an inventor would have brought her greater personal reward.

Director Alexandra Dean’s fine film cannot rectify those wrongs. But credit for achievement is important. Lamarr escaped the Nazis, became a film star, an inventor, and one truly righteous feminist when the world of men would not grant her an inch. For all the deep sadnesses of her life, there was never anyone else like her.

Bombshell is the document that attests to that fact. It’s a very well-made film. The assembly of information is delivered with proficiency. The anecdotes are splendid. The interviews with family and admirers revealing.

More than anything though, Bombshell makes Hedy Lamarr whole. A distinction long overdue, but certainly welcome.

Postscript:

I’ve always been fascinated by Lamarr. So much so that last year when MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle was looking for nominees for a segment called “Monumental Americans”, I made the case for her to be recognized.

To my never-ending delight, she was chosen. Here is the clip from the announcement below.