You can take the title “Bombshell” three ways, one as a description of the glamorous movie star of bygone days, two as the revelation of her other life as a scientist and three as a bombshell of a film that is among the best of the year and being released November 24. Director Alexandra Dean has given us an extraordinary, illuminating and entertaining film that sheds a broader light on Hedy Lamarr, who in addition to her screen stardom came up with a revolutionary scientific discovery that is still important and widely used in the world of communications.
It is a fascinating story and director Dean, with a background as a journalist and documentary producer, has done an enormous job of research into the various facets of Lamarr’s life. There are striking clips galore, enlightening interviews and what’s exceptionally special is the use of discovered recorded comments by Lamarr that results in the feeling of her narrating the film, thanks to the way the director has incorporated them. In 2016 Dean and producer Adam Haggiag disovered the tapes that were in the possession of Fleming Meeks, who said he had been waiting for 25 years for someone to contact him about the tapes in his possession.
Lamarr, a Jewish émigré from Austria, first became known for her nude scenes in the Czech film “EKstase,” here known as “Ecstasy.” It caused a sensation. I remember wangling my way into the theater when I not old enough to see it when it later played in my small hometown.
The notoriety led to Lamarr’s career in Hollywood and her reputation as one of the most glamorous of stars. One only need look at her beauty and talent in clips that are part of “Bombshell.” But there is the other aspect of her life apart from the acting side of her career and her personal life reflected in the recordings.
Lamarr had a scientific bent that could have given her a whole different career. Her ability was proven during World War II when she developed a covert communications system, patented it and gave her patent to the Navy in her desire to help win the war. Instead of being recognized for it, she was taken for granted and pointed in the direction of using her fame to sell war bonds.
She lost the potential for earning millions when the patent expired, although her invention of multi-level communication became widely used, and is an integral part of contemporary communications, such as in WIFI, GPS and other technologies.
The film includes reports on the recognition she received from scientific organizations, and tells all of this in a compelling way. One is given both a a feeling of respect for Lamarr and a sadness that she was deprived of the huge profits she really had coming to her.
Beyond all of this, thanks to all of the research and the intelligent, witty way in which the material is used, the film provides a sweeping, often touching portrait of Lamarr’s life. Ultimately she became reclusive and one is confronted with her age-ravaged face in contrast to the beauty that she once was.
The film is rich in discussion by notables and surviving family members. Mel Brooks and the late Robert Osborne, who were friends of Hedy, give their views. ( Brooks named a character Hedley Lamarr in his film “Blazing Saddles.”) So do director Peter Bagdanovich and actress Diane Kruger. You’ll be amazed had how much is packed into “Bombshell.”
The film fits neatly into the current movement for the empowerment of women. Here is a solid case for more widespread recognition of what Lamarr accomplished beyond her acting talent and beauty. In addition to being enjoyable, “Bombshell” conveys a message about what women can achieve.
After you have seen this documentary, the next time you use your iphone you may think of Lamarr. If a fictional film were made along these lines, one might challenge its credibility. But this Lamarr story actually happened. A Zeitgeist Films release in association with Kino Lorber. Reviewed November 20, 2017.