More Brain Than Beauty

Hedy Lamarr never got her due

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In the entertainment business, it seems that good looks, especially a woman's, can be a double-edged sword. Being beautiful can make her a star-and ruin her life. Examples abound, but for most movie fans, Marilyn Monroe's tragic tale stands out.

Before Marilyn, however, there was the raven-haired Viennese beauty who's the subject of a terrific new documentary, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story. Written, directed and edited by Alexandra Dean, the film premiered at Tribeca Film Festival in 2017, then earned more accolades on the festival circuit. It was eventually relegated to limited theatrical screenings, as are most documentaries. Just last month, the award-winning doc aired on PBS as part of the series; it's now available on DVD/Blu-ray.

It's a good documentary, an absolutely fascinating portrait of a gorgeous woman whose larger story is more complex than ever imagined by her adoring audience. Bombshell is a great primer to the phenomenon that was Hedy Lamarr-a displaced person, a sex goddess, a brilliant inventor, an erratic mother and a six-time unsuccessful wife.

A cottage industry of sorts has grown around Lamarr, making it easy to confuse truths with lies that have mushroomed over the years. For instance, she denounced the 1966 "memoir," Ecstasy & Me: My Life as a Woman and tried to halt its publication. One clip in Bombshell shows her on The Merv Griffin Show, vehemently attacking the book.

The major source for Dean's film is a series of audio interviews with journalist Fleming Weeks, which resulted in a 1990 article for Forbes. The revelations in that piece were largely responsible for informing the world about Lamarr's stunning invention of what she called "frequency-hopping," in the early years of WWII. With composer George Antheil, who shared the patent with her, Lamarr developed a communications system that would have enabled Allied torpedoes to escape the prodigious jamming capabilities of the Nazis' U-boats.

The U.S. Navy took the patent but rejected the invention, urging Lamarr to contribute to the war effort by urging Americans to buy war bonds by, among other things, selling kisses to lucky contributors. Her success at that frolic raked in millions of dollars for the war effort but, according to Bombshell, her invention (forgotten for several years) eventually became "the basis for secure WiFi, Bluetooth, cellphone, GPS and military technology. The market value of her invention is an estimated $30 billion." Lamarr saw none of that largesse.

In her last few years, Lamarr could have certainly benefitted from receiving her share of that cash. A virtual recluse for years, the legendary beauty kept to herself, not wanting anyone to see her-the flawless face and figure were ravaged by far too many plastic surgeries.

In the beginning, the future Hollywood luminary was Hedy Kiesler, the child of a wealthy Jewish couple in 1914. Throughout her life, Hedy was quite devoted to her father, who died in 1935. Early on, he'd encouraged the young girl's inquisitive nature, telling her there should be no limits to her ambition whatever her interests.

Because of her striking good looks, the 16-year-old Hedy Kiesler found work in Austrian films. Two years on, she starred in Ecstasy, with nude swimming and one notorious scene of the young woman experiencing what can politely be called "the little death," creating an international scandal and marking her career path forever.

Married in 1933 to an older Fritz Mandl, the resourceful woman escaped the grip of the Nazi-connected arms dealer in a dangerous venture to England, where she was noticed by Louis B. Mayer. Though she knew no English, Mayer put her in his studio system, with a new name: Hedy Lamarr.

Her first big break was in 1938 when she was cast opposite Charles Boyer in Algiers. Other early successes included Boom Town (1940) with Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy, and the hokey (and fairly racist) but popular White Cargo (1942) in which, as an island seductress, she coos to Richard Carlson, "I am Tondelayo. I make tiffin for you."

Lamarr's greatest part was in Cecil B. DeMille's Samson and Delilah (1949); she played infamous seductress Delilah. The movie was the second-biggest moneymaker of the decade, after Gone with the Wind. Due to her inescapable tie to Ecstasy, Hedy Lamarr was a natural for that role.

Unfortunately, the film's success didn't extend into her later career. Bombshell has incisive interviews with her three children, which further illustrate the unhappiness and frustration, personally and professionally, she suffered later in life.

Good as it is, Bombshell seems incomplete, despite its 88-minutes running time. That's a good thing-Hedy Lamarr's life is worth a deeper look. Start with binge-watching her films, if you can get past Ecstasy.

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