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aka Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story

D: Alexandra Dean / 88m

With Hedy Lamarr, Anthony Loder, Denise Loder-Deluca, Fleming Meeks, Robert Osborne, Wendy Colton, Diane Kruger, Stephen Michael Shearer, Jimmy Loder, Jeanine Basinger, Peter Bogdanovich

In recent years, Hedy Lamarr and her life and work have been the subject of a critical reappraisal, from her role as an actress in Hollywood, to her other work as an inventor. This duality has been examined and explored through plays and photographic exhibitions, and her influence has extended as far as being the inspiration for Anne Hathaway’s portrayal of Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises (2012). Bombshell charts Lamarr’s life from her childhood growing up in Vienna (as Hedy Kiesler), through to her early movie career and the production that brought her both fame and notoriety, Extase (1933), in which she appeared nude. Her family’s Jewish background put them at risk from the Nazis and so she fled Vienna to Paris where she met Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM. She began her Hollywood career soon after, but she made a more lasting contribution through her work as an inventor, coming up with a system – in conjunction with composer George Antheil – called frequency hopping, something that stopped torpedoes from being tracked or jammed.

This occurred during World War II, and up until this stage, Bombshell is something of a standard biopic, charting Lamarr’s rise as an actress, and highlighting the Viennese background that propelled her, unexpectedly, to international stardom. Lamarr’s determination to succeed is also highlighted, as is her belief in herself and her abilities. But it’s the invention of frequency hopping – and its eventual use by the US Navy – that proves to be most intriguing. The documentary tells a story of bad luck and bad timing as Lamarr’s work proves too difficult to be adapted during the war, and when it is finally adopted in the early Sixties it’s too late for Lamarr to capitalise on its use financially. By this time her acting career has come to an end, and she has begun to withdraw from public life, becoming something of a recluse. Her children from her marriage to John Loder, Anthony and Denise, tell a story of ill-advised plastic surgery – footage of Lamarr in her later years shows just how much it was a bad idea – family estrangement (another son, Jimmy, believed he was adopted and chose to be brought up by someone else), and arrests for shoplifting.

Bombshell brings all these strands and aspects of Lamarr’s life together in a cogent and deftly considered way thanks to a mix of recent interviews, archival footage and photography, and recordings made by journalist Fleming Meeks in 1990 when he interviewed Lamarr, but which he thought were lost. The movie gains depth and a large degree of poignancy from the way in which Lamarr’s life played out in such a sad way in her later years, and the bittersweet emphasis on her beauty (knowing where it will lead) adds pathos as well. In the end, and despite the setbacks in both her careers (only a handful of her movies have stood the test of time), Lamarr’s story is one of huge promise that was only moderately and temporarily realised. Making her feature debut, Dean assembles the highs and lows of Lamarr’s life – married six times, highly regarded for her beauty if not her brains, more interesting away from acting – and paints a compelling portrait of a woman who was perhaps born two or three decades too soon. Ultimately it’s a sad tale because of its outcome, but thanks to Dean and the participation of Lamarr’s family, it’s also a celebration of an extraordinary woman who was much, much more than just a great beauty.

Rating: 8/10 – with an honesty about its subject that is sincere and affecting, Bombshell is a fascinating look at Hedy Lamarr the person, rather than just the actress or the inventor; a biography that examines much of her life in detail, and with a sympathetic approach, it’s an absorbing tale that does Lamarr justice in a way that, in many ways, she wasn’t granted while she was alive.

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