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USA 2017
Directed by
Alexandra Dean
86 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story

Writer-director Alexandra Dean tells a remarkable story in this account of 1940s Hollywood screen goddess Hedy Lamarr whose natural beauty turned out to be a poisoned chalice.

Born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler of Jewish descent in Vienna in 1917 she came to notoriety with Ecstasy, a 1933 film by Gustav Machatý that infamously depicted her having an orgasm and that was denounced by both Pope Pius XII and Adolf Hitler. Fleeing the Nazi rise she ended up in Hollywood under contract to MGM where she made a string of lacklustre films (her biggest hit was Cecile B. DeMIlle's 1949 sword-and-sandal epic, Samson And Delilah before her career declined and she became a caricature of the silver screen sex bomb, made hideous by bad plastic surgery and living as a recluse until her death in 2000.

Stories of women struggling for respect during the years of the studio system are not unfamiliar (think of Marilyn Monroe and Frances Farmer for example) but the twist in Dean’s film is that Lamarr was actually a gifted inventor who not only earned the admiration of her sometime squeeze Howard Hughes for whom she contributed design ideas for his aeronautical projects but, during WWII with avant-garde composer George Antheil of all people came up with the idea of "frequency-hopping", a method to pre-empt German jamming of the Allies' radio-controlled torpedoes. Although they were given a patent in 1941, the US Army wasn’t interested and instead put Lamarr to work selling war bonds. Shelved for years the idea eventually morphed into modern wireless communications technology such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS. Lamarr eventually received official recognition (but no share in the enormous revenue generated by the technology) in the 1990s.

The “what-if’ theme runs through first-time director Dean’s film which makes good use of several recently discovered cassette tapes of a 1990 phone interview with Lamarr in which with self-deprecating humour the one-time starlet reflects on her on- and off-screen life with its loves (including six short-lived marriages) and losses. It’s a fascinating roller-coaster ride that Dean impressively illustrates with a judicious selection of archival material and explores via a sympathetic selection of talking heads (although she follows the over-familiar practice of the largely gratuitous celebrity cameo in the form of Mel Brooks).  

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story is both historically revealing and a touching human story and certainly not just for film buffs.




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