Technologies based on Hedy Lamarr’s invention are now so ubiquitous, and have had such huge effects on our lives, I rather feel that a little Hedy avatar should pop up before we email, tweet, or indeed go to war, that says “are you SURE you want to do this?”
Think how many hot-headed, post-1990s wifi-enabled online pile-ups could have been avoided.
I learnt a lot from the screening of Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story and its Q&A afterwards, the least of which being that I’ve been pronouncing producer Susan Sarandon’s surname wrong my whole life.
More importantly I also found out about frequency hopping, a technology designed in the 1940s for missile-guided torpedoes so they couldn’t be jammed by the enemy. Its inventors were Hollywood actress Hedy Lamarr and her development partner George Antheil, an avant-garde composer.
Lamarr’s scientific reputation has been growing for several years now, as the effects of her discovery continue to spread – the technology is used in wifi, GPS, Bluetooth and military applications – but I hadn’t known how badly she was treated by the US military, or indeed the highs and lows of her personal and working life.
She never received any payment for her patent, and her invention wasn’t used for years, after the Navy ignored it for over a decade, so little faith did they have in its inventors.
Though it wasn’t entirely forgotten. The authorities remembered it well enough to remove her rights to her own patent as she was an “alien”, a decision which hit her hard; an Austrian Jew, Lamarr had come to the US from Vienna via London in the late 1930s, and was very much a patriot for her new country.
Thanks to a set of long-undiscovered cassette tapes owned by Forbes magazine writer Fleming Meeks, who interviewed her in 1990, we get to hear much of the story in her own words. She was clearly keen to tell it, as we hear her constantly interrupting him over the phone.
One of the joys of films like this is the sheer number of icons that pop up, either as talking heads or in anecdotes. Hedy bonded with fellow misfit and inventor Howard Hughes, helping him with his designs. (He was also, apparently, the worst lover she ever had.) Google animator Jennifer Hom calls Hedy’s life the “perfect underdog crimefighter-by-night story”. Hedy’s granddaughter talks about the signed publicity stills Hedy sent her, her grandmother assuming that not even her family could see further than that Hollywood sheen.
Hedy was born in 1914, and with her family was part of an artistic bohemian set in Vienna. At 19 she starred in the Czech film Ecstasy, appearing nude, a scandal that followed her for years (she also holds the accolade for the first on-screen simulated orgasm for the same movie).
Her first marriage (one of six) was to a rich Jewish industrialist who sold arms to the Germans. Hedy and Fritz Mandl were patently ill-suited. He was 14 years older, and a bully, restricting her life to such a degree that she had to escape in the middle of the night on a bicycle. (Apparently he tried to buy up all the existing copies of Ecstasy, such was his embarrassment at them, but the film’s owners then churned out so many in response that eventually he had to admit defeat).
Making her way to the US she was signed by MGM, but her acting career still took a while to get going, thanks to the studio system. Once she became an established star her career still suffered ups and downs, and she tried to break out by becoming a film producer.
After enjoying huge success as Delilah in Samson and Delilah (there’s a shot of the film poster and Lamarr is clearly listed above her male co-star, Victor Mature) she later made Loves Of Three Queens, an Italian film where she acted three roles and also produced. It cost her a fortune but she never found a US distributor.
One of the most fascinating asides in Bombshell is how – although Hedy was always frustrated that her beauty meant she wasn’t taken seriously as a great brain – she put her inventing talents to good use even in this sphere. Beginning cosmetic surgery procedures in her 40s, she suggested several new ways of carrying out the operations so that scars would be hidden, techniques which many surgeons adopted.
She was a woman whose high intelligence and heightened beauty both freed and constrained her. And Hedy certainly didn’t put much store by her looks: “Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid” she famously said, though not caring for beauty, when you possess it, is a luxury denied to many. And while it held her back in some ways it opened many doors too. The model for both Snow White and Catwoman, Hedy’s beauty was on another level; Mel Brooks calls her “the best looking movie star that ever lived”.
We identify with particular stars because something in them reflects our understanding of ourselves, and Hedy’s life was so tumultuous, and the barriers she had to push against so varied, most women will find something in her they recognise.
The external factors that shaped her life – the extreme pressure to stay young and pretty in Hollywood; being a working, single mother; barriers to working or being taken seriously in science; and persecution for her background – are still preventing women from reaching their true potential today, and depriving science and art of so much talent.
It makes watching the decline of such a trailblazer – her increasingly reclusive lifestyle as repeated surgeries caused more damage, and the effects of decades of amphetamine use, drugs she was initially given without her knowledge – even more heartbreaking.
Occasionally the uses of Hedy’s sad movie scenes to match the documentary voiceover is slightly wearisome. And I’d have liked to know a bit more about the wider implications of the suppression of Hedy and George’s invention – could the technology could have been utilised fast enough by the US military to change the course of WW2 more quickly?
But in the main this is a witty, fascinating, and moving biography. Rattling along at an impressive pace, with a drive and verve of which Hedy would surely have approved, Alexandra Dean’s film certainly does justice to her memory.
Bombshell is a tribute and testament to a clever, complex woman who showed extraordinary resilience as long as she could, and regretted nothing – but who was let down by Hollywood and America.