Will the Real Hedy (NOT Hedley!) Please Stand Up?
Writer/director Alexandra Dean’s nonfiction Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story is a 90 minute slice of cinema history – and much more – about an enigmatic screen star who was also a behind-the-scenes inventor. Like 2015’s documentary Listen to Me Marlon, Dean uses tapes featuring the thespian’s own voice to tell the inside story of the iconic, exotic actress who dazzled and delighted audiences in movies such as 1938’s Algiers (where Hedy romances Charles Boyer as jewel thief Pepe le Moko in this classic directed by John Cromwell, scripted by John Howard Lawson – both of them future blacklistees); the 1940 Soviet spoof Comrade X (appearing opposite her Boomtown co-star Clark Gable for the second time that year); the titillating Tandelayo n 1942’s White Cargo; the Biblical temptress in 1949’s Samson and Delilah co-starring Victor Mature, directed by Cecil B. DeMille; etc.
Hedy’s first major role set the template for her sizzling screen career – and offscreen life, too. In the before-its-time Ecstasy, a teenaged Hedy appears in the nude and seems to have an onscreen orgasm. The original version of Czech helmer Gustav Machaty’s 1933 film can be viewed as a feminist fable about Eva, a young woman who reclaims and controls her own sexuality. However, around the globe Ecstasy was condemned, deemed scandalous by puritanical zealots – you know, those people who live in constant dread that someone somewhere is having fun.
The Nazis banned Ecstasy, which set the Austrian-born Hedwig Eva Keisler on a collision course with the brownshirt bluenoses. Bombshell reveals details about Hedy’s ancestry that also set her at odds with Hitler’s genocidal racism, and she managed to leave Austria and sail from England to America aboard the same ship as MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer, who signed her to a Tinseltown contract and had her name changed to “Hedy Lamarr.”
As the starlet rose in Hollywood’s motion picture pantheon some ballyhooed her as “the most beautiful woman in the world.” Indeed, Ruth Barton’s University Press of Kentucky biography about Lamarr is subtitled “The Most Beautiful Woman In Film.” Clips show Hedy in various star vehicles, displaying her sensuality, looks and talent. But Hedy was never able to live her iconoclastic role in Ecstasy and her physical attractiveness down, and the wryly titled Bombshell (which Dean told me is a triple entendre) reveals the oft-married Lamarr’s troubled private life, overshadowed by a screen image that placed beauty over brains and created a sensuous persona she could never live up to.
In fact, as the documentary discloses Hedy was quite brainy – perhaps even brilliant as an inventor. The film goes into Hedy’s scientific side at great length and even gets wonky. But as Bombshell shows it was hard for the military and technical establishment to take the patents created by a movie star known for her sexual allure seriously. Dean’s doc makes claims about Hedy’s top invention that are simply jaw- dropping, just as her mesmerizing looks were eye-popping.
Hedy’s multiple marriages likewise fizzled because her husbands could not look beyond external attributes into the inner self. Of course, all this took its toll on the actress-cum-inventor.
Mel Brooks, who is one of Bombshell’s talking heads, sort of sums this up. The comedian is in the doc because in his 1974 genre spoof of Westerns, Blazing Saddles, Harvey Korman plays a character named “Hedley Lamarr,” who insists his moniker is “NOT Hedy!” Given today’s unfortunate climate regarding sexual harassment in the entertainment industry and beyond, Brooks – who I have met and am a huge fan of – makes some unfortunate comments about Hedy that could seem to be taken straight out of the Trump playbook.
Bombshell’s other talking heads include director/film historian Peter Bogdanovich, Hedy’s children and German actress Diane Kruger, who just won Cannes Film Festival’s Best Actress award for the antifascist feature In the Fade, which opens in New York and Los Angeles on Wednesday, December 27, with a national rollout to follow. Film historian Jan-Christopher Horak, director of the UCLA Film and Television Archive, is also on hand to offer insight. (I appear in another 2017 documentary with Horak – Thibaut Bertrand and Guillaume Lebeau’s Red In Blue, a French exploration of Hollywood’s depiction of the Russian Revolution.)
At the risk of sounding insensitive, Lamarr’s lament about not being taken seriously because of what many considered to be her stunning good looks may be a case of the lady doth protest too much. If she wanted to be accepted for her intellect and interior being, why did Hedy pursue endless plastic surgery, decline several offers of trips back to Austria after her beauty had faded and become reclusive? One suspects that the character of “Hedy Lamarr” was her most elaborate invention of all and that the star of Ecstasy became ensnared in the web of celebrity.
Stardom may not have brought Hedy lasting happiness, but the young woman who pursued pictures while still a teenager, from Europe to Lalaland, was certainly not above enjoying and partaking of the perks of fame and fortune that her cinematic status bought her.
Having said that, Bombshell – which is written and directed by a woman and executive produced by Susan Sarandon (talk about brains and beauty!) – can be seen as a feminist parable and cautionary tale, especially in the current sexually charged ambiance (how apropos that Zeitgeist Films is releasing it!). But in addition to viewers interested in feminist issues and the scientific process, Bombshell is, perhaps above all, a treat for moviegoers such as yours truly who love film history.