Film

Bombshell

The genius of Hedy Lamarr

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

For years we’ve been hearing that Hedy Lamarr, one of the most beautiful women of Hollywood’s classic era, invented the “frequency hopping” technology that’s integral to modern weaponry and communications. But exactly how that’s the case and the extent to which that is true have not been clear until the release of Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, a documentary by Alexandra Dean.

For example, if you assumed, as I did, that Lamarr just came up with an idea first, but then others, independently, got the same idea, you would be wrong. The technology we have today stemmed directly from the patent that she and her friend, composer George Antheil, developed in the 1940s.

The story is that Lamarr, distressed at reading every day about the German U-boat attacks in the Atlantic, devised a way for Allied navy ships to protect the transmission of signals to their torpedoes. Antheil worked with her on implementing her concept, and the two received a patent. The Navy brass was too shortsighted to make use of their invention, but in the 1950s, with that patent as a basis, the military put Lamarr’s ideas into practice.

Later, these same ideas—all stemming directly from Lamarr’s original work—became part of many aspects of daily life. It’s only because Lamarr unwittingly let her patent expire that she didn’t die a very rich woman. (Did you know patents expire? Well, she didn’t, either.) Today her heirs would be worth something like $30 billion.

The invention is a focal point of Bombshell, but the movie covers the whole of Lamarr’s long life, which packed a lot in, especially in the first 40 years. She became an international sensation—albeit, more an underground sensation than a household name—for the 1933 Czech film Ecstasy, in which she appeared naked. The film is actually a masterpiece, though it remains much more known for its audacity, as when Lamarr depicts the first onscreen orgasm in a non-pornographic film.

There was a marriage to an arms dealer. There was an escape from the arms dealer. There was a very slick manipulation of Louis B. Mayer, who gave her an MGM contract, and her first American movie, Algiers (1938), in which she more or less spoke her English dialogue phonetically. And always there was the word “beautiful,” which followed her everywhere and guaranteed her fame, but didn’t exactly make her happy.

To be as gorgeous as Lamarr and expect to be noted for your brilliance is a little like having a billion dollars and hoping to be noticed for your personality. But the movie reveals and demonstrates over and over that Lamarr was a fascinating and brilliant person, a true eccentric with considerable will and personal courage. She was interested in how everything worked and, as she got older, she even gave specific instructions to her plastic surgeons as to how the scars could be hidden.

Alas, the last part of her life was something of a mess. She lost years to amphetamine addiction—the “vitamin” shots of a shady character known as “Dr. Feelgood”—and had erratic episodes. Her looks could still inspire awe well into her 50s (see her in a 1969 Merv Griffin interview on YouTube). But in later years, she became addicted to plastic surgery. Some of the surgery was to correct previous surgery, so that her face ultimately looked downright strange, and she became a recluse.

It is awful to consider that a woman of brilliance and perhaps genius, one who insisted sincerely that she wanted to be known for her ideas and spirit, should have so invested in the world’s idea of her that she practically disfigured herself trying to maintain the youth and beauty that she’d considered such a distraction. But such were the colossal difficulties and pressures of being a glamour star of the mid-20th century.

Still, on balance, Bombshell tells the story of a triumphant and consequential life. And there’s more: Everybody interviewed on camera about her apparently really liked her, especially her children. That’s no small achievement.

More Film...
First Man
Shooting the moon

In examining Damien Chazelle’s filmography, the young director has never made the same film twice. He seesawed from jazz conservatory drama Whiplash, essentially a monster movie, to La La Land, which chronicled the fraught journey of Hollywood dreamers in the form of a classical Hollywood…

more »
Blaze
Drunken angel

Maybe it’s a stretch to make a biopic about a singer best known for a song another singer wrote about him. Or maybe that’s what biopics are for: to throw light onto figures who’ve been unfairly cast in the shadows. The better biopics, anyway, and Ethan Hawke’s Blaze is one of them,…

more »
Doctober
Seeing is believing

On the surface, everything at the Pickford Film Center during the days before Doctober launches on Fri., Sept. 28 appears to be business as usual. Behind the scenes, however, the many moving pieces of the annual month-long celebration of all things documentary are being snapped into place.…

more »
Events
Today
Rainbow Reads

3:00pm|Ferndale Library

Cook It and Book It

3:30pm|Lynden Library

All-Paces Run

6:00pm|Fairhaven Runners

War Through the Eyes of Women Book Club

6:00pm|Bellingham Vet Center

Peru Novoandina

6:30pm|Community Food Co-op

Mind-Body-Food Connection

6:30pm|Cordata Community Food Co-op

WAKE Meeting

6:30pm|Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Center

Beginning Square Dance Lessons

7:00pm|Ten Mile Grange

Skagit Folk Dancers

7:00pm|Bayview Civic Hall

Books on Tap

7:00pm|North Fork Brewery

Fancy Bingo

7:30pm|Boundary Bay Brewery

Comedy Open Mic

7:30pm|Shakedown

Cascadia Weekly Subscribe Ad 1
Tomorrow
Bellingham at Home Informational Meeting

1:00pm|Bellingham Senior Activity Center

Endangered Species Curator's Tour

1:30pm|Whatcom Museum's Lightcatcher Building

Sedro-Woolley Farmers Market

3:00pm|Hammer Heritage Square

Prosecutors race is a referendum on reform

6:00pm

Creekside Open Mic

6:30pm|South Whatcom Library

Where the sidewalk ends

7:00pm

Walking to the End of the World

7:00pm|Village Books

Brian Dean Trio

7:00pm|Sylvia Center for the Arts

Climate Change and Forests

7:00pm|Sustainable Living Center

Modified documentary and Panel Discussion

7:30pm|Pickford Film Center

Village Books Trove Web
Thursday
Parkinson's Dance Class

10:00am|Ballet Bellingham

Fall Craft & Antique Show

10:00am|Northwest Washington Fairgrounds

Komo Kulshan Ski Swap

4:00pm|Bloedel Donovan

Jazz Jam

5:30pm|Illuminati Brewing

Camber Exhcange

5:30pm|1820 Scout Place

Falling Out of the Box Jewelry Challenge

6:00pm|Jansen Art Center

Squash Celebration

6:30pm|Community Food Co-op

Chuckanut Radio Hour

6:30pm|Whatcom Community College

Balkan Folk Dancers

7:00pm|Fairhaven Library

Nooksack River Travelogue

7:00pm|Whatcom Museum's Old City Hall

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

7:30pm|Upfront Theatre

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

7:30pm|Anacortes Community Theatre

The Duck Variations

7:30pm|Sylvia Center for the Arts

The Skriker

7:30pm|Sylvia Center for the Arts

Side Show

7:30pm|Lincoln Theatre

see our complete calendar »

Trove Web Cascadia Weekly Subscribe Ad 1 Siro Village Books