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.

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