There is no longer any question about whether or not women have been written out of history — only about the filmmakers who can be relied upon to set the record straight. In her debut theatrical feature, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, Alexandra Dean takes a first step toward the women’s biographies that she knows will define her filmmaking career. Ask her why, and she may tell you about her own grandmother. “She was this dazzling human being, a sublime comedic actress, a member of Second City for awhile,” she says, referring to the celebrated Chicago troupe, “and the only white member of the Eastville Community Historical Society that preserves black and Native American history in Sag Harbor, Long Island — and I can’t find her in an Internet search.”
While she was making Bombshell, Dean was not thinking about her grandmother. She was engaged in her “obsession with inventors” that had begun when she was a television producer. Hedy Lamarr invented as an avocation, but few people knew, and her talent for engineering remained a secret until recently. During a post-screening event, Dean was asked who in her family had their history erased; the question jolted her and she had an epiphany. “We didn’t care enough as a culture to remember my grandmother,” Dean says, in an interview in the New York City offices of her publicist. “It is what makes me want to find out who else we lost and bring them back.”
In Bombshell, Dean revives Hedy Lamarr, an Austrian-Jewish actress who came to America on the eve of World War II. She was celebrated for her flawless beauty, and appeared opposite Charles Boyer and Spencer Tracy. While dating Howard Hughes, Lamarr designed a wing for one of his airplanes. Inventing was a childhood hobby that blossomed under her father’s encouragement. The model for Disney’s Snow White and DC Comic’s Catwoman, Lamarr was issued a patent (with composer George Antheil) in 1942 for “frequency hopping.” A communication system, it substantially reduced the risk of detection or jamming of radio-controlled torpedoes. She gave her patent to the Navy, thinking it would aid the war effort. They shelved it and asked Lamarr to sell war bonds; she did so in record numbers.
Before coming to the United States, Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, born in 1914, was already a film actress. In 1933, Hitler banned the movie Ecstasy in which she starred, not for its nudity, but because she was Jewish. The same year, at age 18, Lamarr married a wealthy arms dealer nearly twice her age; she says in the documentary that he tracked down copies of Ecstasy so that he could destroy them. Feeling trapped by his possessiveness, she escaped to London with the jewels he had given her. “When Hedy arrived in Hollywood, she was specifically told by Louis B. Mayer’s fixer that she needed to change her biography, that she should not be Hedy Kiesler who was Jewish and from Vienna,” Dean says. “Later, she can’t even tell her children about the family members she lost during the Holocaust because she had to completely sever the past.”
Through archival footage, movie clips, voice recordings, and interviews, including ones with Lamarr’s children, Anthony, Denise and James Loder, and grandchild Lodi Loder, Dean skillfully recounts Lamarr’s life, from her happy childhood in Austria, to her years in Hollywood, and her addiction to methamphetamine that led to her failed efforts at producing and directing. Clips from home movies shot by a friend recount her final, reclusive years in Florida. What the documentary makes apparent is that like her character Madeline in Dishonored Lady (1947), Lamarr was misunderstood and objectified because of her beauty. She also had to discover an identity apart from it, as Madeline does in that movie.
Six months into production on Bombshell, Dean had no sources in which Lamarr herself discussed her role in inventing frequency hopping, which later served as the basis for the development of WiFi and Bluetooth. “Scientists said to me: Just think about it, it was almost certainly her munitions husband who would have this technology,” Dean recalls. “They told me she probably copied it down, put in it her shoe as she was fleeing in order to give it to the allies. At the time, I thought: I wish I could hear what Hedy would say to that!” Dean, who spent her childhood in England with her American parents, graduated from Columbia University’s film program. At heart, she says, she is a researcher.
It was her instincts, honed by research, that led her to revisit a list of 70 possible interviewees compiled in the early phases of the project. Near the top was Fleming Meeks, a journalist whose contact information was outdated; he had interviewed Lamarr in 1990. Although Dean, deep into production, knew it would cost her time and money if Meeks had any sources, she called him anyway. Their first conversation is depicted in the documentary. “It felt like I e-mailed him and the phone rang immediately,” she says. “I picked it up and I heard this voice say: ‘I’ve been waiting 25 years for you to call me!’”
Meeks goes on to play portions of the audiotape in which Lamarr recalls that she was switching stations with her radio’s tuner when she first got the idea for frequency hopping. “He asked her whether her first husband invented it,” Dean muses, “and she replies: ‘He wouldn’t even let me into the factory.’” If matters had unfolded differently and Lamarr were not the inventor, Dean says she would have told that story. As it stands, Bombshell leaves no stone unturned. It mentions Lamarr’s alleged bisexuality, her estrangement from her three children, and her self-aggrandizing personality.
“Hedy did think a lot of herself,” Dean observes. “She had tremendous self-confidence and I think if she had been a man, she may have been a Louis B. Mayer . . . she spent her life shocked that she wasn’t that kind of powerful individual. That’s what so interesting about her.” Lamarr was married and divorced six times; her longest marriage lasted only seven years. “She tries to use her beauty to get to that power and then she tries to use her mind,” the filmmaker muses. “Then she uses her moxie, and she can’t figure out why she can’t get power in a lasting, profound way, and I think that’s why she’s such a morality tale for so many women.” While Dean bemoans the suffering that this must have caused Lamarr and, by extension other women who lead double lives, the documentary does not conclude that Lamarr was ultimately dissatisfied with her life.
The actress, who died shortly after New Years Day in 2000, had her ashes spread in Austria; in later years she called herself “Mrs. Hedelweiss,” a sobriquet that combines her given name and the flower most associated with her homeland. Near the end of the documentary, Lamarr reads a sentimental poem. “It says that you might feel like the world kicks you in the teeth,” Dean observes, “and that nothing you do ever gets the applause that it deserves, but you know what? Do it anyway because something in doing it, in making your mark on the world, will make it worth it.” Lamarr recalls it was the advice she gave to her children. “If there is anything I want a young woman watching this documentary to take away, it is that message,” Dean says. “Someone like me will come along and make sure that your reputation is saved.” Donna Katharine Holabird’s legacy is already secured. She’s Alexandra Dean’s grandmother.
'Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story' opens in theaters on November 24th.