The most interesting “little known fact” about the lady Hollywood sex symbol Hedy Lamarr is this secret life she led, at least briefly, as an inventor.
It all but dominated her obituaries when she died in Jan. of 2000, including the one I wrote in the city where she died (Casselberry, Fla., suburban Orlando).
In short, Hedy, legendary screen beauty, “Delilah” to Victor Mature’s “Samson” in “Samson and Delilah,” invented the cell phone.
Not really, of course. But during World War II, the Hitler-hating Austrian and patriotic Hollywood starlet came up with the idea of “frequency hopping,” the technology that allows cell phones to skip from tower to tower, that encodes various military communications, and patented it.
That fact takes up a sizable portion of the revealing new documentary portrait of her, “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story,” and Lamarr would appreciate that. Already notorious when she arrived in Hollywood for having starred in the sexually explicit “Ekstace” (“Ecstasy”), she always wanted the world to know she was a lot more than just a very pretty face.
She was all but marked for life by Charles Boyer, who chose her as his co-star in “Algiers” (1938) and labeled her by stating the obvious, in character and on screen.
“You’re beautiful. That’s easy to say. I know that other people have told you. But what I’m telling you is different, see? For to me you’re more than that.”
Veteran PBS producer turned producer-director Alexandra Dean’s film is built on a couple of phone interviews Lamarr did with a Forbes Magazine writer, Fleming Meeks, after Lamarr had withdrawn from public life (“Closing the door,” Garbo called it.). She agreed to the interviews in an effort to secure her inventing legacy, something the U.S. Government (which never paid her for using the patent) and the tabloid press never did.
But her children and grandchildren appear, her biographers, and even Mel Brooks, who immortalized her later life status as both legendary screen beauty and pop culture punchline by naming Harvey Korman’s villain in “Blazing Saddles” after her.
Lamarr never got around to actually writing her autobiography, disowning a salacious “as told to” book “My Life as a Woman.” Married six times, dating everyone from Howard Hughes to John F. Kennedy, lusted after by generations, Hedy Kiesler did enough living for three or four women of her era.
It’s said she was “the most beautiful woman” ever to grace the silver screen. It’s also said she inspired Walt Disney’s artists as they created “Snow White.” A Vivien Leigh beauty with a Dietrich/Bergman accent, she had a few memorable roles in film, making movies under the thumb of MGM’s Louis B. Mayer.
She was an early adapter to the idea of an actress producing her own films, a pioneering star whose influence on age-defying plastic surgery endured long after it started to go wrong, a textbook sufferer of the Studio System’s restrictions, workload and tendency to drug its stars with stimulants to keep the Dream Factory going.
And through it all, she was the very model of glamour, not that she embraced that.
“Any girl can be glamorous,” she famously quipped. “All she has to do is stand still and look stupid.”
Dean’s “American Masters” style documentary tracks Lamarr’s career, her standing up to Mayer when he was on the hunt for European talent (Lamarr generally denied her Jewish heritage), fleeing the Nazis, that he could hire cheap.
Her films are sampled, suggestions of the ways she was ill-used within the system, whatever talent she had squandered by a studio that only saw her one way — as a sex symbol.
Her many connections to influential men — Howard Hughes equipped her inventing lab, J.F.K. pursued her — are mostly skimmed over.
But it’s that tinkering, an untrained chemist who came up with the idea for freeze-dried Coca-Cola for the troops, and the unschooled engineer who dreamed up that frequency-hopping scheme which she envisioned as a way to make Navy torpedoes radio-controlled and unjammable by their targets, that dominates the film.
And Lamarr would just love that. The movies, with few exceptions, are forgettable. Her many TV appearances (a “Merv Griffin Show” interview with Woody Allen cracking wise with her is sampled) a fading memory.
But every few years, something like “Bombshell” comes along to remind us, as we look up her credits on IMDb on our iPhone or Droid, that we should never under-estimate the great beauties among us. A lot of them are a lot more than just a pretty face.
MPAA Rating: unrated, nudity, substance abuse discussion
Cast: Hedy Lamarr, Mel Brooks, Diane Kruger, Robert Osborne, Peter Bogdanovich, Jeannine Basinger, Fleming Meeks
Credits: Written and directed by Alexandra Dean. A Kino Lorber release.
Running time: 1:28