2017-11-09 / Around Town

Secret Life of Hedy Lamarr

By Loren King


The new documentary “Bombshell,” the story of Hedy Lamarr’s accomplishments, both on and off screen, is playing Nov. 10 at the Jane Pickens Theater. The new documentary “Bombshell,” the story of Hedy Lamarr’s accomplishments, both on and off screen, is playing Nov. 10 at the Jane Pickens Theater. If Hedy Lamarr’s story was fiction, no one would believe it.

Lamarr, one of the biggest Hollywood stars of the late 1930s and ‘40s, has a story that deserves recognition. Thanks to director Alexandra Dean’s documentary “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story,” which screens Nov. 10 at the Jane Pickens Theater, more audiences will know of her stunning accomplishments.

Most people, if they know Lamarr at all, remember her as an exotic beauty who starred in such movies as “Algiers” (1938) with Charles Boyer, and “Come Live with Me” (1941) opposite James Stewart. But behind those lips and those eyes was the brain of an untrained scientist who, after a long day on the MGM lot, would come home and invent things for pleasure. As one of many screen beauties who dated the eccentric aviator Howard Hughes, Lamarr devised rounded (rather than squared-off) wings for a super-fast plane Hughes was designing. Hughes was so impressed that he set Lamarr up with a mini-laboratory in her house.


Loren King is an arts and entertainment writer whose work appears regularly in The Boston Globe and other publications. Loren King is an arts and entertainment writer whose work appears regularly in The Boston Globe and other publications. But the most startling revelation is that Lamarr, a Jewish refugee who was dismayed that the Allies were losing the war, invented and patented a form of radio frequency in 1942 that allowed torpedo missiles to go undetected by German U-boats. Working with avant garde composer George Antheil, Lamarr’s groundbreaking concept used similar methods as a player piano to “frequency hop” and allow the missiles to avoid detection. But the Navy rejected it and Lamarr was told she could help the war effort by selling bonds. Nonetheless, her creation is the basis of Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and satellite technology in widespread use today. Lamarr and Antheil were posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014.

None of this was well-known during Lamarr’s lifetime. Even the actress failed to mention her achievements in her 1966 autobiography “Ecstasy and Me.” She claimed that a ghost writer published it without her approval and that the book was full of misinformation.

“Bombshell” sets the record straight and does so in an engaging way. The story is fascinating from the start. Lamarr was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Vienna and displayed from a young age a love of science and technology that was nurtured by her father. But by the time she was in her teens, her striking looks were getting attention and the tempestuous Hedy proceeded to Austria’s film studios.

She made the infamous “Ecstasy” in 1933, an erotic film in which she appeared nude, then married at 19 (five more marriages would follow). With Hitler gaining power, she fled Austria with her husband in the dead of night by posing as a maid with her jewelry sewn into the lining of her coat. On a ship to London, she met MGM head Louis B. Mayer, who was scouting for new talent among the European refugees.

The documentary’s coup is the never-before-heard audio tapes of Lamarr talking about her life and her inventions with journalist Fleming Meeks, who interviewed her in 1990 for a feature in Forbes magazine.

The film also gives us insights from a variety of interviewees, including Lamarr’s son, Anthony Loder; director Mel Brooks, who admired Lamarr so much that he made her name a key gag in his classic, “Blazing Saddles”; the late TCM host Robert Osborne; German actress Diane Kruger (“In the Fade”); and Richard Rhodes, whose 2011 book, “Hedy’s Folly,” was among the first to reveal Lamarr’s work in frequency hopping.

The film touches on the complicated reasons for Lamarr’s decline into obscurity and her final years as a recluse. Certainly, the sexism of the times is partly to blame. Lamarr was prized more for her looks and sex appeal than her innovations and intelligence. “Any girl can be glamorous,” she once said. “All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.”

Lamarr was a conundrum, making bad choices in her personal life and often choosing not to reveal the most interesting side of herself.

“Bombshell” finally gives us the complete picture of this complex woman. It is as eye-opening as it is bittersweet.

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