Hedy Lamarr was very young when she first realised the power of her beauty. She left her native Austria not just to flee the Nazis, but also to see how far her looks could take her. Louis Mayer of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayor became the first of many men from the ‘golden era’ of Hollywood to snap her up, casting her in countless films and making her one of the most famous and glamorous figures of her age.
Yet Lamarr led a curious double life – the elegant and enigmatic figure of the screen was in real life a scruffy, passionate and above all inventive creature, with the most brilliant mathematical mind. Alarmed by reports of Nazi submarines dodging Allied torpedoes by jamming their radar signals, she designed a method, known as frequency hopping, by which the Allies could control the torpedoes without interruption.
But Lamarr was learning that, as with Hollywood, few could see past her looks. The navy turned down her idea not because it didn’t work, but because it was not believed a film star, the first woman ever to fake an orgasm on screen, could also be designing revolutionary technology.
‘Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story,’is a fascinating new documentary written, directed and produced by Alexandra Dean, exploring the long and unhappy life of this figure. The depiction of Hollywood as having an unwholesome attitude to woman has echoes with today, and there is a strong sense that Lamarr, for whom ‘feminist’ is one of the many words to describe her, felt uncomfortable in the way she was used by the men of the industry, yet couldn’t find an opportunity to pursue her real calling.
Like many unhappy Hollywood stars, Lamarr was married more times than you can count, each time to some infatuated mediocrity who never even came close to scratching the surface. Her later life was marred by business failures, drug addictions, shoplifting, and the desertion of her children. One of the first woman to use plastic surgery, her many unnecessary nips and tucks left the elderly Lamarr looking rather like a burn victim.
Lamarr’s life is the story of beauty as a curse, and showcases the distance beautiful people fall once their looks have left them. Perhaps the ultimate insult came from the navy, which eventually adopted her suggestions but failed to give her any of the credit. ‘That’s why I was in the army,’ said Mel Brooks, ‘they were a lot smarter.’ Though given some recognition in later life by the technological community, few today remember Lamarr’s name, let alone the fact her ideas were fundamental in the development of Bluetooth, WiFi and mobile communication.
Though hardly a happy life, this fascinating documentary nonetheless manages to be uplifting because of the sense of a breakthrough: it finally does what so many people who met Lamarr could not, and see the woman beyond her beauty.
Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story is screening at Glasgow Film Theatre on the 8th of March and between the 18th of March – 22nd of March. Anyone aged between 15 and 25 can get a free card from GFT that entitles them to £5.50 tickets to any standard screening.