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Hedy Lamarr (Photo: Getty Images)

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Why we need the Hedy Lamarr film now more than ever

She's famed as a 1940s screen siren, but a new documentary now brings to the fore the technological genius that was Hedy Lamarr. Another woman's real story is finally being told, says Kat Lister

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By Kat Lister on

When Alexandra Dean decided to make a film about Hedy Lamarr, she quickly realised she had a tough job on her hands. “Nobody had found her on the record explaining her story. It was all conjecture,” says the Emmy award-winning documentary producer and filmmaker. There was no voice for the Hollywood actress MGM once declared “the most beautiful woman in the world".

For Dean, the 1940s siren was a question left to be answered, but it was the hearsay surrounding Lamarr’s technological achievements, specifically, that really spurred her into action. Did Lamarr’s love of after-hours inventing really pave the way for the development of Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and GPS? If the rumours were true, Dean had an amazing story on her hands. As she recalls from her home city of New York: “Was this the woman I’d been looking for?”

After months of searching, a series of unearthed interview tapes with Lamarr conducted by Forbes journalist Fleming Meeks, in 1990, gave Dean her eureka moment. The answer was, yes, she was – and she finally had the audio to prove it. Now, nearly two decades after her death, Dean (with the help of executive producer Susan Sarandon) has brought Lamarr’s voice to the big screen – telling her own story, in her own words.

Photo: Rex Features
 

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story busts open the myth and brings us the reality behind the sexist cliché; a razor-sharp, inventive and contradictory woman who yearned to be taken seriously – both on-set and off it. In the words of Lamarr herself, in an interview she gave shortly before her death in 1997, “My beauty was my curse, so to speak, it created an impenetrable shield between people and who I really was.” As Dean points out to me during our trans-Atlantic chat, everyone has their own idea of Hedy Lamarr in their head. “The difficulty was knitting all these different people together into one coherent narrative,” she says.

Austrian-born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler fled her native homeland – and her controlling, Nazi-sympathising husband – in 1937, and was brought to Hollywood by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s Louis B Mayer a year later, where he renamed and repackaged her. Upon arrival, Hedwig Kiesler’s Jewish heritage was immediately erased (“When she arrived in Hollywood she was given a new biography that said “This is you, you’re Catholic, memorise it", Dean says) and a gentile vamp was invented. “People are so much more complicated than we let them be,” Dean muses – and Hedy Lamarr was no exception. To the founder of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios, the wide-eyed Austrian would forever be the 17-year-old seductress he first encountered writhing provocatively in Gustav Machatý's 1933 film, Ecstasy – the first non-pornographic film to portray the female orgasm. And that’s where she remained, suspended in time.

She was wonderfully complicated and three-dimensional and we don’t tell many women’s stories like that

“She was very marked by Ecstacy,” Dean tells me as we discuss the ways in which she was typecast throughout her career. “Any girl can be glamorous,” Lamarr once famously shrugged. “All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.” The only problem was, Lamarr wasn’t stupid – far from it. Perhaps Bombshell’s biggest revelation is that at the same time she was swooning over Clark Gable in Comrade X, she was studying the aerodynamics of birds and fish (pulling all-nighters between takes) and advising aviation tycoon Howard Hughes on aircraft-design modification. During the Second World War, Lamarr’s “hobby” led to an extraordinary collaboration with musical composer George Antheil, and a once-in-a-lifetime discovery: frequency-hopping signals that could prevent radio-controlled torpedoes from being jammed by Nazi intervention. Decades later, her work with spread-spectrum technology led to the development of GPS, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. Despite Lamarr’s groundbreaking achievement, gendered assumptions – that Lamarr stole the idea from her first husband, a munitions manufacturer, for instance – swiftly became unchallenged fact. Her work was never recognised. “The market value of Lamarr’s invention is now $30bn,” Anna Leszkiewicz writes in the New Statesman. “She never received a penny.”

Watching Bombshell, it is impossible not to soak up the frustrations and painful rejections that ultimately consumed Lamarr. As one contributor concludes during Bombshell, “people never got past her face.” During Hollywood’s celebrated “golden era”, women were polarly categorised as either virgins or whores – with the exception, perhaps, of Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis – and there was little room for nuance, duality or complexity; no willingness, either, to recognise Lamarr’s scientific contributions. “She was wonderfully complicated and three-dimensional and we don’t tell many women’s stories like that,” Dean says. “It was a real privilege to tell a story about a woman who you aren’t going to love easily, but who you can still learn so much from.”

Photo: Getty Images
 

Bombshell isn’t always an easy watch, largely because Lamarr wasn’t always an easy person to understand – and that’s significant. Doing away with the myth means exploring uncomfortable truths, and Dean never shies away from the darker recesses of Lamarr’s reclusive life. Drug addiction (studio-sanctioned uppers and downers), plastic surgery (“It’s so ironic that she grasps on to beauty as soon as she starts to lose it,” says Dean) and family estrangement add complexity to a story that was never truly hers. Was it difficult to get the balance right, I ask? “Yeah, that was really hard,” she replies. “I wanted to be really honest about what happened to her, I didn’t want to be accused of whitewashing her story. I really saw how deep and dark it went. At the same time, I didn’t want to take away from any of her achievements.”

In the wake of Weinstein and amid a #MeToo movement that is demanding women’s stories finally be told, Hedy Lamarr’s moment is arguably now. “I think there’s a real awareness of how silenced women have been,” says Dean. For too long “the decks have been stacked against women for being complicated,” she adds.

After Bombshell, it’s time to reshuffle the cards.

@Madame_George

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Hedy Lamarr (Photo: Getty Images)
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