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The Sad, All Too Timely Story of Mistreated Hollywood Bombshell Hedy Lamarr

A new film tells the story of actress Hedy Lamarr, an inventor dismissed as a sex object.

Sarah Seltzer

One of the underlying truths of the wave of #MeToo stories is that when human beings are reduced to sex objects—whether they’re directly preyed upon or merely undermined—it doesn’t just cause them personal trauma. It also influences the industry they’re in by driving smart people to take their talents elsewhere, or shunting their contributions to the side when they do contribute good work.

Imagine all the talented actresses who gave up on Hollywood because they were mistreated by a Harvey Weinstein type, the scientists who could have cured diseases if they hadn’t been ignored or preyed on in their labs,even the retail staffers who had leadership potential but were kept down because of gender-based harassment. The sense of loss feels so momentous it’s overwhelming, which is why Bombshell—the new documentary about Hollywood screen icon and inventor Hedy Lamarr—feels eerily well-timed.

Lamarr’s story is one-of-a kind, which explains the film’s raison d’etre. From her early career stardom in a racy Austrian film that was denounced by the Pope and Hitler, to her dramatic escape from the Nazis (disguised as a maid on a bicycle), to her silver screen stardom that coincided with her penchant for scientific inventions including a WiFi precursor—there's no one in recent memory like her.

As you watch Alexandra Dean’s new film (executive produced by Susan Sarandon), one idea rises to the surface over and over again: this is a woman who spent a lifetime longing to be treated as an intelligent, whole person worth more than her bombshell image—a yearning that went largely unrealized. She felt misunderstood even after she made a major contribution to military and technological progress: earning a “frequency-hopping” patent that has been used in dozens of crucial ways, including as a predecessor for secure WiFi and Bluetooth.

Lamarr called her own beauty a curse—so striking was she that her looks (allegedly the model for Disney’s Snow White and DC Comics’ Catwoman) distracted people, particularly men. “People have the idea that I’m sort of a stupid thing,” she says in a series of recently-unearthed audio taped interviews with Forbes journalist Fleming Meeks that make the heart of the film.

Throughout Bombshell, images of Lamarr at the height of her stardom confirm that she was absolutely luminous looking, but with an intelligence in her face that makes the viewer extra angry with all the men who mistreated or underestimated her.

These men include the male directors who exploited her sexuality, a controlling first husband who kept her at home, and a studio executive, Louis B. Mayer, who confined her to insubstantial roles when she wanted more. Then there were the Naval engineers who ignored her donation of her frequency-hopping patent and encouraged her to sell war bonds by signing autographs and auctioning off kisses instead, and the notorious crank doctor who kept her addicted on speed-laced “vitamin shots” for decades after she’d gotten hooked on pills during her studio days.

Plus, there was the fact that Hitler’s regime forced her to flee the city she loved, Vienna. In interviews and clips throughout Bombshell, Lamarr speaks of her childhood home and it’s beauty with an almost heartbreaking reverence. If she was hobbled by the misogyny of her era, then she was also, at heart, an eternal refugee who was cut off from what seems to have been a happy childhood.

Of course, no person is entirely a victim of circumstance, and Lamarr had a strong will of her own. The film uses extensive interviews with Lamarr’s children as well as with an estranged adopted child to show that whether because of addiction, mental health issues, or otherwise, Lamarr could be a troubled person—and at times, an unkind one. She also walked away from her Jewish heritage to the extent that her children didn’t even realize they were Jewish until later in life. Indeed, she underwent so many reinventions and transformations that it was hard to pinpoint that true nugget of self which she desperately wanted people to understand:. “Even I couldn’t understand who Hedy Lamarr was,” her son says in the film.

Toward the end of her life, she became a punchline: caught shoplifting (long before Winona Ryder did) and becoming the subject of spoofs by Mel Brooks. A sad but amusing note arises from these years: Lamarr, derided by some for being unable to magically hold on to her youth,combined her inventive mind with her deep insecurity, pushing plastic surgeons to pioneer new techniques that other actresses later imitated.

Lamarr’s lifelong desire to be free—financially stable, creatively fulfilled, and personally happy—resulted in bad decisions and triumphs. The film makes the argument, not without reason, that the biggest triumph was her invention of frequency-hopping during WWII, borne out of a desire to help even out the score between the British Navy and the German U-boats which were wreaking havoc. For this achievement, she was finally beginning to be recognized towards the end of her life when she lived as a recluse. Indeed, everything we touch these days has her imprint on it—including the way I’ll send this article to my editor, and the way most people will read it.

Bombshell pivots back and forth between Lamarr’s victimization at the hands of external forces, and her sometimes-impulsive choices to escape that victimhood. But this pattern makes the narrative compelling: You root for her even if you know her story ends up relatively bittersweet.

It also leaves us with a taste of her longing and dissatisfaction, too. If only men, and the public gaze, could judge women for their total capacity for thinking, feeling, and changing, rather than for the way they fulfill the fantasies projected onto them. But as the revelations of recent weeks show, we’re nowhere near that reality.

Bombshell opens this week in New York and Los Angeles.

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