“Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story” (2017)
Running Time: 88 minutes
Directed by: Alexandra Dean
Featuring: Hedy Lamarr, Mel Brooks, Diane Kruger and many others
“People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered.
Love them anyway.
If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives.
Do good anyway.
If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies.
The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow.
Do good anyway.
Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable.
Be honest and frank anyway.”
By Kent M. Keith
If there is one aspect of Hollywood that stands out above almost anything else it is the talent that comes to work there, as well as the many lives that are forever lost or damaged under the pressures that are faced when success comes too young or even at all. It is a place like nowhere else in the world, dreams are dangled in front of people with little support for those that require it, or for those that are left on the wayside as life passes them by with little thought for the chaos this might bring. This new documentary “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story” (2017) is just one of those stories, on the surface not too unique among the many people it could have been based on. There is of course a difference in that the actress it revolves around, Hedy Lamarr, had a side many were not aware of, not a dark side but one that should have been celebrated almost a hundred years ago. As far as biographical documentaries go “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story” is almost run of the mill, not too spectacular about a woman from pre-World World II Vienna, moving to and making it big in the US, then running afoul off very personal demons as well as drugs and all that entails. However, it is her imagination as well as genius that drives this story of someone that should have been known for far more than a pretty face and talent in front of the camera. Unlike most stories this one has serious repercussions for not only those in power now, but reflects a staggering point of view of not only women, their opportunities, but what they were allowed to accomplish then and of course now.
The person behind this documentary, as well as the driving force that has designed the narrative is Alexandra Dean, an Emmy Award-winning journalist and producer. Dean has amongst other things has produced news-magazine documentaries for PBS before becoming a series and documentary producer at Bloomberg television, creating the series “Innovators, Adventures and Pursuits.”
What writer/director Alexandra Dean has managed to do is paint a portrait of a woman who was boxed in by her times as well as her looks, although she was canny enough to know how to use her beaty for her own benefit, especially in the precarious times she was living in, as well as the future that was to face the Continent where she came from. Dean had the challenge of bringing to the screen a story that would mostly consist of others remembrances of the subject that would all ultimately be here as second-hand witnesses, which would have been a weakness in the story as well as the narrative. Of course that was not to be as the director would be given a treasure trove of audio recordings that the narrative could be built around, as well as background to the entire story. To her credit Dean has managed to bring to life a story that may have been forgotten but now has formed part of the post ‘Me To’ movement and age we occupy at the moment, in this current climate of revelations as well as truth.
“Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story” follows the life story of Lamarr from her youth as the daughter of assimilated Austrian Jews through her rise to fame, the Nazi onslaught, her departure for the United States, six marriages, her acting career, her landmark invention, decline, and finally her death at the age of 85 in 2000. The focus of the film is on her co-creation with George Antheil of the technology of frequency hopping.
The film delves into Lamarr’s different, seemingly unhealthy relationships with Louis B. Mayer (the head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios), Max Jacobson (Dr. Feelgood), and director Cecil B. DeMille. The film also shows how Hedy Lamarr became so reclusive at the end of her life.
There is no doubt that the backbone to this documentary are the interviews that were recorded with a reporter over twenty five years ago for an article in a major publication. If these had not existed or been discovered this documentary may not have existed or been very different to what has ended up onscreen. However, what has been produced is something very special as almost every question that is asked is able to be answered by Hedy herself in the archival interviews, at least in some form. The wise decision that has been made in terms of the narrative is to not reveal these interviews too early in the documentary thereby allowing the director to build to them in a more organic way. This means that we can see Hedy in her onscreen persona, as well as through her children, then we get to hear her talk candidly on a wide range of issues which inevitably lead to the revelation of her inventions as well as her enquiring mind – that coupled with the interviews form the basis of this story as well as the relevance that can be drawn to the present day as well the themes of woman in society, their treatment as well the place in which society is governed particularly in the US, but also in other parts of the world.
Of course if this documentary had been able to include filmed interviews of Hedy it would have been perfect but she died in 2000 so that was never going to be an option for the director. Luckily there are many people to interview who either knew her, knew of her, admired her or can relate to her. So we have Hedy’s son and daughter as well as their children being interviewed about a woman that they knew from a certain perspective letting us in on the life of this misunderstood woman, but of course they like other relatives do not know the full story. The other interviewees spend less time talking about Hedy directly, but the choice to have German actress, Diane Kruger, talk about Hedy in terms of a similar background as well as reading letters Hedy wrote to her mother are excellent choices as she is not only a respected actress but there is some authenticity to her reading as well as giving her own perspective on the actress arriving in Hollywood, and for want of a better term, making it.
As Hedy was a major star in Hollywood there are literally hundreds of hours of not only movie footage but news footage as well, with some obvious home movie footage. When creating a documentary about a person that lived over a hundred years ago there has to be footage of them to give the audience something to hang their own ideas of who that person was in the time they lived, the only real issue is to decide is what footage to include, as well as what to omit. With someone like Hedy who was extremely beautiful, as well as someone who for a portion of her life relied on her looks there may be a tendency to use as much of that footage as possible, here the director does that as well. However, what the director does is to slowly move the narrative away from her heyday to the more realistic and unglamorous parts of Hedy’s life exposing her growing older as well as the failed plastic surgeries she endured so that we see the damage done to her face, which is a harsh reality as well as a lesson to be learned by both men and women of all ages and time periods.
There are some pretty serious realities that are revealed in the documentary, such as Hedy being used by older men because of her looks as well as how she struggled with this, the psychological impacts on her life as a result were not obvious but horrific. We also see that she was never taken seriously as a person, this is directly reflected in variety television shows that interviewed her, talking down to her even though she was an elderly women with experience to offer others. Finally we see her penniless even though others were making huge amounts of money off an invention that she at least had a part in creating. We witness a marginalisation that many women can identify with to this day, something that has been reiterated and talked about in a post-Weinstein world where there have been individuals telling similar stories to Hedy’s that are variations on some very dark themes.
There are many other aspects to this documentary that I will not spoil as they really are a revelation to be enjoyed, even if they are not all happy, in fact many parts of Hedy’s story are deeply disturbing as well as raising questions about what goes on in male dominated industries, in fact to this very day, one can only imagine.
“Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story” is an excellent documentary that sheds light on not only a misunderstood woman but also gives insight into how little progress has been made in our modern age. If there is a lesson to be learned it is not to judge people on surface looks or values but to go deeper into what people can offer to a society not matter their background, gender, culture or age. Not only that but it is very entertaining as well, offering glimpses into lives one can only imagine how complicated they were when the World was on a knifes edge.
“Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story” will screen this year as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival 2018.