Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story profiles one of the most glamorous stars of Hollywood’s golden age, but it’s not your usual silver-screen documentary. Drawing on several books (most notably Hedy’s Folly by science writer Richard Rhodes), writer-director Alexandra Dean moves past Lamarr’s movie career in the 1930s and ’40s to explore her little-known sideline as an inventor, one whose patented device for radio “frequency hopping,” developed to guide torpedoes during World War II, has become a building block of modern wireless technology. Lamarr, who died in 2000, tells her own story on the soundtrack from a 1990 telephone interview with Forbes writer Fleming Meeks; in her proud, Austrian-accented English, she presents herself as a captive of her own beauty, still wondering what might have been had the world recognized her mind as much as her body.
The movie arrives at Music Box just as Gene Siskel Film Center is reviving Brett Morgen’s captivating 2017 documentary Jane, about primatologist and activist Jane Goodall, and the two women share striking similarities despite their contrasting career paths. The primary source material for Morgen’s film was 100 hours of recently recovered 16-millimeter footage that shows Goodall as a young woman in the early 1960s, first observing the chimpanzees of western Tanzania. Like Lamarr, she’s extraordinarily beautiful, and as she notes in a recent interview conducted for the film, she learned to make use of her looks to further her research. Both women were boldly ambitious and utterly committed to their dreams, forging new lives for themselves quite outside the bounds of their class and gender. And, most important for their intellectual pursuits, each came to her field of study with little or no formal academic training, which allowed each to approach her subject more creatively.
Lamarr was mechanically inclined from childhood: in Bombshell her grown son, Anthony Loder, shows off a toy music box that she took apart and reassembled at age five. Her father, a Jewish banker in Vienna, schooled her in the functions of common machines, but careers in the sciences weren’t open to young women, and instead she took a shine to acting. Her parents were scandalized when their 18-year-old daughter turned up, running around nude and simulating orgasm, in Gustav Machaty’s Czech-Austrian romance Ecstasy (1933). Shortly after the film’s release, Hedy married Fritz Mandl, a 33-year-old munitions tycoon, who shut down her acting career and kept her under his thumb as a trophy wife but also contributed to her mechanical education by allowing her to listen silently as he talked shop with German and Austrian diplomats and military men. Traumatized by her father’s death from a heart attack, and frightened by the growing Nazi threat, Hedy escaped from the marriage in 1937 and landed in Paris, where she was spotted by MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer and brought to Hollywood as “the most beautiful woman in the world.”
“Maybe I came from a different planet, who knows,” Lamarr remarks in Bombshell. “But whatever it is, inventions are easy for me to do.” As Rhodes points out in his book, inventors aren’t really artists, because their work must have a practical use; they aren’t really scientists either, because they’re less concerned with making discoveries than with applying them. Lamarr took advantage of her down time between movie roles to putter around in her home workshop, and as an exiled European Jew she was powerfully motivated to assist the Allied war effort. She was appalled when, in September 1940, a German submarine torpedoed the British steamship City of Benares, sending it to the bottom of the North Atlantic with 77 children onboard. With the help of George Antheil, a film composer and fellow inventor, Lamarr set out to create a radio device that could guide Allied torpedoes to their targets without the Germans jamming the frequency.
Ironically, the device wasn’t much different from the music box Lamarr had torn apart as a child or the player-piano rolls Antheil had manipulated as an avant-garde musician. Like a piano roll, the machine they presented to the National Inventors Council used a ribbon with punched holes to manipulate a radio signal, bumping it from one frequency to the next; the torpedo would carry a similar device synchronized with the transmitter, so that the guidance signal might jump around the radio dial and elude German surveillance. Lamarr and Antheil won a patent for their system, though the U.S. Navy rejected it, arguing that the device would weigh down the torpedoes. According to Rhodes in Bombshell, the navy told Lamarr to stop wasting her time on inventions and instead use her celebrity to sell war bonds (which she did, to the tune of $25 million). Another interview subject, film historian Jeanine Basinger, sums up the prevailing ethos: “You don’t get to be Hedy Lamarr and smart.”
“She is an incredible combination of childish ignorance and definite flashes of genius,” Antheil once wrote, in a letter that Anthony Loder reads onscreen. “She calls in the middle of the night because an idea hit her.” His words support the notion that inventors rely on inspiration more than formal training, though without a degree Lamarr could never get anyone to take her seriously. By the time Fleming Meeks interviewed her in 1990, she had blown through six marriages and lost her fortune on a bad real estate investment; living in seclusion in Miami Beach, she scraped by on social security and a small pension from the Screen Actors Guild. (According to Bombshell, her patent, which expired in the late 1950s, would be worth $30 billion today.) Archival photos and TV clips trace Lamarr’s accumulating cosmetic surgeries, which eventually left her face a parody of itself. There’s something tragic about a woman who’ll go to any length to preserve the looks she fears no one can see past.
Growing up in Bournemouth, England, in the 1940s, Jane Goodall would dream that she was a man. “Probably because of the time,” she tells Morgen in Jane. “I wanted to do things which men did and women didn’t. Going to Africa, living with animals.” Like Lamarr, she was driven to create a life of her own choosing; though she couldn’t afford a university education, she graduated from secretarial school, moved to Kenya to live with a friend and her parents, and in 1957 got herself hired as personal assistant to the controversial paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey. Jane never touches on Leakey’s clumsy romantic pursuit of his pretty young assistant, which she fought off; they had established a warm mentor- student relationship by 1960, when Leakey sent Goodall to conduct a six-month field study of wild chimpanzees at the Gombe Stream Game Reserve in western Tanzania. According to Goodall, Leakey wanted someone without academic preconceptions but “with an open mind, with a passion for knowledge, with a love of animals, and with monumental patience.”
Goodall had all these things, and as she argues in Jane, her untutored perspective allowed her to infiltrate the chimpanzees’ private world. “Staring into the eyes of a chimpanzee, I saw a thinking, reasoning personality looking back,” she explains in voice-over narration as one of her simian charges stares into the camera in vivid color. “At that time, in the early 1960s, it was held, at least by many scientists, that only humans had minds, only humans were capable of rational thought. Fortunately, I had not been to university, and I did not know these things.” Goodall spent weeks observing the chimpanzee community from a distance before she was finally welcomed in; three months into her study, she witnessed one of her chimpanzee pals, whom she named David Greybeard, turning a reed into a primitive tool to fish termites out of the ground. Her discovery smashed the accepted wisdom that man’s understanding of tools had distinguished him from the apes.
Born 20 years after Hedy Lamarr, Goodall has won greater recognition for her work, though she faced a similar condescension because of her good looks and lack of university education. Even after she’d earned a PhD from Cambridge University in 1965, fellow academics sniped when her writing appeared in National Geographic. “People said my fame was due to my legs,” she grumbles to Morgen. “By this time I was needing to raise money for myself, so I made use of it.” So does Morgen—Goodall is a luminous presence in the archival footage, as fine featured as the exotic birds all around her. The footage was shot by the gifted wildlife photographer Hugo van Lawick, who traveled to Gombe in 1963 on assignment from National Geographic and promptly fell in love with Goodall. (They married, had a child, and divorced in 1974.) “It was pretty obvious to me right from the start that I was a subject of interest as well as the chimps,” she tells Morgen. Like so many women in pursuit of their studies, Goodall had to tolerate being studied herself. v