Review: Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (Dir. Alexandra Dean, 2018)

It was at the 90th Academy Awards when Frances McDormand took to the stage and declared to the seated guests, industry and world at large that women have stories to tell. One such fascinating tale belongs to Ms. Hedy Lamarr.

Alexandra Dean’s Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story begins with a quote attributed to the actress: “Any girl can look glamorous, all she has to do is stand still and look stupid.” Hedy was very glamorous but far from stupid. Her beauty allegedly transforming her from an ugly duckling in youth to become the very thing she was judged solely upon. Born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Vienna, ‘Hedy’ was afforded private schooling (she particularly enjoyed chemistry) and exposed to the arts from an early age. By her own admission, she was an “enfant terrible” posing nude at 16 before developing an interest in acting. Which led to Ecstasy (1933) – a Czech film that saw her skinny dip, cavort naked lakeside and feign orgasm (the film’s rarely discussed outside of these “scandalous” moments). The Pope and Hitler denounced it, the latter not for its explicitness but rather the religious beliefs of its lead actress (the Kieslers were Jewish) – before Hedy set sail for Hollywood (she would become Lamarr courtesy of Louis B. Mayer’s wife Margaret) from London after escaping her first husband. There were six marriages in all, none particularly happy yet two resulted in children with motherhood a role she appeared to mostly enjoy.

It was, however, her relationships with Howard Hughes and the composer George Entheil which would help sustain her love of invention (Hughes gave her access to his chemists and lab) and provide her with what Google animator Jennifer Hom, describes as a “perfect underdog crime-fighter-by-night-story.” Hedy would work all day and then, of an evening, experiment and in 1941 with Entheil, the self-proclaimed “bad boy of music”, she created a radio controlled torpedo, the 1942 patent of which could (and did, come The Cuban Missile Crisis) revolutionise the war effort. Instead, they were thanked for their time and Lamarr was directed to selling war bonds – she made $343 million’s worth. When MGM failed to provide suitable film roles she found them herself, producing The Strange Woman in 1946 and co-producing Dishonoured Lady a year later, a feat relatively unheard of, in Hollywood, outside of Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino.

Life was never plain sailing, there were more divorces, a nervous breakdown, the addictive ‘vitamin B’ shots from Dr. Feelgood Max Jacobsen, odd bouts of kleptomania, the botched cosmetic surgeries, the dubious autobiography and subsequent court case that she would lose costing around the $9.8 million mark, and her reclusion from the world. The lynchpin to all of this heartache, one could argue, is that patent, which today is worth $30 billion and is a technology used in wifi, bluetooth, mobile telephones, GPS and the military, and one which has effected our daily lives, and for which she was paid nothing. There was, at least, the Electronic Frontier Foundation Special Pioneer Award in 1997 and the eventual induction into the Invention Hall of Fame in 2014 (commemorating her 100th birthday) which would slowly inform the world of this genius woman who was more than just a pretty face.

In terms of documentary form, Dean’s approach is rather prosaic. From its piano-accompanied montages to the mixing of images, film clips, archival interview footage and talking-heads. These include Lamarr’s son Anthony Loder, daughter Denise Hedwig Colton, granddaughters, and a whole host of critics, biographers, historians – actress Diane Kruger also reads from personal letters. The crux of the whole film, however, rests on the lost and found audio tapes of an interview conducted in 1990 by Forbes Magazine staff writer Fleming Meeks. Hedy Lamarr gets to tell her own story and comes across as spirited and unpretentious with a wicked sense of humour; a fighter, survivor and a woman of extremes and complexity, which makes it all the more tragic that she became a media punchline and, in her later years, perhaps defined her self-worth against her ageing physical beauty.

Bombshell is an evident labour of love, passionately told (rarely sugar-coated), beautifully edited, by Dean, Penelope Falk and Lindy Jankura, and surprisingly moving. Its content and form, however conventional, is in much the same vein as Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words (2015) and even the more playful Mansfield 66/67 (2017); documentaries which seek to expose the myths of these successful women, subvert assumption and conflate the notion of brains and beauty (it’s amazing, a woman can have both in spades). Hedy Lamarr was an immigrant, a feminist icon – long before the term was coined – and a trailblazer in science and technology invention; an underestimated woman who, with her beautiful brain and frequency hopping, had a hand in literally connecting us all.


Review: Mansfield 66/67 (Dir. P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes, 2018)

Once Jayne Mansfield’s star began its descent in the 1960s, the hour-glass-figured actress continued to court publicity wherever she could get it, fast becoming a reality TV star of sorts. She would appear in the tabloids seemingly inebriated (pills and booze they claimed), and photographed during many-a wardrobe malfunction, that 40″ chest fighting for freedom and yet she continued to work – completing Single Room Furnished – before her life was tragically cut short aged 34.

A year earlier from the crash that would claim her life, Mansfield appeared in a photoshoot with Anton LaVey, the High Priest of The Church of Satan and it was soon suggested that she was now a Witch worshipping at the altar of LaVey – the Satanist who would allegedly place a curse on Sam Brody, Mansfield’s lover at the time. Brody would die in the car alongside Jayne on that fateful night on June 29 1967, and it is these last two years of the actress’ life that husband and husband filmmaking producers P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes (Dear Mom, Love CherRoom 237) concentrate on in their documentary.

Mansfield 66/67 is far from ordinary in its form, combining dance numbers, songs and monologues (performed by students of Leeds Beckett University) intercut among the archive footage, animated reenactments, photographs, and newspaper clippings. There is a cast of adoring fans and conspiracy theorists including John Waters, Mamie Van Doren, Kenneth Anger, Cheryl Dunye, Yolanda Ross and Drag artist Peaches Christ, as well as insights from Los Angeles historian Alison Martino and academics Dr. Eileen Jones, Dr. Eve Oishi, and Dr. Barbara Hahn. It is a fascinating and visual delight with a tone befitting its subject.

While the film makes no bones about focussing on salacious scandal and rumour – there is even a disclaimer at the very beginning – it doesn’t hurt it. Just as sex sells so does conjecture and falsehood (we are living in the Fake News era after all), and amongst the knowing kitsch and farce a solid argument is made positioning Mansfield as a feminist icon. One that suggests she transcended her sexual identity, and exploited the sexist culture which, some will continue to argue, exploited her. Amidst the Pink Palace, heart-shaped pools, jewels, Chihuahuas and overtly sexualised image, this woman who spoke five languages, played the violin and piano to concert level, and mothered five children was, in fact, liberated.

This highly intelligent documentary is a wonderfully weird watch, and while dressed largely in pink and fluff, it has a lot to say about the expectations placed upon women, and doesn’t take itself too seriously, much like the woman at the heart of its soul. Mansfield 66/67 is an entertaining exploration about the lasting impact of myth and the rise of the women’s movement. A film full of fun, love and admiration for the underestimated blonde bombshell, who was original, self-reliant, determined, and fabulous, and appeared to live her short life to its fullest.

Did the Devil make her do it? Damned if I know.