Hedy Lamarr had two things going for her: She was brilliant and she was gorgeous.
Hedy Lamarr had one thing going against her: She was gorgeous, and that’s all most people saw or wanted to see.
That’s the dichotomy at the heart of ‘Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story,” a documentary that follows Lamarr’s tumultuous life, tracking a life in which her beauty served to obscure her brains, although her brains persevered. Chances are near 100 percent that today and every day you benefit from Hedy Lamarr’s gift of invention.
She was born in Austria in 1914, a sophisticated upper-class Jewish girl. And she was hardly unaware of her beauty. While still in her teens she scandalized the world with the 1933 film “Ecstasy,” in which she swam and ran through the woods nude. Early on, she married an Austrian arms manufacturer and became a young trophy wife.
But the Nazis were on the rise and Hedy was restless. She ran away to Britain, and from there to America, after landing a contract with MGM. Over the next two decades she became one of the most famous faces in Hollywood, making some big movies and some flops, running through a series of unhappy marriages and becoming a staple of the gossip industry.
All of which is interesting if not completely atypical of the times. What was atypical was Hedy’s urge to invent things.
She’d been a tinkerer as a child, taking apart and putting back together a music box. In Hollywood she met and dated Howard Hughes, who gave her engineers to do her bidding, and whose airplane designs she influenced.
Come World War II she was alarmed at how little control naval ships had over torpedoes they fired at enemy submarines. So she came up with the idea of frequency-hopping, a way to guide the torpedoes without enemy interference. She and an avant garde composer named George Antheil patented the process and then gave the patent — for free — to the Navy. It likely could have saved thousands of lives.
The Navy ignored it.
Instead the U.S. asked Hedy to use her pretty little face to sell war bonds. Hedy sold $25 million worth of bonds. As always, beauty over brains.
“Bombshell,” directed by Alexandra Dean, doesn’t shy away from Hedy’s obsession with her own beauty and the wreckage of her later years — the plastic surgery, the drugs, ending life as a recluse. How could she not be obsessed with her beauty? It’s all anybody else had ever cared about.
Eventually the world took note of Hedy’s frequency-hopping patent. And now it’s key to WiFi, Bluetooth, GPS, rockets flying through space, cellphones and much of what makes up modern life.
Hedy never received a dime for any of it. But in the last decade of her life, in the 1990s, she was recognized for her achievement and has since been posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. For many women she’s become a cultural touchstone, both inspiration and cautionary tale. The lesson is clear: Beauty fades, brilliance endures.
Tom Long is a longtime culture critic.
‘Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story’
Running time: 90 minutes