Director Alexandra Dean
Governor Lepetomane: “Thank you, Hedy, thank you.”
Hedley Lamarr: “It’s not Hedy, it’s Hedley. Hedley Lamarr.”
Lepetomane: “What the hell are you worried about? This is 1874. You’ll be able to sue her.”
That exchange between characters played by Mel Brooks and Harvey Korman in Blazing Saddles is probably my first awareness of Ms. Lamaar, but only as an idea, the object of a play-on-words, not as a person. (Lamaar sued Brooks for that joke, and they settled out of court.) A few years later while in film school I learned slightly more about her, that she had been a beautiful actress in the 1940’s. Somewhere along the way I saw her in Boom Town, the 1940 MGM film in which she starred alongside Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and Claudette Colbert. That’s all I’ve ever known about her, until now.
Bombshell is a fascinating account of Ms. Lamaar from childhood and first marriage to a German munitions provider in pre-WWII Austria, through her film career there and in Hollywood, to her professional and personal decline and seclusion toward the end of her life. Besides detailing her work and reputation as ‘the most beautiful woman in film’, it informs that she had a brilliant inventive mind, patenting what eventually became the basis for technology used in wi-fi, bluetooth and secure military communications. Poignantly, it contrasts her experiences as a startling beauty loved and exploited in film for her looks, with her sharp mind and feministic attitude, and desire to do something meaningful and important in life.
Ultimately, Lamaar’s story is sad if not tragic. The film chronicles the relative brevity of her acting career, starting with her scandalous nude appearance in the 1933 German film Ecstasy, in the Hollywood contract system under Louis B. Meyer at MGM starting with Algiers in 1938, and peaking with Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah in 1949. She was one of the first women to produce her own films, but was admittedly bad at business and lost her fortune with her production company.
Lamaar suffered suspicion as a Jewish Austrian immigrant during the war years despite her work raising U.S. War Bonds and inventing a torpedo guidance system which the Navy foolishly rejected (shut up and smile, woman). Eventually, her inventiveness was recognized, but she didn’t accept the award in person because of how badly she looked after years of failed plastic surgery. Her mental and financial decline due to methamphetamine addiction in the 60’s further damaged her career and the relationships with her two children. She died impoverished and in relative obscurity in 2000.
I’m left feeling sad for Lamaar, and angered by the story of yet another woman with intelligence and an inventive mind suffering under a sexist society who refused to value her for anything more than her looks. How slowly things have changed since then. Perhaps change will accelerate now that #TimesUp and other movements are active. Bombshell is a good reminder to take women at more than face value. Should See.