If you’re even remotely interested in the early days of Hollywood, and if all you know about Hedy Lamarr is that she’s considered one of the most gorgeous stars in the history of the silver screen, then Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story is both for and about you.
It’s for you because this documentary, as the title explicitly states, tells the story of her life from A-Z. And hoo boy, what a life she lived, potentially more jam-packed with compelling events than any of the plots found in her movies, so much so that even cinema agnostics could find plenty here to maintain their interest. It helps that director Alexandra Dean utilizes a predominantly conventional educational approach, befitting its association with the oft-placid PBS.
Yet much like Lamarr herself, underneath this superficial veneer lies quite a bit of subtextual bite. Though Dean takes a wide lens to Lamarr’s career, the parts on which she decides to focus through her standard interviews and archival footage portray Lamarr as a professional creator; her infamous Hollywood image was just one of her many fabulations. Her skills stretched far beyond her onscreen success, yet the gender restrictions of her era — many of which still exist today — prevented her from attaining deserved notoriety in other fields.
The title actually captures the dual levels on which the documentary operates. “The Hedy Lamarr Story” speaks to the conventionality of its information-driven structure, while the three definitions of the word “Bombshell” subtly communicate the many layers of both Lamarr and the movie:
- “A very attractive woman” — obviously
- “An artillery shell”— relates to her largely unknown side gig as an inventor; she may have been responsible for updating torpedo technology that not only helped win World War II for the Allied Powers, but also led to the discovery of such essential modern-day services as Bluetooth, GPS, WiFi, etc.
- “An overwhelming surprise or disappointment” — so much of her life can be seen as a positive surprise or a negative disappointment based on the perspective, all of which are vividly detailed here
You’ve of course seen documentaries before that paint pictures of shooting stars shot down from reaching their potential by the prejudicial limitations of their time periods, but what sets this one apart is how much it takes a hard, honest look at the source of her fame. Lamarr sincerely believed that her beauty was a crutch, and Dean — plus her many interview subjects, many of whom are Lamarr’s relatives — make a convincing case to back up that assertion. In doing so, Bombshell admirably critiques the very reason that it evens exist; without her external charms, would anyone have cared about her? Documentaries all too rarely question the foundations upon which their stories reside in such a fashion.
But it also cuts through Lamarr’s surface persona to understand her deep psychology underneath. She knew how to use her feminine wiles, sometimes scandalously (at least by mid-20th century standards), to exploit men’s then-customarily repressed sexual urges. How else could a woman make a living in an industry insidiously revolved around sin (I originally wanted to add “back then” to the end of this sentence, but we all know not enough has changed to warrant that distinction). Once the world viewed her as a seductress, she was trapped in that reputation for the rest of her life. The system that created her spit her out, in much the same way as her FIVE husbands, all of whom are mentioned here to connect their sexist treatment of her with how society handled her.
And that’s how, as mentioned in the first sentence of this piece, Bombshell is also ABOUT us, the audience. By ensuring that some people can see it in a movie theater, this documentary implicitly implicates the moviegoing viewer; without tapping into our desires regarding what we want to see, the ruthlessly crowd-serving Hollywood machine would not have been able to operate. We’re just as much at fault for the more unfortunate parts of Lamarr’s life as anyone or anything else.
At the same time, her self-perpetuated shortcomings are clearly noted throughout, particularly in regards to her late-life drama, which saves the affair from being a hagiography. By empathetically excavating her darker sides while also touching upon the light that most may not realize, Bombshell reclaims Hedy Lamarr’s legacy from the clutches of systemically-sexist historians.
But since most audiences won’t watch “boring” documentaries, I hope this one inspires a world-class actor to don Lamarr’s frocks in a biopic that would need to be as original as her ingenuity. It would be a dynamite arc to bring to life, and the world needs to be reintroduced to Bombshell’s real Heddy Lamar.