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Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story
Directed by Alexandra Dean
According to Bombshell, the directorial debut of Alexandra Dean, classic Hollywood actress Hedy Lamarr’s greatest curse was her beauty. Interview after interview shows men and women describing — or reducing her to — her looks and her glamour. Mel Brooks (disgustingly) relates having such an extreme crush on the star that he wanted to marry her, or at least take her out for dinner to feel her up under the table. When on a television show, she asks the host what her “image” is; he references her aristocratic beauty, her jewels, and her presence based on a goddess-like allure. Bombshell’s thesis is that Lamarr’s appearance was a burden, never allowing her to be more than a pretty face, despite how exceptional she truly was. And for the most part, the film does a good job at expanding on the actress beyond her iconic image.
Born in Vienna in 1914, Lamarr was a wild youth, making her mark most notably in Gustav Machatý’s 1933 film, Ecstasy (known more for teenaged Lamarr’s nude scenes and simulated orgasm than for its nuanced depiction of female sexuality — perhaps further proof of the actress’ objectification). That year she married her first husband, who on top of treating her poorly also had ties to the Nazis, and she daringly fled her home, leading to the start of her Hollywood career.
In Hollywood she was unhappy, given largely bad roles based on her image as a mysterious, foreign beauty. Refreshingly, Bombshell focuses little on her film career; unfulfilling films having little meaning for Lamarr, and the doc chooses instead to spend more time on her life as an inventor. Creating methods for a frequency-hopping system during the Second World War (which would become the basis of Wi-Fi), Lamarr was accused of plagiarizing her work, with people not believing she could come up with these concepts on her own. The doc also ventures into Lamarr’s personal life (her multiple failed marriages, her Jewish heritage, her methamphetamine addiction, a shoplifting incident which impacted her career greatly, and her forays into plastic surgery), but its focus is on Lamarr-the-scientist. Intent on giving its subject her due, the film ends with her patents, proof of her genius, and her rediscovery as a beauty with brains.
However, the issue is that the doc does that which it sets out not to do. In its attempt to challenge the notion that Lamarr could not be seen beyond her prettiness, it re-focuses on her appearance. Never considered is the issue that women across the spectrum of beauty are not taken seriously — whether glamourous or plain, the problem is often that a woman’s thoughts and innovations are not accepted on the basis of her gender. Lamarr faced a certain objectification as a Hollywood actress, where she was typecast and given meager roles, but on the flipside, we could look to non-glamourous women, constantly playing secondary characters, spinsters or villains, reduced to their lack of beauty as much as Lamarr was confined by her surplus of it. The viewing of Lamarr as too beautiful to be smart is not necessarily because she was literally too beautiful; it is because of societal misogyny. By framing the argument as Lamarr being seen as only pretty because she was too pretty to be believably as smart, rather than Lamarr being seen as incapable of anything other than her looks because we have difficulty viewing any woman as intelligent and complex, is counter-productive.
Overall, Bombshell is a conventional doc saved from boredom by Lamarr’s exceptional life. But with a central thesis unable to fully grapple with her beauty and her intelligence, it ultimately fails to fully create a narrative of a woman who was more than her beauty, and more than brains-despite-her-beauty.
Chelsea Phillips-Carr is a writer and film critic from Toronto.
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