She was considered the most beautiful woman in the world when she came to Hollywood in the 1930s from her native Austria. She forced Louis B. Mayer to sign her to a high-dollar contract simply by walking through a room. No one could take their eyes off her. And she became a huge star during Hollywood’s Golden Age, but what Hedy Lamarr loved most was inventing. From childhood, she lived to take things apart and figure things out. She had a brilliant mind, but her beauty was all anyone cared about. And as this eye-opening and frustrating documentary shows, her ideas changed the world, even as she got no credit for them. That is, until now.
I’d heard the story about her inventing Wi-fi over the past few years, but Bombshell tells the whole story. It was during World War II that she heard about how the Germans’ submarines were unstoppable. So she decided to solve the problem by devising a system whereby the Americans could radio control torpedoes that the Germans could not jam. Her concept, which she devised and patented with the help of avant-garde composer George Antheil, was called frequency-hopping, and is the basis for everything from Wi-fi and Bluetooth to cellphone and encryption technologies. When she presented it to the Navy though, they dismissed it, mostly because she was a beautiful woman, and told her to go sell War Bonds if she wanted to help the war effort. And her invention sat unused for decades.
Lamarr had worked out her concept while she was working full time in Hollywood. Bored by the movie biz, she set up a lab in her dressing room. One-time lover and friend Howard Hughes even paid to have a full lab built for her, and she redesigned his airplanes to make them faster for no charge. But there was no place for this brilliant and beautiful woman. She married multiple times, became a plastic surgery addict, and died in self-imposed solitude with few knowing her vast contribution to science.
Alongside her invention story is the parallel narrative of a strong woman in Hollywood. She starred with some of the biggest stars, even in Oscar nominated films, but was always cast simply for her looks. She understood how unfair the system was and where she fit in it, once saying: “Any girl can look glamorous. All she has to do is stand still and look stupid.” The Bombshell story is told through great archival footage, some wonderful lost interviews and TV show appearances with Lamarr, and new interviews with her family and admirers. It’s a tragic and fascinating tale of an underappreciated genius crippled by her own beauty. I recommend it to feminists, lovers of old films, and techno-history aficionados. It’s very well done and a great story.