Rob Edelman: Hedy

May 7, 2018

Who are celebrities? What is fame? Who are the individuals that exists beneath all the glitz and glamour? When one thinks of silver screen beauties of an earlier age, the names that spring to mind are Rita Hayworth, Ava Gardner, Jean Harlow, Marilyn Monroe... And certainly, without hesitation, you can add Hedy Lamarr. Back in the 1930’s and ‘40’s, she was one of the most recognizable Hollywood stars.

Now you can learn about the fates of celebrities and what their lives were like once the camera stopped rolling, but none will be quite like Hedy Lamarr. Her life is chronicled in a new documentary, BOMBSHELL: THE HEDY LAMARR STORY, which recently came to home entertainment courtesy of Kino Lorber. Beyond revealing the story of Hedy Lamarr, BOMBSHELL... is a knowing, multi-leveled textbook example of the manner in which, back in the day, women were in one way or another abused. For after all, Hedy Lamarr was not just a screen beauty who was the model for Snow White and the inspiration for Catwoman. Far from it. She also was an inventor. At the start of World War II, she and composer George Antheil conjured up what was known as frequency hopping, a technique employed to safeguard the secrecy of radio transmissions. Eventually, their creation evolved into the basis of everything from Secure Wifi to Bluetooth technology to cell phones. 

But in her day, Hedy Lamarr was not acknowledged for this. One reason was her gender; another was the “beautiful-but-dumb” stereotype of certain women; and in her lifetime, Hedy Lamarr came to understand this. She once observed: “My beauty is my curse,” and this was ever-so-true as she was victimized by the system and culture that won her fame.

On one level, BOMBSHELL: THE HEDY LAMARR STORY is just that, as it offers a chronicle of a life. Everything is there, from her childhood in Austria in the 1920’s and her devotion to her beloved father to her countless marriages and her nude romping in ECSTASY, a 1933 Austrian-Czechoslovakian feature which earned her international attention. She became a Hollywood star playing opposite Charles Boyer in ALGIERS, from 1938. However, her stardom was relatively brief and, as she aged, she was mercilessly caricatured. How many remember the character that Harvey Korman played in Mel Brooks’s BLAZING SADDLES? His name was “Hedley Lamarr.”

For a range of reasons, Hedy Lamarr spent her final years as a recluse. In particular, images of her near the end of her life-- she passed away in 2000-- are at once shocking, sad, pathetic. They are a textbook case for the importance of avoiding certain types of meds. And finally, much of the material in BOMBSHELL... is derived from a series of tapes made by Lamarr in her latter years, and which were discovered after her death. Plus, the film features some knowing quotes from its subject. At its beginning, Hedy declares: “Any girl can look glamorous. All she has to do is stand still and look stupid.” At its end, she observes: “People are unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered. Love them anyway. If you do good, people will abuse you... (But) do good anyway. The biggest people with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest people with the smallest minds. Think big anyway. What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight.... (But) give the world the best you’ve got anyway.”

Rob Edelman teaches film history courses at the University at Albany. He has contributed to many arts and baseball-related publications; his latest book, which he co-edited, is From Spring Training To Screen Test: Baseball Players Turned Actors. His frequent collaborator is his wife, fellow WAMC film commentator Audrey Kupferberg.

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