Why the actress and inventor’s story matters today, and where you can watch it for free.
Documentaries about famous Hollywood stars are a dime a dozen — because we love them — but they rarely tell a groundbreaking story we haven’t heard before. Even fewer use a distinctive female voice to depict actresses and who they were off the silver screen.
Alexandra Dean’s Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story does both, shining a light on Hedy Lamarr‘s contributions to society — contributions that history wanted to forget. The tale of a remarkable woman, wrongfully simplified by American culture, is a story that even viewers who aren’t familiar with Lamarr can learn from. As a part of PBS’s American Masters, the documentary is available to stream for free on their website until June 22nd, giving you no excuse to miss out on a biographical documentary unlike any you’ve ever seen before.
Lamarr is remembered most for her short influential career in Hollywood during the 1940s and into the 1950s. Appearing alongside Clark Gable, James Stewart, and other legendary stars, she always played the object of desire, quickly winning over the entire country. Her status as the most beautiful woman in the world outshone her reputation as an actress.
As she began to age, the thing everyone loved about her –her beauty — became threatened. Her career took a downward spiral. Her notoriety for transforming from Hollywood star to shoplifter became news and spawned the exploitive satirical short film Hedy by Andy Warhol. The country laughed at her and forced the legacy of a fallen star on her.
That wasn’t the real Hedy Lamarr. Like any woman — any person, really — she had many sides that everyone chose to ignore when celebrating her solely for her looks. She was an inventor, creating technology that led to Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technology. She was a Jewish immigrant from Austria who felt she had to hide her heritage to protect herself from discrimination. She was a survivor of an abusive marriage to a Nazi arms dealer, from whom she escaped on a bicycle with jewels sewed into the lining of her coat.
Bombshell sets out to uncover all of those sides of Hedy Lamarr and educate viewers in the process. Employing interviews with people who knew different aspects of Lamarr, Dean sets out to understand the woman whom many wanted to remain a beautiful mystery. We get to hear Lamarr explain her own story through phone call recordings between her and a Forbes journalist. Many had tried to tell her story for her, including when ghostwriters rewrote her autobiography, but here we finally get the truth, directly from Lamarr herself.
We see how the movie industry saw her, via interviews with Peter Bogdanovich, Mel Brooks, and film historian Jeanine Basinger. Her children highlight who she was outside of the public eye with personal notes, photographs, and anecdotes. Experts explain the genius of her inventions to help understand her impact on science. Several women who look up to her, including actress Diane Kruger and Google animator Jennifer Hom, show the influence she can have on women today if they only know her as she was.
Dean told Deadline:
“She had true flashes of genius. There were men who helped bring that genius to reality, and Howard Hughes was one of them…But they did not come up with the ideas. This woman did. And it’s taken the world this long to be ready to accept that.”
Lamarr’s story is so important today because uncovering women who defied definition rewrites the history that never included them when they influenced the world. Her patented technology was used by the military and buried in the archives so they would never have to attribute the invention to a beautiful movie star who could never have been smart, too. Lamarr should’ve been a celebrated scientist as well as a beautiful movie star. She could’ve been a role model for girls while she was alive. But telling her story now allows her to be more than that.
She is an example of the impact of systematic sexism, a reason why stories like hers were buried for so long. It may seem counterproductive, telling age-old stories of women who are no longer alive, but they are a part of history as much as women creating change today. We owe it to them as audience members, as filmmakers, and as women to recognize their lives in order to understand how we got where we are today. On top of all that, these are entertaining and interesting stories!
Even more impressive is the route Dean chose to show Lamarr, as she really was: a woman who made history, but also a woman who made mistakes. She wasn’t a perfect person, and in a documentary that aims to show what the world didn’t want to recognize about her, it’s important to show that as well. The studio system took a toll on her, creating an unhealthy obsession with wealth and an addiction to drugs, but that was a part of who she was.
The unrealistic idea that people could put Lamarr in just one box, whether that be an inventor, a mother, or a movie star, is ludicrous and part of the reason for her sad older life spent in isolation. As you use technology she had a hand in while you read this, the least you can do is understand the kind of person she was and attribute all she accomplished to her. Additionally, we can all appreciate documentaries that highlight women forgotten by history and give them the recognition they deserve in cinema.
Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story is available to stream for free on PBS’s American Masters website now. You can also listen to the American Masters podcast episode on Lamarr, featuring director Alexandra Dean, Rutgers professor Emina Soljanin, and actress Susan Sarandon.