MARCH 8, 2018 – In 1933, the Viennese actress Hedy Keisler sparked an international furor by swimming nude in a provocative melodrama called “Ecstasy.” Alas, it was the tragic fate of Hedy Lamarr, as she was renamed when she arrived in Hollywood, to be perpetually judged by her face and figure rather than her intellect.
A splendid study of an extraordinarily complicated and conflicted person, Alexandra Dean’s film, “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story,” recounts the actress and inventor’s litany of innovations and achievements alongside her frustrations and failures. The documentary, which opened last week at the Kendall Square Cinema in Cambridge, is most fascinating when it shifts from Lamarr’s ambivalence toward Hollywood glamour to her wartime invention of a secure communication system.
The beloved daughter of a Jewish banker, Lamarr had a comfortable childhood before gravitating to the theater and movies. Fleeing a youthful marriage to a Jewish fascist who made arms for the Nazis, as well as the gathering storm in Europe, she purchased passage on an ocean liner in 1937. Aboard ship, she parlayed her bravado and striking good looks into an introduction to MGM executives and, eventually, studio mogul Louis B. Mayer in Los Angeles.
“My grandfather fled the Nazis in a very similar fashion, on a boat where he met someone from Samuel Goldwyn’s shop and ended up in Hollywood and it saved his life,” Dean said. “He became a very powerful individual, and he did not like having been victimized by the Nazis and he kind of whitewashed that entire episode in his life. He didn’t think of himself as a victim and he didn’t want to think of his family or his tribe as victims, so being Jewish was a complicated thing for him.”
Dean saw in Lamarr a similar refusal to be defined by her background or circumstances.
“She also had the same kind of complicated relationship with being a woman,” Dean said. “She wanted to be Louis B. Mayer, she wanted to be Cecil B. DeMille. She didn’t want to identify as a woman and she didn’t want to identify as a Jew.
“And what does that do to you? I think if you don’t understand her relationship with being Jewish you don’t understand why she was such a broken person.”
Lamarr’s Jewishness was directly related to her development of a system for ships to communicate that the Nazis couldn’t break, Dean said. Though the technology wasn’t used in World War II, an updated version helped Navy ships during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. Lamarr’s invention later led to the development of GPS, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi.
In Hollywood, the actress wasn’t allowed to be open about her identity because Mayer believed that audiences wouldn’t fantasize about a Jew. At the same time, the Nazis were blowing up ships in the Atlantic with European Jewish children.
Her mother converted to Catholicism in 1938 in Vienna, and Dean theorized that her motivation was to make it easier to escape the Nazis. Then Dean discovered a letter that Hedy had written saying, “Please do this for me, because I don’t want to be identified as a Jew in Hollywood.”
The psychological effect of Lamarr’s subterfuge mingled with her sorrow over the destruction of European Jewry is difficult to calculate, but it subsequently manifested itself in the insistence to her children that she wasn’t Jewish. In fact, Dean was compelled to confront Lamarr’s offspring with their grandfather’s death certificate — evidence of his burial in a Jewish cemetery — and their grandmother’s conversion papers.
Dean’s greatest challenge in “Bombshell” is conveying Lamarr’s many contradictions: strength and shallowness, altruism and cruelty, desire and despair. The film manages to be surprising and unexpected, yet utterly relevant in its portrayal of a woman stymied in her efforts to win respect on her terms.
“People are very quick to dislike Hedy Lamarr,” Dean said. “It appalled me, and made me extremely sad that people wouldn’t give her any leeway to express herself.”