Do good anyway, aka thoughts on “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story” (USA, 2017, 88 min)

When I first heard about the documentary on this mythical figure from my childhood I got excited, but it took me a few years to actually watch the movie. The experience both added to and removed some of the mystique surrounding her. As far as I can tell the movie did  a good job of showing the facts of Lamarr’s life; through her childhood in Vienna, her first claim to fame, her move to the US, her rise to “world’s most beautiful woman”, her multiple marriages and her decline. These parts were well researched and supported through archival footage, images and even interviews. I really felt that I got to know her, which is the best I can say about a biography.

Hedy Lamarr had a special role in my memory. I heard her name early and often in my life as my grandmother idolized her. Lamarr was 13 years older than my grandma, who I called Mama but in many ways she wanted to be (like) her. Mama was an aspiring actress in her youth and even looked a bit like her favored star. Mama did get into a few movies as an extra, meaning you could see and occasionally hear her, but her dream never fully materialized. On the other hand every time Hedy’s name came up in my childhood I remember hearing a special vibrational tone in Mama’s voice, reserved only for the highest approval. I think I was about eight or nine years old when I first saw Samson and Delilah and I was awed by the movie, after all it is quite a fairy tale on a grand scale. I had no chance of not noticing “Delilah” as almost every time she appeared Mama oohed and aahed. After I became a teenager and stopped watching movies with Mama and particularly after she passed away I forgot about Ms. Lamarr.

Beyond the facts of a famous person’s life I also like to understand more of her motivations and choices; what made her tick. From this regard this film is way above average but not fully satisfactory for me. I think I can understand her move away from Europe, her drivenness in her work, her search for a husband who is compatible with her ambitions. I can also emphasize with being a recluse for the later period of her life: after being mostly valued for her outer beauty the effects of aging can be hard to process. She sure tried to cover it up with plastic surgeries, not successfully enough. The film made it clear that she was beyond and above average in many areas Her mystique was fully dispersed, plenty of her actions are still not explained. I accept though that nobody can fully understand another person, so that’s OK.

However I am still not convinced about her contributions to the technical field. The movie sets a case that she was technically oriented from an early age on as she took apart a music box and put it back together too. Furthermore once it became obvious that she is of curious nature her father explained lots of things of the world to her. However her major claim to technical fame is that she was the originator of an idea that is used in secure communication and seems to be on a bit of a shaky ground. Fortunately the movie makers avoided possible traps. 

First, they didn’t claim that they are the first who (re)discovered her contributions. The first scholarly article I found on the subject is from an 1984 issue of “IEEE Spectrum” magazine bearing the catchy title “Cryptology and the origins of spread spectrum: Engineers during World War II developed an unbreakable scrambler to guarantee secure communications between Allied leaders; actress Hedy Lamarr played a role in the technology”. There were several articles and even books mentioning Ms Lamarr’s invention before the movie, but this documentary is the first film that explores it in detail. 

The second trap the movie makers didn’t fall into was showing only one side of the story. They interviewed even those who claimed that Ms. Lamarr just borrowed the idea, got inspired by an engineer. I didn’t dive into the evidence and counter evidence, but respect that they showed a balanced story. And whether Ms. Lamarr was the originator of the idea or not, I respect her contributions. Some people say we wouldn’t have wifi as we know it, today without her invention. This my or may not be true, but as I am writing this piece via wifi I sure enjoy its benefits. Thank you, either way.

The film is an excellent summary of a life which in many ways is the product of its era. Had she born a man, or a non-Jew, or with less beauty, or in a different era, she would have been given different choices. However, she couldn’t be a scientist, had to leave Europe, became known for her appearance and not her intellect, and had a limited path to success. Learn more about this smart and outstanding woman by watching the film. And follow her advice quoted at the end: “If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish alternative motives. Do good anyway.”

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1 Response

  1. Teven Laxer says:

    The Sacramento Jewish Film Festival presented Bombshell in 2018. It was the featured film of that year’s festival, Film maker Alexandra Dean introduced the film and led a post-film discussion, moderated by one of our NPR hosts. Preceding the film, we had a catered reception and dancing with a local klezmer band. Our Bombshell program sold out the 935-seat Crest Theatre for the first time in our 21 years.

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