‘Any girl can look glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.’ Coming as it did from the Disney princess lips of Hedy Lamarr (literally – her symmetrical features served as inspiration for Snow White) this might seem a surprising statement. After all, this was the woman who made glamour her profession, the actress who was billed by MGM Studios as ‘The Most Beautiful Woman in the World’ and set the gold standard for Hollywood looks (Vivien Leigh’s striking resemblance to Hedy, so the story goes, played no small part in her Gone With The Wind casting coup).
But while Hedy was undoubtedly glamorous, she certainly wasn’t stupid either. This was also the woman who, through her ground-breaking but over-looked research into ‘frequency hopping,’ shaped the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technologies we use every day. As new documentary Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story suggests, everything about Hedy’s life was surprising. Everything, perhaps, except the part where her gender ensured she was repeatedly under-valued, side-lined, even ridiculed.
Born Hedwig Kiesler to a Jewish family in Vienna in 1914, Hedy’s first success – and notoriety – came courtesy of the 1933 German film Ecstasy, in which she became the first woman to appear completely naked on screen (her director allegedly jabbed her in the back with a needle to obtain the facial expressions required for her sex scene, an anecdote that grimly emphasizes just how long Hollywood has got off on the physical and psychological abuse of women). Shortly after, she embarked upon an unhappy marriage to Fritz Mandl, an Austrian arms dealer who supplied the Nazis with weapons and counted Mussolini as a dinner companion, eventually dressing as a maid to escape their home and flee to London. Here she met with MGM head Louis B. Mayer who, seeking another beautiful European cypher in the vein of Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich, gave her a shiny studio contract and a shiny new name, one that’d be more palatable to American movie-goers: Hedy Lamarr.
Any of these incidents would be perfect fodder for a documentary, even a TV mini-series (paging Ryan Murphy…) but what follows is far more interesting. Keen to play a part in the war effort that would be less ‘trivial’ than her role as a morale-boosting pin-up girl, she became preoccupied with one question: how to prevent the Allies' radio-controlled torpedoes, from being blocked by the Nazis, and thus rendered entirely useless? With her friend George Antheil, an avant-garde composer, she devised a solution - randomly switching, or ‘hopping’ between radio frequencies to prevent the enemy from interpreting the signal. It was a ground-breaking discovery, and one that has since formed the basis of Wi-Fi, GPS and Bluetooth technology, yet it was dismissed by the US government at the time. Instead of adopting Hedy’s technique, they told the actress (who, as an Austrian emigrée, was officially classified as an alien) to get back to what they thought she did best: using her beauty to sell war bonds in the Hollywood Canteen (to her credit, she raised over $25 million, $340 in today’s money).
Her scientific work is not the only way in which Hedy was a glittering anomaly. From her forays into movie production in a time when female stars had little to no control of their own image (these days, actresses such as Reese Witherspoon and Angelina Jolie head up hugely successful production companies) to her unlikely status as the founder of Aspen’s ski resort, it’s hardly a stretch to suggest she was Hollywood’s first multi-hyphenate. For Bombshell director Alexandra Dean, it was always going to be Hedy’s endless creativity and ‘inventive mind’ that formed the crux of her film, rather than the soapier aspects of her life. ‘I wanted to see her life through that lens,’ she says. ‘So rather than being interested in her as an actress, which was a passive profession where she acted out other people’s words, I wanted to see her as a producer, where she tried to take agency and shape herself. She was always trying to invent ways to live her life in a unique fashion.’
On hand to draw parallels with contemporary Hollywood was executive producer Susan Sarandon. ‘That was the wonderful thing about working with Susan,’ Dean explains. ‘She would walk in and say, “Oh, this is something that still happens, or “You should write down what age she was when she said that, you won’t believe how young she was.” She was attuned to the story on a whole different frequency to me, because she was coming at it as a multi-hyphenate actress herself. I think she immediately understood that this was a story that needed to be championed.’
To date, Hedy’s story has formed the subject of just a handful of books and articles. For Dean, the process of piecing it together through film was ‘the world’s greatest treasure hunt,’ a search that started with her son Anthony Loder, who ‘had kept a room full of boxes of her letters and documents, tapes, microcassettes of anything she’d left on his voicemails,’ but eventually hit a stumbling block. As Dean puts it, ‘There wasn’t any good audio or video of Hedy talking about her inventions. Who would want to watch it without her telling us what actually happened?’ After compiling a list of ‘everyone alive that could have possibly talked to Hedy Lamarr,’ she got through to Fleming Meeks, a journalist who’d interviewed the star for a piece in Forbes magazine back in 1990. Crucially, he had asked her about her inventions – and, in a recording that lasted four cassette tapes (one has sadly been lost), the 76 year old actress had answered. ‘We ripped up the film that we were making six months in, and started again with these wonderful tapes,’ says Dean.
For Dean, her film is a portrait of a woman ‘who wanted to be both puppet and puppeteer, but was sometimes thwarted from being powerful in her own life.’ One of the many paradoxes of Hedy’s career is that her beauty may have formed a basis for her stardom, but it stopped others – from studio heads to US military intelligence to the movie-going public - from believing that she could ever do anything else with that stardom, to her endless frustration. Then, in the double bind that’s an all-too familiar narrative for Hollywood women, she was criticised for ageing but lampooned for her extensive plastic surgery. Eventually, she withdrew from public life, becoming a recluse. ‘People actually got angry with her for losing her looks, can you imagine?’ Dean says. ‘We know of all these Hollywood stars who ended up trapped in their homes because people couldn’t handle losing them as these beautiful icons, and blamed them for changing. Hedy was definitely a victim of that.’ Despite this, she still had her shot at turning this narrative on its head. Her plastic surgery became another outlet for her inventing and experimenting (often on herself – to varying effect), pioneering new techniques to hide scars from nips and tucks. ‘She tried to fight her way out of that like with everything in her life,’ adds the director. ‘People say to me, “Wasn’t the surgery such an admission of defeat, such a tragedy?” but not to my mind. It was her attempt to fight back. She was a legend in the plastic surgery world.’
It’s certainly frustrating that it’s taken decades for Hedy Lamarr to receive her dues, and while her story can’t fail to resonate in the era of #MeToo and Time’s Up, it’d be too reductive to see her as a Hollywood martyr. Towards the end of Bombshell, we hear Hedy read out a mantra: ‘The biggest people with the biggest minds can be shot down by the smallest people with the smallest minds. Think big anyway.’ It’s this vindication of creativity for creativity’s sake that Dean hopes will stay with her viewers. ‘What I really want people to take from the film is Hedy’s message – that idea that even if you are never recognized for your greatest achievements, which is how she felt, you must do it anyway. At the end of your life, when you’re looking back, is it the applause that matters, or what you did to try and change the world?’
Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story is released in cinemas on 9th March
NOW READ: The Most Popular Film In The Year You Were Born
Disney's fairytale princess par excellence waltzed her way to the top of the international box office in 1950, glass slippers and all.
1951: The Greatest Show On Earth
Set in the infamous Barnum & Bailey's travelling circus and starring Charlton Heston and Betty Hutton, The Greatest Show on Earth also netted an Academy Award for Best Picture.
1952: Quo Vadis
A sweeping historical drama set in ancient Rome during the final years of Emperor Nero, Quo Vadis was such a runaway success that it was credited with turning round the fortunes of the ailing MGM Studios.
1953: Peter Pan
Disney's version of the boy who never grew up captivated moviegoers in 1953.
1954: Rear Window
Rear Window has all the classic Hitchcock hallmarks: obsession, voyeurism, claustrophobia and a glacial blonde leading lady in Grace Kelly.
1955: Lady and the Tramp
Disney's canine romance won over film fans in their droves. Was it the spaghetti scene? Probably.
1956: The Ten Commandments
Fifties moviegoers loved a biblical epic, it seems: this one told the story of Moses (around 40 years before The Prince of Egypt...)
1957: The Bridge on the River Kwai
Loosely based on the true tale of Allied prisoners tasked with building the bridge of the title in Myanmar, this WWII drama won seven Oscars.
1958: South Pacific
The screen version of Rogers and Hammerstein's hit musical tells the story of a nurse who falls in love with a French plantation owner while posted on an island in the (yep) South Pacific during WWII.
1959: Ben Hur
Still one of the biggest films of all time (15,000 extras were required for the famous chariot scene alone), Ben Hur is perhaps the most memorable epic of the 1950s.
1960: Swiss Family Robinson
A family is shipwrecked off the coast of Papua New Guinea in this second screen adaptation of a popular Swiss novel.
1961: 101 Dalmations
Pongo, Perdita and their many, many offspring, plus super-villainess Cruella DeVil, are still among Disney's most enduring cartoon creations today.
1962: How The West Was Won
This Western epic follows four generations of the same family as they travel 'out west,' starring a veritable who's who of Hollywood's old guard: Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck, John Wayne and Debbie Reynolds.
Notorious for its troubled production, Cleopatra kick-started one of the most famous Hollywood romances of all time between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton (both of whom were married to other people at the time of filming...)
1964: Mary Poppins
One of the best-loved films of all time, Mary Poppins didn't just top the world box office in 1964 - it was also the only Disney production to garner a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars during Walt's lifetime.
1965: The Sound of Music
How do you solve a problem like Maria? By topping the international box office and winning the Best Picture Academy Award, probably.
Perhaps the lesser known film in this Julie Andrews hat trick, Hawaii sees her star opposite Swedish actor Max von Sydow as a missionary's wife.
1967: The Jungle Book
Mowgli, Baloo, Bagheera and co danced onto our screens in 1967, in what is still the definitive film version of Kipling's tale.
1968: Funny Girl
Barbara Streisand reprised her stage role as comedian Fanny Brice in Funny Girl opposite Omar Sharif as her con artist husband Nicky Arnstein.
1969: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Paul Newman and Robert Redford star as the titular pair of Wild West outlaws in this 1969 Western-slash-buddy-comedy.
1970: Love Story
'Love means never having to say you're sorry...' Just the opening notes of Francis Lai's theme from Love Story are enough to reduce us to tears.
1971: Billy Jack
In amongst the big hitters and the classics, the box office list still has a few surprises: one of them is this 1971 movie, starring, directed and co-written by Tom Laughlin.
1972: The Godfather
The first installment of Francis Ford Coppola's three-part gangster saga (based on Mario Puzo's best-selling novel) earned $134 million at the box office.
1973: The Exorcist
Still as terrifying today as it was upon its 1973 debut, The Exorcist has been much-imitated but remains one of the all time classics of horror movie-making.
1974: Blazing Saddles
A satirical comedy by Mel Brooks, Blazing Saddles parodies all the classic elements of the Western genre, turning them on their head to anarchic effect.
Dun dun. Dunn dunnnnn. Jaws was the perhaps the first 'blockbuster': a nerve-shredding summer release with mass appeal that defined its own genre.
Sylvester Stallone was pretty much a Hollywood unknown before striking lucky with his script for Rocky, the underdog story of a small time boxer making a big comeback.
1977: Star Wars
You had us at 'A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…' George Lucas' 1977 Star Wars (later given the suffix of Episode IV: A New Hope) laid the foundations for one of the most popular (and lucrative) franchises of all time.
It's the film that's inspired many ill-advised karaoke choices and filled many wedding dance floors: Grease was definitely the word in 1978, when the world fell in love with Olivia Newton John's Sandy and John Travolta's Danny.
1979: Kramer vs. Kramer
Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep play a divorcing couple locked in a custody battle in Kramer vs. Kramer, for which Meryl won her first Oscar (for Best Supporting Actress).
1980: Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
Responsible for one of the most iconic (and misquoted) lines in film history (that's 'No, I am your father' in case you hadn't guessed), Empire Strikes Back is darker and more sophisticated than the first Star Wars installment.
1981: Raiders of the Lost Ark
Everyone's favourite Nazi-fighting archaeologist burst onto the big screen in 1981. In this first installment, Indy is tasked with hunting down the Ark of the Covenant before German agents get there first...
One of the most enduring images in movie history? A bike silhouetted against the moon as it soars through space, ET safely ensconced in the basket.
1983: Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
Yes, there's a lot more to Return of the Jedi (or should that be sixth?) than that gold bikini. The third (or should that be sixth?) Star Wars installment provides the climactic finale to the Skywalker saga.
Who you gonna call? Bill Murray, Harold Ramis and Dan Ackroyd - New York's least likely team of supernatural exterminators - apparently...
1985: Back to the Future
Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) takes an accidental trip back to 1955 courtesy of a time-travelling DeLorean: cue attempts to retcon his parents' marriage (and a faintly creepy sub-plot involving his mom...)
1986: Top Gun
Tom Cruise cemented his star status with his role as US pilot Pete 'Maverick' Mitchell - and sparked a trend for aviator sunglasses in the process...
1987: Three Men and a Baby
The title says it all: three blokes (as played by Tom Selleck, Steve Guttenberg and Ted Danson) have their lives turned upside down when a baby arrives on their doorstep.
1988: Rain Man
Dustin Hoffman won the Best Actor Academy Award for his portrayal of a man with Asperger's Syndrome; while pop culture representations have become more nuanced since 1988, Rain Man was hailed as ground-breaking at the time.
Michael Keaton goes head to head with Jack Nicholson's Joker in his first outing as Gotham's caped crusader, directed by Tim Burton.
1990: Home Alone
How did we inaugurate the festive season before Home Alone came along? Merry Christmas, ya filthy animals...
1991: Beauty and the Beast
With enchanting animation and songs courtesy of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, Beauty and the Beast became the first animated feature to earn a Best Picture nomination at the Academy Awards.
Disney topped the international box office for the second year running with Aladdin, featuring a scene-stealing turn by Robin Williams as the all-singing, all-dancing Genie.
1993: Jurassic Park
Lessons learned from Jurassic Park: if you're ever invited by a billionaire CEO to a remote location populated by cloned dinosaurs, politely turn it down.
1994: The Lion King
With its Shakespeare-stealing plot (a devious Uncle, the death of a beloved father - this is Hamlet with lions), Elton John songs and lovable cast of characters, The Lion King is encapsulates the best of Disney's '90s renaissance.
1995: Toy Story
Pixar's debut full-length film and the first ever computer animated feature, Toy Story was a game-changer on its release in 1995. Since then, it's inspired two critically acclaimed sequels, with another in the pipeline.
1996: Independence Day
Just Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum teaming up to save the world from an extra-terrestrial invasion on the Fourth of July, no big deal.
Near, far, wherever you are, we believe that you've probably sat through all three hours of Titanic approximately 4,965 times - and sobbed your way through each and every one of those viewings.
1998: Saving Private Ryan
Spielberg's war epic dramatised the D-Day landings in Normandy. Praised for its harrowing but realistic depiction of WWII, it lost out on the Best Picture to Shakespeare In Love, in what's considered one of the biggest Oscar snubs of recent years.
1999: Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
Yes, it's arguably the weakest (read: most wooden and borderline incomprehensible) of the Star Wars canon, but that didn't diminish The Phantom Menace's box office power upon its release in 1999.
2000: How The Grinch Stole Christmas
Starring a green and furry Jim Carrey as the Christmas-hating Grinch and a pre-'Little J' Taylor Momsen as Cindy Lou Who, this adaptation of Dr Seuss's rhyming tale stole the box office top spot in the first year of the new millennium.