The actress Hedy Lamarr appeared in close to three-dozen films during Hollywood’s Golden Age, but her life had more drama than any of them.
As detailed in Alexandra Dean’s timely documentary, “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story,” the actress who played Delilah to Victor Mature’s Samson and the woman Charles Boyer romanced in the Casbah in “Algiers” had a secret identity.
Like someone who was a business tycoon by day and a crime fighter by night, Lamarr may have made a living as one of the world’s most beautiful actresses, but her passion was invention.
Not only did she love coming up with ideas (“Inventions are easy for me to do,” we hear her say; “I have an inventive mind”) but she was exceptionally good at it.
In fact, as “Bombshell” explores, Lamarr, in collaboration with avant-garde composer George Antheil, of all people, came up with a way to ensure secure radio signals, a frequency-hopping technology that has been called the basis for such up-to-date innovations as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS.
Though one of the most recognized faces in the world, Lamarr, executive producer Susan Sarandon has said, “was never seen for who she was.”
Yet what makes “Bombshell” intriguing is not just Lamarr’s gift for invention, it’s also what a fiery individualist she was, someone who had no regrets about her eventful life (“You learn from everything”), not even its racy, tabloid elements.
“There were so many sides, so many faces,” says son Anthony Loder. “Even I didn’t know who Hedy Lamarr was.”
One thing Lamarr was not was mesmerized by her own beauty.
Lamarr herself, in a celebrated quote, put it this way:
“Any girl can look glamorous. All she has to do is stand still and look stupid.”
Given that “Bombshell” inevitably uses a good deal of stock footage, director Dean was fortunate to have tracked down cassette tapes of a telephone interview Lamarr, a recluse in her last days, had given to Forbes magazine journalist Fleming Meeks in 1990 when she was 76.
Born Hedwig Kiesler to a wealthy, assimilated Jewish family in Vienna — her father was a banker who encouraged her interest in invention — Lamarr decided at age 16 that she wanted to be in the movies, but one of her first films did not turn out as she expected.
With its nudity and simulated sex, (Lamarr says she was tricked into the scenes) 1933’s “Ecstasy” became so enormous a scandal that even the pope was moved to denounce it.
Lamarr married at age 19 to a munitions tycoon so jealous he tried buy up and destroy every print of the film. Frustrated by his surveillance, she managed to sneak out of house and marriage and flee to London in 1937.
Still determined on a film career, she booked passage on the Normandie, the ocean liner MGM head Louis B. Mayer was taking from Europe to the U.S., and by the time the vessel docked she had a studio contract and her new name.
“Algiers” made her a star, but the parts she was offered were not always the best. And, as the studio did with Judy Garland, MGM pushed her extremely hard, including a regimen of pills to go to sleep and pills to wake up and work.
“Bombshell” mentions several of Lamarr’s more celebrated roles, including playing the exotic Tondelayo in “White Cargo” (a performance later mercilessly mocked by Lucille Ball) and goes into detail about her numerous unhappy marriages.
In her later years, the drugs the studio provided became habitual and seemed to affect Lamarr’s life. She was arrested for shoplifting and even sent her stand-in to appear for her in a divorce proceeding, which did not amuse the judge.
“She was a woman of extremes,” her son says, and even though that made his life more difficult, you can also detect a note of admiration in his voice.
‘Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story’
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Playing: Landmark’s Nuart, West Los Angeles