In Mel Brooks’ famous classic Blazing Saddles, you may remember the line, “It’s Hedley. Hedley Lamarr.”
The joke is a spoof, of course, on Hedy Lamarr.
Filmmaker Alexandra Dean wants to make the actress more than the punchline she was reduced to in her later years through her documentary, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, which opens at the Ritz at the Bourse March 9.
Interwoven with interviews with Brooks himself as well as historians, authors and Lamarr’s children, Dean paints an all-encompassing portrait of the woman who was most known for her beauty — which allowed others to overlook her scientific ambitions and interest in inventing.
“At the very least, it was an option that was derailed by her beauty,” said author Jeanine Basinger of Lamarr’s scientific zeal.
Born Hedwig Kiesler, Lamarr grew up in Vienna in an assimilated Jewish family before becoming an actress in Hollywood. She created an uproar with her infamous nude and highly sexual scenes in Ekstase in 1933 before becoming a full-fledged star with Algiers. Other actresses began parting their hair in the middle to emulate her look and copying her makeup style.
But her looks distracted others from recognizing her for her inventions, the most famous of which — frequency hopping — influenced modern-day innovations like Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.
She was looking for a way to help during World War II, aside from selling millions in bonds and entertaining the troops — both of which she did — in a way that would be useful. When she realized there could be a way for torpedoes and boats to communicate through frequencies so the torpedoes would hit their targets, she, along with composer George Antheil, created it.
The Navy initially dismissed her patent. Eventually, an iteration of the technology was used after the war and after the patent expired. Others dismissed the idea that she even invented it, believing she stole the idea from her first husband’s boardroom as he worked in creating weapons for Nazis. She didn’t receive credit until the 1990s when she was finally given an award in recognition.
“She explodes our ideas about who created our world and how,” said Dean, who grew up in London and studied documentary filmmaking at Columbia University, “and she also gives us an insight into how so much of history might be different than what we learned in school because of the people that are forgotten and erased along the way.”
The star met a tragic end riddled with drugs, multiple failed marriages and bad plastic surgeries. She became a recluse and withdrawn from the world. She was arrested for shoplifting and put too much trust in a ghostwriter who wrote a dishonest biography of her.
Dean is hoping to reignite interest in her story.
A key part became letting Lamarr tell her story in her own words with the help of unearthed tapes of an interview between Lamarr and Fleming Meeks, a Forbes writer, when Lamarr was 76.
“What I loved about this story is we were all discovering Hedy together, including her children and her friends,” Dean said. “She was like a Rubik’s Cube we had to solve together. … When we found these tapes — when Fleming Meeks and his tapes appeared like a gift from God — we suddenly felt like it was all coming into focus, and then we all rallied around that and tried to let her tell her own story in her own words for the first time.”
In the age of #MeToo and a national — and international — conversation addressing sexism across all industries, including Hollywood, the timing feels particularly apt to reexamine the life of this extraordinary woman who never could get over the fence of sexism around her.
Following the success of the movie Samson and Delilah, Lamarr decided she wanted to produce her own film. Ultimately, however, she couldn’t find distribution. In contrast, trailblazing actresses like Reese Witherspoon today not only star in films but produce or direct them as well. Lamarr did not get that chance.
“Hedy’s story is like almost a barometer for where we are as a country, the reaction to Hedy,” Dean said, “because she is this ultimate complicated, fascinating, fabulous creature, woman, who was never really understood, and the more that people embrace understanding her and her complexity and celebrating her for everything she was, the more it feels like we’re starting to move the needle.
“We don’t live in a perfect time now. We haven’t solved all the problems Hedy was facing in her lifetime, that’s clear,” she added. “We’re in this moment of Time’s Up and #MeToo for a reason. And Hedy’s story shows us that we’ve still got a long way to go.”
She hopes that the film leads to wider conversations about the mark this woman — and others who may have been erased from the “pantheon of greats” in this nation — left on the world, and the forces working against her that perhaps are still in motion today.
It’s something she herself learned, since before she started the film — which began after she read Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World — she really only knew Lamarr from the joke in Blazing Saddles.
“Every time I post something on Facebook or Twitter, somebody comments either, ‘She’s so beautiful,’ or they comment something about Hedley from Blazing Saddles. So what I hope is that people stop doing that,” Dean said.
“It’s time we put it away. It’s time we look at her whole life, everything she accomplished and that her failures stemmed from the large forces she was working against, the real sexism she battled,” she said. “And we stop being part of that sexism by putting Hedley away and starting to look at her and every time we look at her responding with, ‘Oh my God, this woman affected the Wi-Fi I’m using right now.’”
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