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 riveting portrait of an extraordinarily complicated and conflicted person, Alexandra Dean’s “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story” recounts the actress and inventor’s litany of innovations and achievements alongside her frustrations and failures. The documentary, which will screen at the Tucson International Jewish Film Festival on January 16 and the Greater Phoenix Jewish Film Festival on February 18 and 21, is most fascinating when it shifts from its subject’s ambivalence toward Hollywood glamour to Lamarr’s wartime invention of a secure communication system.
The beloved daughter of a Jewish banker, Hedy 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, and the gathering storm in Europe, she purchased passage on an ocean liner. 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 relates. “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, a journalist who produced newsmagazine segments for Bill Moyers and PBS and documentaries for Bloomberg as well as written profiles for Businessweek magazine, saw in Lamarr a similar refusal to be defined by her background or circumstances that her grandfather had.
“She also had the same kind of complicated relationship with being a woman,” Dean asserts. “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. Of course, it creates a schism in your psyche. It means your roots are cut off from you, and in some ways, you are floating in the world rootless. 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.”
Dean asserts that Lamarr’s Jewishness was directly related to her development of a system for ships to communicate that the Nazis couldn’t break. The actress wasn’t allowed to be open about her identity because Mayer believed that audiences wouldn’t fantasize about her—a base but key aspect of movie going—if they knew. At the same time, the Nazis were blowing up ships in the Atlantic with European Jewish children. Oh, and Lamarr’s mother still needed to get to America.
Lamarr’s mother converted to Catholicism in 1938 in Vienna, and Dean had assumed that her motivation was to make it easier to escape the Nazis. Then she discovered a letter that Hedy had written to her saying, “Please do this for me, because I don’t want to be identified as a Jew in Hollywood.”
The psychological effect of this subterfuge mingled with sorrow for the destruction of European Jewry is difficult to calculate, but it subsequently manifested itself in Lamarr’s insistence to her children that she wasn’t Jewish. In fact, Dean was compelled to confront them with original documents such as Hedy’s father’s death certificate, evidence of his burial in a Jewish cemetery and, of course, Hedy’s mother’s conversion papers.
Dean’s greatest challenge was conveying Lamarr’s many contradictions: strength and shallowness, altruism and cruelty, desire and despair. “Bombshell” 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 says. “It appalled me and made me extremely sad that people wouldn’t give her any leeway to express herself. So I struggled to give her enough of a leash, in the way that she described herself and interacted with other people, that people would understand her and allow her to be a complicated person but still like her.”