The name Hedy Lamarr might not ring a bell unless you’re familiar with mid-20th century Hollywood. During that era, Lamarr starred in movies like 1941's Ziegfeld Girl, with Judy Garland and Lana Turner, and 1949's Samson and Delilah, a sword-and-sandals epic directed by Cecil B. DeMille. In 1940s Hollywood Lamarr was billed as "the most beautiful woman in the world."
Lamarr's glamorous persona outlived her film career: She showed up in an offhand joke in the 1974 movie Blazing Saddles (one character is named "Hedley Lamarr") and glamorous photographs of her still circulate on Pinterest, 17 years after her death in 2000. But now, a new documentary, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, is showing another side to Lamarr. The film reveals her life as an inventor, starting with her most impressive accomplishment: her role in helping to create frequency-hopping spread spectrum (FHSS) technology, versions of which are now in our cell phones and other wireless devices.
Co-created with composer George Antheil, FHSS is a technology that switches radio signals quickly between different frequencies so that the signals are difficult to trace. Though Lamarr and Antheil created FHSS to keep Allied radio-guided torpedoes out of the sights of the Germans during World War II, their patent was dismissed by the United States Navy and left to lapse. FHSS was rediscovered by engineers at the Sylvania Electronic Systems Division in the 1950s and became the precursor to modern technologies we use every day in Wi-Fi, GPS, and Bluetooth technologies.
Lamarr's impressive side hustle has been covered in The Atlantic, BUST, and Karina Longworth's podcast You Must Remember This, among other outlets, but Bombshell is the first to include a recording of Lamarr claiming that she helped to invent the technology. To get this material, director Alexandra Dean tracked down Barron's reporter Fleming Meeks, who interviewed Lamarr in 1990, 10 years before her death. Meeks found the tape in which Lamarr discusses the invention in his office, hidden behind a trash can.
The film also includes interviews with the late film historian and Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne, a friend of Lamarr's, as well as archival footage and interviews with Lamarr's now-grown children and grandchildren. (Plus, some footage of Mel Brooks, whom Lamarr once sued.) In an interview with Pacific Standard, Dean talked about how she unraveled Lamarr's story, the #MeToo movement, and why Lamarr's story is not a tragedy.
What did the film look like before you had the smoking-gun tape of Lamarr saying, "Yes, I invented this, I didn't smuggle it out of Vienna [or anything crazy]"?
It was much more based around some letters she'd written in German at that time, but she didn't talk about the invention. I was really circling the invention. I was basing it on some articles that were written in 1942 where she tries to tell the press she's done this, but they kind of butcher it because they don't understand what she's talking about, and [it's like] she has these hobbies including knitting and miniature china figurines and inventing. It was something that was a lot more fragmented and unclear, so that's why I really knew I needed those tapes.
Do you think these sorts of stories about women innovators and inventors are coming to light now simply because there are more female filmmakers?
I do think that's part of it. I also think it's [partly] because we're talking about everything to do with the #MeToo moment a little bit more closely, the whole structure of things and how people get erased. We're more interested in that now. It's like the whole world has shifted, and suddenly the bones of a structure have been revealed, and that structure is built to actually leave out certain people from that canon and from history. Hidden Figures was the first to really point that out, and now I think that ball is rolling and a lot more figures will emerge.
Do you think that Hedy was a victim of the studio system?
The thing that breaks her life is this addiction to drugs, and she's on the drugs because they were handed out like candy on set. People were supposed to take their peppy pills or whatever so that they'd be ready to work at four in the morning. That was just expected. That was just the system. She, psychologically I think, was totally broken by that addiction that came out of her work there.
I think also she was tremendously upset at the way she was treated in Hollywood by the men in power. I know that because I have her letters, calling them horrible pigs and disgusting men. For sure, she felt she was treated very badly. I don't know whether that means sexual assault. She doesn't translate that for you in her letters. She just confers that something's going on where they're abusing her terribly because she doesn't have any power yet. She doesn't have the contract she needs. She says: "When I get the contract, I'll be treated with respect, but right now they just treat me like dirt. I have to pay my dues." I mean, it's really heavy language. Of course, coming from this moment, you're tempted to project all sorts of things over it, but we can't draw any conclusions.
Do you think this is ultimately a tragic story, that she died just at the cusp of getting recognized?
It's not a tragedy to me, because she did get that little bit of recognition. I think she knew what was coming. She really always talked as though she knows her invention will change the world. She's just baffled why she didn't get recognition. And then there is that moment where [her son] Anthony starts telling her, "You're on the cover of all these magazines, they want to honor you," and she says, "It's about time." She does acknowledge that she knows it's coming.
Then she says that incredible poem ["The Paradoxical Commandments" by Kent M. Keith]. To me, that poem at the end, where she says, "Even if you feel like the world kicked you in the teeth, do it anyway," is completely uplifting to me. That was her message. At the end, that means she felt that even with everything that went wrong, it was all worth it. It was all worth it because she left a legacy. She changed the world. She made her mark.
She's a terrific example of how the public and the media adores and then discards women, especially as they age.
That's the morality tale of it. That's how the system works. I think that's the thing we're all railing against now, that sense that there's no way to age powerfully in a system like this. It's not just the abuses, the sexual abuses of having these predators in power. It's also what that does to the whole system, because how do you age into a powerful figure in a world where these men are dominant? It's very difficult. For Hedy, it was impossible.
It's so interesting to look back at these iconic actresses and reframe these women that we thought were campy or silly and give them their due.
I love it too. I think there's so many to be rediscovered. I just recently found out doing my research on Dr. Feelgood [Max Jacobson] that Marilyn Monroe had been injected by him with meth right before she sang "Happy Birthday" to John F. Kennedy. To me, that reframes that whole thing. That's the power of investigative journalism. That's what I love about it. You find out that one fact, and suddenly it casts this completely new light on some iconic historic moment, and you can't ever look at it the same way again. You have to re-evaluate all the players.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.