Saturday, March 17, 2018

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story

It's mildly disappointing that things didn't line up so that one could have done a double feature of Bombshell and Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool at the Kendall; the Boston runs of the two are separated by a month and that might have been a bit more "femme fatales not getting their due" than most people want to see in an evening. On the other hand, it might be a tough one to resist when putting together the next Brattle calendar.

It's already down to just a couple shows a day at the Kendall, but it will be a Science on Screen selection at the Coolidge on 27 March, so there's still an opportunity or two to catch it coming up.

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 16 March 2018 in Landmark Kendall Square #7 (first-run, DCP)

One would think that there would have been a great movie about Hedy Lamarr's story by now, but it hasn't happened yet, and this documentary isn't quite it. There are almost too many ways to approach it, perhaps, and the greatest chapters are either apocryphal or end in disappointment; the beautiful genius movie star never gets the Hollywood ending. This film does its best to extract useful lessons from that, even if in doing so it has a hard time deciding what to keep and what to leave out.

For those not familiar with Hedwig Eva Kiesler, given the screen name of "Hedy Lamarr" when she was signed to an MGM contract after fleeing Austria during World War II, she lived a heck of a life: Born in cosmopolitan Vienna in 1914, she went into acting as a teenager, becoming equally parts famous and infamous for Extase, a sexually provocative film made when she was 17, before marrying a munitions manufacturer who sold to the Nazis. Legend is she fled by disguising herself as the maid, making her way to London and then America, where she was celebrated as one of the most beautiful and glamorous movie stars in the world with a gossip-page-worthy personal life. Her greatest accomplishment, though, was arguably one few knew much about until later in her life and after her death: Responding to a call for new ideas, she and avant-garde composer George Antheil collaborated on "frequency hopping", a method for switching the frequencies used to control a torpedo remotely that would avoid jamming. The Navy said it would not be possible to implement - and why don't you put your pretty face to better use selling war bonds - but it would later serve as the foundation for most forms of secure wireless communication.

There's a long time between WWII and Wi-Fi, and it's during this period that filmmaker Alexandra Dean occasionally stumbles. That it's in many ways not a satisfying story is at least partially the point - a world that had little use for her mind and independence turned on her as she aged - but the clear admiration that Dean and her collaborators have for her sometimes seems to keep them from really digging into the parts that don't cast her in a good light. There's an adopted son who chose to live with another family and grandchildren who talk of her being distant, and it doesn't quite mesh with the talk of her as a devoted single parent to her biological children. It's all over the place, and not just because the latter half of Lamarr's life was messy.

Full review on EFC

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