Saturday 29 September 2018

On demand: "Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story"

Bombshell outlines both an especially stellar example of Hollywood underestimating one of its talents, and a woman's story nobody had previously cared to tell in any detail. In Tinseltown circles, Hedy Lamarr was regarded as a looker, not a thinker: the unabashed European import who had gambolled naked through 1933's Extase, so-called "armpiece" of a Nazi arms manufacturer back in her native Hungary, seized upon as tempting new eye candy (and one of the visual inspirations for Disney's Snow White) after she crossed the Atlantic at the behest of Louis B. Mayer in the late Thirties. There was, however, more going on than met the eye and camera lens. By day, Lamarr shone and sparkled, often in MGM vehicles unworthy of her; by night, she tinkered, designed, invented, swapping the sound stage for the drawing board. She drew up planes with Howard Hughes, took a crack at creating dispersible cola cubes for overseas combatants, and - as WW2 geared up - hit upon a breakthrough in frequency disguise that turned several key battles in the Allies' favour, and led, by hook or by crook, to today's WiFi technology. That's right, the performer who made Bob Hope's eyes pop out on stalks in 1951's My Favorite Spy was more than partially responsible for you reading this review online today. It can't help but make you wonder: is Blake Lively somehow key to getting those easy-travel jetpacks we were all promised? Does Gemma Arterton have a time machine in her shed?

The triumph of Alexandra Dean's documentary lies in how it pulls together the various strands of Lamarr's story - rounding up those descendants and journalists who knew only one or two sides of this multifaceted figure - and, in so doing, comes to write the extraordinary biography that its subject, an adventuress who withdrew from the world in later life, was never able to complete for herself. It's a pageturner of a movie: pacy, not short on gossip (according to Lamarr, Hughes was the worst lover she ever had), and self-evidently relishing the challenge of telling a big, broad, hitherto generally undertold story - the kind of legend Old Hollywood generated with staggering regularity - within a TV-friendly 90 minutes. Dean has full access to the Lamarr archive - the letters, tapes and impossibly glamorous headshots - but crucially foregrounds the blueprints and notebooks at the expense of the film clips: one look at Lamarr browned up with boot polish as the sashaying island girl "Tondelayo" in 1942's White Cargo is all we need to see how the movies repeatedly insulted this performer's considerable intelligence. Though there are elements specific to this particular moment in world history - the same bosses who screwed her out of the frequency-hopping patent sent her out to sell kisses for War Bonds - Bombshell turns out to be telling what now presents as a familiar story: that of a creative - a creator - who found herself at the mercy of a male-owned and operated system.

It is, in many ways, a very modern arc: after being introduced to her as cheesecake, the movies failed to take Lamarr seriously, then kicked her to the kerb once the looks that made her such a hot property in the first place began to fade. Not for Hedy the camp revivals of Bette, Joan or Zsa Zsa; instead, she beat a Garbo-like retreat after botched cosmetic surgery, intended to regain a measure of that teenage skinnydipper's allure. (Dean notes that Lamarr was even something of an innovator in this field, instructing the surgeons where to nip and tuck, but painful-to-watch footage of the actress in middle age suggests the results were less than entirely successful.) The injustice the film frames - and corrects - elevates it over those rather more superficial celebrity profiles that now land in our cinemas every other week; by contrast, Dean appears genuinely fascinated by the insides of things, whether training her camera on music boxes and player pianos, or considering her singular subject's headspace as she suffered through a series of disappointing relationships with men who fell for the image and offered no match for her smarts. Dean is the first director in cinema history to think about Hedy Lamarr in ways that go beyond skin deep, which is why her film, as much textbook as it is memoir, forms both an education and a polite request: to look closer, listen to women, and ask red carpet interviewees not what they're wearing, but what they're working on. Blake and Gemma: the moment is yours.

Bombshell is available to stream via the BBC iPlayer for the next month.

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