Born Hedwig Kiesler in Vienna, the late screen siren known as Hedy Lamarr was famous for two things: her glamorous good looks and a scandalous performance, while still a teenager, in “Ekstase” (“Ecstasy”), a 1933 black-and-white romance that is often cited as the first non-pornographic film to depict a woman in the throes of sexual climax.
But she should also be remembered for something else, according to the documentary “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story.” In the 1940s, after immigrating to the United States and Hollywood — where she appeared in such sexually charged films as “White Cargo” and “Samson and Delilah” — Lamarr helped to invent a secure, radio-controlled torpedo guidance system, known as “frequency hopping,” that would form the basis of WiFi, Bluetooth and cellphone technologies.
It’s a fascinating story, if one that has been told before. Audio recordings of Lamarr, made by Forbes magazine writer Fleming Meeks for a 1990 article, form the spine of the film. The otherwise standard talking-head interviews with biographers, film historians and family members are supplemented with on-camera appearances by German-born actress Diane Kruger, who hopes to produce and star in a biopic about Lamarr.
That movie, if it ever gets made, should be a corker.
To be sure, any documentary would be remiss if it didn’t address the subject of Lamarr’s sex appeal, along with her six marriages and multiple boyfriends (including eccentric millionaire Howard Hughes.) But it’s most refreshing when it avoids the cliche of the sexpot by presenting evidence of her other, less easily caricatured qualities — offered, for the most part, in Lamarr’s own, Viennese-accented voice. These gifts include, in addition to the actress’s obvious intellect, a quality of self-deprecating goofiness. In Meeks’s interview tapes, she comes across as funny and down to earth, in sharp contrast to the way she’s seen in other archival interviews, as when a leering Woody Allen shares the stage with her during a 1969 appearance on “The Merv Griffin Show.”
Other topics covered by filmmaker Alexandra Dean in this frank and wide-ranging portrait include Lamarr’s addiction to methamphetamines, her multiple plastic surgeries and an infamous 1966 arrest for shoplifting $86 worth of merchandise from a department store — even as she was carrying $14,000 worth of checks made out to her in her purse.
Lamarr had been blessed — or, perhaps more appropriately, cursed — with leading an interesting life, and Dean’s film seems both too conventional and too shallow for its subject, who seems as hard to pigeonhole, at times, as to understand. Although Lamarr’s frequency-hopping patent expired before she was ever credited — let alone paid — for it, that chapter of “Bombshell” is just one small part of a story that’s richly textured, in more ways than one. As an epilogue informs us, Lamarr’s brainchild would be worth, today, an estimated $30 billion.
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinemas. Contains some strong language and brief nudity/sexuality. 89 minutes.