Few would dispute that Hedy Lamarr belongs in the pantheon of screen goddesses from Hollywood’s golden age.
But recognition has proven far more elusive for her work beyond the realm of movie stardom—“in the pantheon of great inventors,” as filmmaker Alexandra Dean puts it.
Dean’s new documentary Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story attempts to correct the record.
“She had true flashes of genius. There were men who helped bring that genius to reality and Howard Hughes was one of them…But they did not come up with the ideas. This woman did,” Dean tells Deadline. “And it’s taken the world this long to be ready to accept that.”
The documentary, which has qualified for Oscar consideration, is playing in New York and opens in Los Angeles on Friday. It traces Lamarr’s progress from Vienna where she was born Hedwig Kiesler in 1914 to a family of assimilated Jews. While still in her teens she starred in the European film Ecstasy, where she frolicked in the nude—a screen credit she would attempt to live down once she hit the far more conservative environment of Hollywood.
Louis B. Mayer signed her to a contract with MGM and in the 1930s and ‘40s she achieved mega-fame, starring in films alongside Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and Jimmy Stewart. Many regarded her as the most beautiful woman in the world.
“Think Angelina Jolie at her height, her face on every magazine…It was the same with Hedy Lamarr,” Dean states.
At night and even during the day on set Lamarr pursued her other avocation—a passion for inventing. Hughes gave her an inventor’s table and materials where she could work on projects in the midst of shooting.
“The only item I know was in it is a lathe,” Dean notes. “There is one photo in American magazine that exists of Hedy in a checkered shirt at her lathe in between takes.”
As World War II raged and the Allies found their submarine warfare capabilities less than optimal, she came up with an idea to dramatically improve the accuracy of torpedo guidance systems. She further developed the concept—known as frequency hopping—with assistance from her friend, the composer/inventor George Antheil, and they obtained a patent for it in 1942.
Lamarr gave the technology to the U.S. Navy, with the tacit understanding she would be compensated if it were incorporated into weapons systems. She was never paid, although the Navy did begin using the technology at some point after WWII.
The frequency hopping idea became critical in the design of secure communication systems including Wi-Fi, GPS, and Bluetooth, according to Nino Amarena, a wireless communications expert who played a consulting role on the documentary. He says companies, including one he worked for in the 1990s, still referred to Lamarr’s work long after her patent had expired.
“Frequency hopping spread spectrum—that’s what it’s called, the modulation for Wi-Fi. That frequency hopping came from Hedy Lamarr,” he explains. “So we were actually lifting, so to speak, the entire idea, conceptually and in the implementation, from Hedy Lamarr’s invention.”
Despite evidence in her journals and other sources that back up the validity of Lamarr’s scientific contributions, for most of her life she faced doubters who evidently struggled to believe such a beautiful woman could also possess a beautiful mind.
Dean herself admits to being one of those who harbored doubts.
“I was deeply skeptical that this woman who was so famous for being beautiful…invented this complicated thing at night…I myself have had this bias against this woman,” she acknowledges. “It was really this deep investigation I did for two years into her life that convinced me slowly that, Oh my god, she really did do it.”
For Amarena, there is a lesson to be learned from Hedy Lamarr’s life.
“To those people who say, ‘No, it couldn’t be possible that she did it,’ I’ll say, ‘Well, maybe you need to revise your opinion. Don’t judge a book by its cover,’ he says. “Because this is a typical example of that.”