The actor, who depicted film’s first female orgasm, was well known for her scandalous love life and sultry beauty. Now, a new documentary explores how her scientific talents were vastly overlooked
Hedy Lamarr, the star MGM called “the most beautiful woman in the world”, had two of the worst-kept secrets in Hollywood. One of them, she could never escape until long after her career was over. The other, the press took little interest in at the time – but since her death in 2000, this is the story that has come to define her. A new documentary about Lamarr’s life, released this weekend, encapsulates both stories – one about sex and the other about science – in the innuendo of its title: Bombshell. Lamarr’s story is one of a brilliant woman who was consistently underestimated. It also gives us the clearest possible illustration of why on-screen representation matters – of all the parts that Lamarr was given to play, none of them was as fantastic, or inspirational, as her real life.
The actor, who was born Hedwig Kiesler in Vienna in 1914, was given her new surname by Louis B Mayer when she signed for MGM in 1937. He named her after the studio’s silent-era vamp Barbara La Marr – intending that her dark, heavy-lidded beauty should remind people of MGM’s sizzling back catalogue, not her own. Back in Europe she had made a film that was too hot for MGM’s family-values ethos. Gustav Machaty’s Ecstasy (1933) starred a teenage Hedy as a frustrated bride who finds fulfilment in an affair with a young man: she appears completely nude and performs what is probably the first on-screen female orgasm. Lamarr herself said that her movements in the love scene were prompted by the director shouting instructions and sticking her with a safety pin, but the effect, in this atmospheric, heavily symbolic and near-silent drama, is remarkably intense. The film was banned in the US, but screened illicitly there for years, and no matter how many hits she had at MGM, and despite the studio’s efforts, Lamarr was frequently referred to as the “Ecstasy girl”.
Although she achieved international fame as a Hollywood movie star, Lamarr was not satisfied by acting. In her trailer between takes, and staying up all night at home, she practised her favourite hobby: inventing. In an audio recording used in Bombshell, she discusses her love of science, her failed experiments (effervescent cola tablets) and her successes, including streamlining her lover Howard Hughes’s racing aeroplane. “I don’t have to work on ideas,” she says. “They come naturally.”
Lamarr’s greatest scientific triumph was intended for the US navy during the second world war, but is now used in modern wireless communication. Her “secret communication system” used “frequency hopping” to guide radio-controlled missiles underwater in a way that was undetectable by the enemy. It was Lamarr’s brainwave (though some say she may have first seen a sketch of a similar idea in the office of her first husband, the Austrian munitions manufacturer Fritz Mandl) and she developed it together with a friend, the composer George Antheil. The patent was granted in 1942.
The military took her idea and, as the documentary reveals, eventually used it, but Lamarr was advised that she would make a greater contribution to the war effort as a pinup rather than as an inventor: entertaining troops, pushing war bonds and, as the documentary notes, selling kisses. Lamarr’s invention didn’t become widely known until near the end of her life, in the late 1990s. It gained more traction when her obituaries were published in 2000. Since then the news has spread and she has become an icon of women in science – in comic books, plays and even that modern monument, a Google Doodle.
All the time that Lamarr was making big films in Hollywood (and missing out on even more, including Casablanca and Gaslight) the press kept writing about her love life (six marriages and six divorces), and her sultry, kittenish looks. Anything but her invention – despite the fact that it had actually been made public in 1941. The National Inventors Council leaked the story to the press, leading the LA Times to call Lamarr a “screen siren and inventor … [whose] invention, held secret by the government, is considered of great potential value in the national defense program”. The story disappeared and by 1944, when Motion Picture Magazine referred to Lamarr’s intelligence, it was talking about her “discovering a new headdress”. As Lamarr aged, she became a joke – even the ghostwriter of her memoirs turned them into something so “fictional, false, vulgar, scandalous, libelous and obscene” that she sued the publishers.
Lamarr’s biggest movie roles, from Samson and Delilah to Ziegfeld Girl, White Cargo and Experiment Perilous, prioritised display over action – her characters, often exoticised in a nod to her European heritage, were beautiful creatures to be looked at, absorbed by the male gaze, and with very little to say. Lamarr herself, who pointedly defined glamour as standing still and looking stupid, understood all too well why no one wanted to hear about her science work – it didn’t fit MGM’s marketing narrative.
The credo of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media is “If she can see it, she can be it”, and there can’t be a clearer example than Lamarr’s of why on-screen representation matters. If Lamarr’s full story had been told while she was still working, or if she had ever played a woman as brilliant as herself in a film, perhaps the revelation that a star had brains as well as beauty wouldn’t be quite such a, well, bombshell.
Film tells how Hollywood star Hedy Lamarr helped to invent wifi
Hedy Lamarr starred in biblical blockbusters . Now a Susan Sarandon-produced film will tell how her scientific work pioneered modern communications
It is an extraordinary story, ripe for the telling: a glamorous Hollywood leading lady is at the summit of the film industry, yet treated as a sexual trophy and repeatedly undervalued intellectually. But her scientific knowhow leads to a breakthrough in military technology and opens up the way for contemporary communications methods, such as Bluetooth and wifi.
The remarkable life of the Austrian-born Hedy Lamarr – considered the most beautiful woman in the world by her Hollywood peers in the 1940s and 50s – is now the subject of a documentary, co-produced by the actress Susan Sarandon, which receives its British premiere in London on Wednesday as part of the Jewish Film Festival.
Bombshell: the Hedy Lamarr Story follows the career of the young Hedwig Kiesler from her childhood in pre-war Vienna, on to her escape, disguised as a maid, from a rich first husband. Using news footage and interviews with Lamarr’s children from her six marriages, the first-time director Alexandra Dean traces Lamarr’s journey to London and later to Los Angeles, where she becomes a star after appearing with Charles Boyer in the film Algiers. But at the centre of the new documentary is her little-known life as a successful inventor.
The film tells Lamarr’s story largely through previously unheard tapes of an interview she gave to Forbes magazine in 1990, 10 years before her death in Florida. By then a recluse, she explains her interest in technology to the journalist. “Inventions are easy for me to do,” Lamarr says. “I suppose I just came from a different planet.”
Lamarr is best remembered for her sultry role as the duplicitous Delilah in Cecil B DeMille’s 1949 biblical blockbuster, in which she appeared opposite Victor Mature as Samson.
But her acting started on stage in Austria, after she had attended a renowned Berlin acting school headed by the director Max Reinhardt. The daughter of a Viennese bank director with a love of technology, Lamarr grew up in an artistic Jewish quarter of the city. By the age of 19 she had won a film role that brought her life-long notoriety, appearing nude in an unprecedented simulated sex scene in the 1933 Czech film Ecstasy, a performance denounced by the pope.
Until now, Lamarr’s part in the development of what she called “frequency hopping”, a way to avoid the German jamming of radio signals, has remained an obscure bit of Hollywood trivia. However, as the Los Angeles film industry is shaken by accusations of in-built sexism in the wake of revelations about producer Harvey Weinstein’s sexual abuses, Sarandon and the German film actress Diane Kruger, a fan of Lamarr who appears in the documentary, believe her hidden scientific talent will finally be recognised.
Dean told Vanity Fair this year that Lamarr opens the tapes by saying: “I wanted to sell my story … because it’s so unbelievable. It was the opposite of what people think.” Lamarr also complains about Hollywood’s obsession with appearances, which she found dull: “The brains of people are more interesting than the looks, I think.”
Nevertheless, her roles repeatedly showcased her beauty and offered limited scope for acting. George Sanders, one of her co-stars, once said that Lamarr was “so beautiful that everybody would stop talking when she came into a room”.
Her interest in radio communications seems to have been rekindled by the introduction in America of remote control systems for playing music, and by her concern about the German jamming techniques that prevented the use of radio-controlled torpedoes.
She worked on her invention of an early form of “spread spectrum” telecommunications – in which a signal is transmitted on a much broader bandwidth than the original – together with her Hollywood neighbour, the avantgarde composer George Antheil, through the summer of 1940.
Their joint design employed a mechanism rather like the rolls used inside a pianola, or self-playing piano, to synchronise changes between 88 frequencies – the standard number of piano keys. The duo submitted a patent to the National Inventors Council on 10 June 1941, and it was granted a year later.
While the idea was not entirely new, with German engineers winning patents for related work in 1939 and 1940, the United States navy classified the patent as “top secret”. It took time, however, for the military to recognise how useful Lamarr and Antheil’s bulky invention might become.
After the war, in 1957, engineers at Sylvania Electronic Systems Division adopted it, and the navy began to use it to help transmit the underwater positions of enemy submarines revealed by sonar.
In 1998, more than 50 years after their invention, the pair were honoured with an Electronic Frontier Foundation award.
The actress, who once commented that her face was her “misfortune” and “a mask I cannot remove”, may now gain some posthumous recognition as an inventor, but her most lasting legacy is still likely to be the striking features of Disney’s Snow White, a cartoon character modelled on Lamarr.
Born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, in Vienna, Austria, on 9 November 1913.
Family Married six times including to Friedrich Mandl, an arms dealer, but fled her loveless marriage to be a Hollywood actress.
Film career Big break was a lead role in Gustav Machaty’s Ecstasy, where she became the (probably) first Hollywood star to simulate a female orgasm on screen. The film sparked outrage and was attacked by Pope Pius XI. After leaving her husband she changed her name to Hedy Lamarr, and starred in the Hollywood film, Algiers. Other films included Boom Town, My Favourite Spy and Samson and Delilah, the highest grossing film of 1949.
Algiers (1938) was her first American film.
Inventions In 1942 Lamarr and her business partner, composer George Antheil, awarded a patent for a “secret communication system” for radio-guided torpedoes. Later, it became a constituent of GPS, wifi and Bluetooth. She also developed ”bouillon” cubes to transform water into a Coke, and a “skin-tautening technique based on the principles of the accordion”.