In 'Bombshell,' The Double Identity Of Hollywood Star Hedy Lamarr In Alexandra Dean's new documentary, the stunning silver-screen beauty of the 1930s and '40s is also the inventor of a technology that makes today's wireless encryption possible.
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In 'Bombshell,' The Double Identity Of Hollywood Star Hedy Lamarr

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In 'Bombshell,' The Double Identity Of Hollywood Star Hedy Lamarr

In 'Bombshell,' The Double Identity Of Hollywood Star Hedy Lamarr

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

If you're hearing my voice through some kind of Bluetooth of Wi-Fi gadget, here's an interesting fact. Some ideas behind that technology can be traced back to an invention by a famous actress from the 1930s - her name, Hedy Lamarr.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "BOMBSHELL")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) You never got very much out of this, did you?

HEDY LAMARR: (As herself) I got plenty - all I ask for, except the frosting. And I knew in my heart I'll never get that. A man told me so once.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The story of this stunning beauty of the silver screen is told in the new documentary "Bombshell." From a scandalous debut in the pre-war European film "Ecstasy" to Hollywood films, including "Algiers" and "Samson And Delilah," there are little-known details of how she has worked grueling days by Hollywood producers and spent her nights in her own laboratory, where she loved to invent. Alexandra Dean is the director of "Bombshell," and she joins us now. Hi, there.

ALEXANDRA DEAN: Hi.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is an amazing story. At a certain point, Hedy Lamarr was among the biggest stars in Hollywood. But you start from her very beginnings. And I'd like to start there. She grew up in pre-war Austria, and she was Jewish.

DEAN: That's right. She grew up Jewish in an assimilated family in sort of an upper-middle class area of Vienna. And her father was a banker.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And then she made her way to London after running away from her wealthy fascist husband. And this is where she meets Louis B. Mayer, the very famous head of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios.

DEAN: That's right, yeah. And she's in mid-flight from the Nazis. That's the incredible thing. She meets Louis B. Mayer in a hotel in London. And she knows she has this one shot to convince him that she could be a star in Hollywood. And it's not an easy discussion.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right, she basically turns him down. He offered too little money, and then she regrets it. And she was incredibly audacious. I never knew this story. She booked passage on the same boat with Mayer after turning down his initial offer.

DEAN: Yeah, you've got to love this. So she's on the back foot already, right? She's fleeing the Nazis. Mayer thinks he can scoop her up at a discount price, like he's doing with all the other Jewish actors and actresses fleeing the Nazis. He offers her this lowball offer. She storms out. And immediately, her agent says to her, you're in big trouble. He's off to New York in the morning on this big ship, the Normandy, and the tickets are sold out. And she goes, you know what? I'm going to find a way on that ship.

And this is how she is. She's got this incredible mind. And the first thing she thinks is, who can I impersonate? And she impersonates the governess for a young prodigy - a musical prodigy that the agent also represented, who did not need a governess in anyway. I believe he was 17 or something.

But she impersonated his governess, got on board and, as soon as she was on board, dressed herself as the megastar she wanted Louis B. Mayer to see her as - paraded herself in front of him until he was so dazzled at the reaction she was getting from the men on the ship that he offered a factor of five times more for the same contract at his studio, and also the guarantee that she would be treated as a star.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And she becomes a big star, celebrated for her incredible beauty. But she had brains, and she had this other life. Tell us about that.

DEAN: That's right. She had this double identity that is so fascinating to all of us. She was on soundstages all day with Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Jimmy Stewart - I mean, the biggest stars. And at night, she was going home and inventing. And she was inventing with her sometime-boyfriend Howard Hughes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And he gave her this tiny laboratory that she would - that she had as well. You have pictures of it. It's extraordinary.

DEAN: Yeah, he gave her the laboratory. He gave her access to his chemists. So she had people helping her with her ideas.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What attracted you to this story?

DEAN: You know, I was doing a series on inventors for two years for Bloomberg Television called "Innovators." And it really gave me this moment to meditate on - who are the inventors who create our world? How do we celebrate them? What are the obstacles that they face? And one of the obstacles that a lot of the inventors that were not the typical classical inventor you'd have in your mind when you close your eyes...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ben Franklin.

DEAN: By that, I mean women or diverse candidates.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah.

DEAN: They would say to me, look, it's a little harder for us to get taken seriously to get funding. That's why there's less of us. And that really, you know, bothered me, stayed with me. And I saw Richard Rhodes's book "Hedy's Folly," which was given to me by Katherine Drew, a great producer in our office. And I realized this was the answer to my question. You know, some people are intentionally - you know, they're erased - or not intentionally erased from the cultural dialogue because they just don't seem like inventors.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: They don't seem to be the right person. She invented, we should say, frequency-hopping signals, which is a form of encryption, with the composer George Antheil. And she gets the patent for guiding torpedoes essentially during World War II. But the Navy shelves it until much later.

LAMARR: That's right. The Navy shelved it because the Navy didn't understand it. In fact, when we look at the history of torpedoes during the Second World War, it's clear that the Allies were way behind the Nazis when it came to the kind of torpedoes that we had. We, in fact, hadn't put very much money into torpedo technology at all. So what she presented them with was leaps and bounds beyond, in fact, their comprehension at the time. But they just dismissed it out of hand thinking this was something that a musician and a gorgeous movie star came up with.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. What struck me about the way you portray her is how complicated she was. She became addicted to meth through the infamous Dr. Feelgood. And it made her, according to her own children, a monster. She abandoned her adopted son. But you portray her as a victim of the very system that built her up.

DEAN: That's right because what we learn about the system, when we study Hedy's story, is that the system really worked these actresses like they were, you know, in a stable. They were racehorses in a stable. They were worked from morning to night. And the way that they got them to do that was to feed them drugs - downers and uppers. It was not uncommon at the time - a lot of speed. And Hedy got hooked on these drugs. And in the end, that's what destroyed her.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She got no money for her great big invention, which ended up being used by the military and is now the basis for encrypted Wi-Fi, Bluetooth. And she died poor and a recluse.

DEAN: Yeah, she did have actually $3 million when she died. But that was only right before she died. And she got it from a lawsuit with the Corel company. They were putting her face on a graphics box. And she sued them because they thought she was dead. They didn't know she was living as a recluse in Florida. And so she won $3 million in that suit. And to offset the taxes on that, she thought I'll give the Smithsonian the paper upon which my patent has been written. And the Smithsonian had that paper valued for her. And unfortunately, they didn't get back to her before she died. But I did find the man that took it to the Smithsonian for her. And I found out that the patent itself, in 2000, was valued at $6 million, which was twice her face.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what does this story mean to you? I mean, there is a wider point. Especially right now, women are talking about powerful men and their abuses being sidelined. What is the takeaway for you from her life?

DEAN: You know, the takeaway for me is really the poem that she reads at the end of the movie.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "BOMBSHELL")

LAMARR: (As herself, reading) People are unreasonable, illogical and self-centered. Love them anyway.

DEAN: You'll see she reads this poem, which is very moving, because she's had so much disappointment and felt so overlooked in her life.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "BOMBSHELL")

LAMARR: (As herself, reading) The biggest people with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest people with the smallest minds. Think big anyway.

DEAN: Even if you feel that you've been kicked in the teeth, and the world never gave you the applause you deserved...

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "BOMBSHELL")

LAMARR: (As herself, reading) Build anyway.

DEAN: ...Do it anyway because it's in changing the world that you'll find meaning at the end of your life. It's in trying to make your mark. And I love that. And I think everybody should listen to that. It's in the work, the doing, that you'll find meaning not in the applause.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Alexandra Dean is the director of "Bombshell." Thank you very much.

DEAN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF KARL BOHM & WIENER PHILHARMONIKER'S "J. STRAUSS II: AN DER SCHONEN BLAUEN DONAU, OP.314")

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