Imagine, say, The Rock coming up with his own particle accelerator and no one bothering to report it. Such is the story of Hedy Lamarr, ’40s Hollywood star and pioneer of frequency-hopping, a technology that would help power first weapons of war then eventually GPS and wi-fi. That she’d receive no recognition for it haunted her. It should haunt others too. This moving, surprising documentary offers a tale of Hollywood pigeonholing that feels particularly timely.
In the spirit of all good mysteries, it opens with the discovery of long-lost interview tapes. On them, Lamarr is found reflecting on her life, from childhood in Vienna to the glamour of Tinseltown. But it was in lab coats, not ball gowns that she was happiest. ‘Inventions are easy for me,’ she says. ‘I suppose I just came from a different planet.’
It wasn’t, as Hollywood hoped, Venus. The contrast between the kind of bimbo roles she was offered and her smarts adds a pathos that deepens as she takes refuge in plastic surgery and prescription drugs in later life. But director Alexandra Dean has crafted something inspiring from this collage of archive footage, photos and interviews with family and friends. If the scrapbook sometimes feels a little overstuffed, the story is gripping. Fans, from Diane Kruger to Mel Brooks, pay tribute, but it’s a Google animator who puts it best: ‘She was a perfect underdog, crime-fighter-by-night story.’ Here she is, unmasked at last.