I alluded to Hedy Lamarr in an earlier post about my favorite celebrities, those who manage to be outstanding in multiple diverse fields at once. The glamorous cult actress is a prime example, being known publicly for her pulchritude and in much more rarefied circles as a brilliant inventor. I had been waiting for the release of the documentary–produced by Susan Sarandon!—about Lamarr, called “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story” ever since a friend and commenter here told me that it was in the works. Now it is on Netflix, and I watched it. You should too. I’ll just jot down some loosely connected thoughts about the ethics lessons of Lamarr’s life.
- The sexual exploitation of young women in films may have been worse in the past than it is now, but Lamarr’s life is a reminder of how excruciatingly slowly cultures change. She was made infamous as the star of a sensational sex film in Germany, shown naked, and also in an apparently explicit sex scene when she was too young (19) and naive to know what the director was doing.
The episode literally shadowed her life. Yet half a century later, very young actresses like Drew Barrymore and Dakota Fanning were similarly abused by directors, the main difference being that public attitudes now make the resulting stigma less permanent.
- Antisemitism was sufficiently pervasive in the U.S. that Lamarr denied her Jewish heritage for much of her life.
Living a lie is not an ethically healthy existence, but Lamarr had few reasons to trust that she would be accepted for who she was….fewer than most, on fact.
- There are few more vivid examples than Lamarr of a brilliant woman who rapidly learned that she had to rely on the favor of men based on her physical charms to have any chance of succeeding. Yet it is a bargain with the devil, for the price is not being taken seriously. The suppressed resentment and anger Lamarr reveals in interviews is palpable.
Sometimes I think it’s a mircale that women didn’t rise up and slaughter millions of men while they slept. They deserved it.
- Hedy Lamarr is primarily remembered now as a running joke in “Blazing Saddles.”
Think about that.
- Lamarr was one of these mutants, like Ben Franklin, Thomas Edison and Walter Hunt, who was born with an innate talent for solving problems with lateral thinking. One example is brought out by the film: when she sought o fight off the years with cosmetic surgery, she suggested methods of hiding the scars that the era’s plastic surgeons hadn’t thought of yet. Then her surgery became the impetus for the practice’s use of techniques that are now the norm, based on her instinctive innovations.
She (and her husband at the time, a musician) developed a unique shifting-frequency method to allow US torpedoes to be guided to targets without being jammed. They gave the process to the Navy to help the war effort, and the Navy spit on it, in part because the inventor was a Hollywood bombshell who obviously didn’t know what she was doing. Then the government stuffed it in the same warehouse with the Ark of the Covenant until the patent expired and they didn’t have to pay for it, and used it to advance multiple technologies.
Lamarr’s invention is now regarded as essential to the development of Wi-Fi, bluetooth, the internet and more, and her now-dead patent is estimated to be worth approximately 30 billion dollars. Meanwhile, she died in relative poverty, and as a camp icon because of this, from one of her worst movies…
- Hedy Lamarr deserves to be remembered in our culture and our history books, as both an inspiration to woman and a cautionary tale that has still not lost its relevance. I hope the documentary is the beginning, not the end, of cultural justice.