By David Stillman Meyer | October 10, 2017 | Culture
Genius crops up in the most unexpected places; for example, a self-taught Indian mathematician like Srinivasa Ramanujan or an orphan janitor named Will Hunting. Ok, the latter was fictional, but would you believe that a beautiful movie star (who spent so much time in Aspen that she built her own hotel here) would invent the most significant communications advancement since the telephone? 1940’s screen siren Hedy Lamarr was not only a talented actress, hugely famous and a bonafide knockout, she also invented a method of wireless communication that would become the foundation for WiFi and bluetooth technology.
The documentary Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story screened at Aspen Filmfest last week tells the Austrian-born actress's amazing story (she escaped from a castle to come to America), and confirms that she was the brain behind a technology called “frequency hopping.”
Born in Vienna in 1913 to a wealthy Jewish family, she excelled in math and science. She loved to tinker, disassemble and reassemble contraptions around the house. A woman in her day was not apt to go into the sciences and instead she caught the acting bug. She appeared nude in a 1933 film called Ecstasy which was a major, major scandal. At the time, she was married to the third richest man in Austria who responded to the bad publicity by locking her away in one of his country estates.
Shortly thereafter, with the Anschluss imminent, Lamarr escaped to Hollywood and her career took off.
During World War II, she wanted to help the cause. When reading about how radio-guided torpedoes were unable to hit their targets because their frequencies were easily jammed, she went to work devising a new way for signals to be transmitted that were un-jammable.
She acquired a patent, and got it in the hands of the top brass in the Navy, who promptly dismissed it. The film asserts that the Navy waited six years for the patent to expire and then used it, giving Lamarr zero credit, and going so far as to label her contribution ineligible for acknowledgement because she was an enemy alien.
While her technology became famous, she did not fare so well. Beset by scandals, a dwindling career, major addiction (including methamphetamines courtesy "Dr. Feel Good" and plastic surgery) and several failed marriages, she spent the end of her life as a recluse. She claimed in an interview in the mid-nineties that one of her most painful memories was her bitter divorce from one husband which stripped her of Villa Lamarr, her lodge in Aspen, known around town as "Hedy's Beddies.”
Executive Director Susan Sarandon explains, "Bombshell is one of the great untold tragedies of a person who changed our world but was never seen for who she was. This film will finally give Hedy Lamarr the recognition she deserves."
Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story took home the runner-up Aspen Filmfest Audience Award for Best Documentary. It hits theaters this Thanksgiving.
The 39th Annual Aspen Filmfest took place in October 2017. It featured 20 high-quality narrative and documentary films on topics as far-reaching as Aspenites' own interests. For more pictures from the opening night, click here.
Lamarr: Courtesy Aspen Filmfest. Filmfest event: Igor Gevonshyr-Prokhorko