Why The Tragic Story Of The Hollywood Star Who Invented WiFi Still Resonates Today

Photo: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images.
The Most Beautiful Woman in the World. The First Onscreen Orgasm. Inventor. Austrian. American. Alien. Patriot. Trophy Wife. Jew. Seductress. Recluse.
These are only some of the labels that have been attributed to Hollywood star Hedy Lamarr, now the subject of a documentary called Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, out 24th November.
As fascinating as any of those individual monikers are, what makes Lamarr so unusual is that she refused to be boxed into any single one of them — without much success.
In the end, the cards were stacked against her. The same forces that still largely compel women to choose between being known for their looks or their intellect labeled Lamarr as an exotic beauty, a reputation she would never shake, and that would ultimately destroy her. The preconceptions about Lamarr ensured that some of her most groundbreaking achievements, namely the invention of a technology called frequency hopping which would later serve in the development of WiFi, Bluetooth, and GPS, remained shrouded in obscurity. That is, until now.
With Bombshell, director Alexandra Dean seeks to reframe the narrative around Lamarr, whose legacy — Hollywood or otherwise — has been largely overlooked. Here are just some of the things you may not know about Hedy: Born Hedwig Kiesler, she was 16 when she filmed a movie called Ekstasy, widely credited with showing the first onscreen female orgasm; as a young wife in Vienna she escaped her Nazi-sympathising husband by posing as a maid and riding off into the night with jewels sewn into her coat; in her 40s, tired of being pigeonholed in the role of seductress onscreen, she tried to take on the Hollywood studio system and produced her own film; and during World War II, she moonlighted as an inventor, collaborating with music composer George Antheil to invent a way for submarines to communicate with ships on random frequencies, so as to fool the enemy. Thus, frequency hopping was born. The government granted her a patent, but never compensated her for an invention now valued at $30 billion. Hedy Lamarr died poor, a recluse in her New York City apartment, which she refused to leave for the last two decades of her life.
Though Lamarr, and her invention, have been the subject of research — and a Google Doodle! —  before. What makes Bombshell special is that for the first time, Hedy is able to tell her own story, in her own words. While embarking on the project, director Alexandra Dean reached out to a list of 70 people who could have talked to her about her invention during her lifetime. After a while, she realised that one of the names had the wrong email associated with it. That name was Fleming Meeks, a reporter who had interviewed Lamarr in the last years of her life when he was a reporter at Forbes. Dean emailed. He called back, and said: "‘I’ve been waiting for you to call me for 25 years. I have the tapes."
Those four tapes provided Dean with three and a half hours of Lamarr speaking about her experiences, her challenges, her achievements and her regrets. Her voice is used throughout the documentary as narration, guiding the viewer through an incredible life. One thing, however, stands out. Like so many of us, Hedy was given a choice: She could be a bombshell, beloved by all, or she could be smart. It's a dichotomy that still resonates in Hollywood, and wider society today, making Lamarr's story a cautionary one, as well as a source of inspiration.
Refinery29 spoke to Alexandra Dean, her brother and co-producer Adam Haggiag, and executive producer Susan Sarandon about why society doesn't take beautiful women seriously, sexism in Hollywood, and the lessons of the film.
How important was it for you to have her voice, to tell her own story?
AD: "Crucial. This was a scenario where I was talking to Adam and Susan about it, I was up at night, feeling that there wasn’t a story without her voice. That was part of reframing the conversation, having it be in her voice, and letting her be who she was. And I didn’t know her answer to some really crucial questions. How much of the invention did you take from your munitions magnate husband? Because it could have been a lot. How much did you get from George [Antheil] ? Why were all the notes written in his handwriting? And she answers all of that in the tapes. And then we had to go and find evidence to corroborate all of that. She was a genius. But all of that, I didn’t think was a foregone conclusion. We had to find proof for ourselves as much as for the viewer."
Susan Sarandon: "There were so many doubters, and again you’re working against the stereotype of this gorgeous woman — how could this possibly be her hobby? But when you’re making a documentary you have to be open to whatever you’re going to find. Luckily she was vindicated, but for a long time we didn’t know exactly."
Adam Haggiag: "One of the first opinions we got was from a real expert in frequency hopping, and he dismissed her. For him, it was impossible that she did it. It was one of the first interviews we did, and it was like, ‘Oh dear. We’re making a film about this woman who didn’t discover frequency hopping.’ It really wasn’t clear that this was going to be about someone who was a true inventor."
I was struck by how relevant so much of it still feels, especially the whole idea of her beauty being prized in Hollywood, and how that ultimately destroyed her. How do you feel those dynamics still play in how women are treated in Hollywood?
SS: "Well, when I started, they told me I’d be done by 40, so that’s changed. I think there is still so much pressure, and it’s gone into a different area because of the internet. Self-awareness about the way you look has been really amplified by the fact that you’re expected to document every aspect of your life. Bankers now look at how many followers you have and in a lot of contracts, it’s requested of you to tweet so many times. And a lot of the press has to do with doing that. I think there’s a self-consciousness that’s certainly arisen, I think there are more actresses that are working longer, because until you change the playing field and make it economically stronger for women, it’s very difficult to say no to somebody when that’s your only gig. If you’re a producer, or a writer, or if you have more power, you’re going to be in a position to know that if you burn that bridge, there’ll still be this bridge open. A lot of it has to do with more women producers and actors generating their own projects, [that] has taken some of the pressure off. But still — when people ask me ‘do you think your politics have decreased your chances of working, I say: ‘In Hollywood, most of the prejudice has to do with if you’re old or fat.’ Power can’t forgive that. "
Susan, you played Bette Davis in Ryan Murphy's Feud this year. Both she and Hedy Lamarr tried to break out of the studio system mold.
Susan: "I actually turned down The Front Page because that studio wanted me to sign a seven-year contract at that time without any script approval. And it was only after I had a conversation with Billy Wilder, and he intervened, that the job went through. But now it’s TV. When you sign on to do a series it could be seven years, and you don’t have any idea what those scripts are going to be. And there you are — you negotiate maybe the first couple of years, but you’re basically handing over your life and you don’t have any idea what they’re going to ask you to do. In the film world it has changed. [But] there’s a lot going on for women in TV."
Alexandra, I think I read somewhere that you were looking for a female role model in the science world after talking to people in tech who said they didn’t have anyone to look to. How do you think we’re doing in terms of having female role models behind the camera?
AD: "We’re making huge strides right now, behind the camera, and it’s really exciting. Certainly you’re seeing it at film festivals. On the other hand, what’s still frustrating and really challenging for me, is that a lot of the big series and films that are starting to be made about women are being made by men. They’re big name projects, they’ve got big budgets — and I actually believe that men can make those projects, beautifully, and have done for centuries. But if we are going to grow and taking more powerful roles, isn’t this the perfect opportunity? Isn’t that when we should find our voice? And so it is frustrating that those jobs aren’t going to women, especially when there are so many great candidates."
SS: "I’m on my fifth film with a woman director in a row — except for Feud, and half of those [episodes] were done by women — but they’re smaller films. I think it’s hard for studio executives that are male to imagine women as heroes, heroines, as directors. Whereas a woman can identify with power in any gender. For some of these guys it just doesn’t even occur to them. I think most of it is coming from outside the studio. You have the Reese Witherspoons, people who are able to greenlight properties, and again TV."
AD:" I do think there is a different feel when you have women behind the camera on movies. And people are responding — we’re getting big box office numbers for women getting their first big breaks. So, I think the myth that’s already been out there that you can’t make money off a female-directed film or a female-targeting film, is completely false, and that’s starting to be debunked."
You obviously got to know Hedy pretty well. What surprised you about her?
AD: "It was when we got the tapes, and I realised she had a sense of humour. She would make me laugh out loud. And she had kind of a mystical side — she would say things like, ‘I think I’m going to be able to control people after my death.’ She was just multifaceted. And I felt for her, in the tapes. I thought, ‘I like this woman, I would enjoy hanging out with this woman.’ It was a wonderful surprise."
Were there things in the tapes that you wanted to include, but had to cut?
AH: "So many! There was a final line that we tried so many way to fit in. It was ‘Please don’t misrepresent me because I’m sure as hell ahead of time.’ We thought that was brilliant, but it didn’t fit."
AD: "There’s just a ton on those tapes. I loved when she talked about Old Hollywood. She loved Jimmy Stewart. Spencer Tracy was horrible to her, and made fun of her. Clark Gable was lots of fun but a terrible kisser. It was a lot of fun to listen to. She was a target of Charles Manson. [He] had a list of 41 targets — they were all Hollywood stars that lived nearby. She was on the list. She has another story on the cutting room floor — her story is so rich and complex we couldn’t pack it all in."
So much about the film is about how she was ahead of her time. What do you think she’d be doing today?
AD: "I think about this a lot. I always think of her in Silicon Valley. I think she’d be maybe an actress that has some sort of startup. And I think she would run into trouble in Silicon Valley. She’d have some brilliant idea, she’d be moonlighting with the startup and everybody would be telling her, ‘You’ve got to take this more seriously, you have to quit and come up here.’ But also she would run into the kind of problems she was having with the Navy in Silicon Valley today. I think it’s exactly what we’re talking about today: why aren’t there more women in Silicon Valley? What’s the power dynamic up there? It’s not changed."
What do you hope women take away from the movie?
AD: "I really hope that the conversation shifts a bit more about how do you choose to be a powerful woman. It’s certainly a morality tale about putting all your eggs in the beauty basket. But it’s also about understanding the negative forces that you might have to navigate, and being aware of how uneven the power balance can be from the beginning in a woman’s life. That whole road to power is difficult, and treacherous. And I think if we have a conversation about it then young women are more likely to succeed on that road. And that’s what I hope they get out of it."
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