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Doc Corner: 'Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story'

More often than not, biographic documentaries can feel staid in the way they so relentlessly follow a basic Point A to Point B narrative. It is understandable, really. After all, one must suppose that if somebody is interesting enough to have a documentary made about them, then they must be interesting enough to sustain 90 minutes without the need for their story to be gussied up with stylistic bells and tricky whistles.

Still, watching as many of these sort of films as I do, it can grow tiresome and can take me out of whatever spell the filmmaker hopes to cast.

And then there is a movie like Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story. This is a film that it would be easy to pigeonhole before the opening scene has even begun - and it’s true that Alexandra Dean’s film adheres to a very traditional birth-to-death narrative. But what makes the film so interesting beyond its subject is the way it turns what could be perceived as just standard bio-doc delivery into a unique advantage.

You see, Bombshell has two really strong assets at its disposal that would likely be lost had Dean – in her debut as director, writer and editor (it’s also her feature producing debut after several television projects) – gone for an unnecessary lacquer of hip. For you see, despite Lamarr’s story being one of Hollywood secrets and scandal, Bombshell is a graceful film. It treats its subject with the utmost respect, and as the story of this Austrian refugee turned MGM superstar and Hollywood recluse progresses, the subtle refinement that Dean offers her life comes to be something beautiful. The tragedy of Lamarr’s story such as it is is never overplayed nor treated as camp farce. I guess it is even harder to explain grace in filmmaking as it is explaining grace in human beings, but as a late-in-life audio recording of Hedy Lamarr’s voice echoes over soothingly compiled archival footage, it was the one word I kept thinking about.

The second way that Bombshell makes its straight down the line structure work is in the element of surprise. While some may have heard on an internet grapevine that Hedy Lamarr – or probably more likely, just some Hollywood actress – invented wifi, the full and true story is something actually far more intricate and touching. Certainly more so than can be evoked in a tweet or a listicle about crazy facts you didn’t know. As her story progresses from that of Austrian child with an interest in science to starlet and forgotten siren left behind by Hollywood and the people she dedicated her smarts to saving, her scientific endeavours become more and more amazing. It was in moments like this that I was thankful the filmmaker decided to significently forgoe reenactments, animations and non-linnear trickery.

Of course, it will be very easy for people to see Hedy Lamarr’s story unfold and project it onto the contemporary world and they wouldn’t necessarily be wrong in seeing the correlations. But I feel looking at Bombshell simply through the prism of how women were and are treated in Hollywood would be doing Alexandra Dean a disservice. Yes, on one hand Lamarr’s story is one as old as Hollywood itself. And yet on the other hand, it is entirely singular and one that cannot be so easily filed away as another tragic story of a star eaten by the system that gave her wealth and fame in the first place.

Like the Oscar-nominated What Happened, Miss Simone?, which found as much intrigue in Nina Simone’s political activism as it did her performance and her music, Bombshell slowly teases out all of the details of Lamarr’s life and asks the audience to give her the respect she deserves. Not out of some concept of righteous wokeness, but simply because she earned it. Dean’s handling of the material, respectful and delicate, affirms this. Her film is beautiful and deftly crafted. It has grace.

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Reader Comments (5)

Thank you for this review. It really makes me want to see this.

November 28, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Hollywood

I've always thought a biopic of Lamarr would make for a good film or miniseries. Especially given the current political climate (the rise of neo-fascism) and the reckoning of sexual harassment coupled with the systemic dismissal of women's accomplishments.

November 28, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterCraig

I'm not a huge documentary watcher but I'm super excited for this one. A fascinating woman and story.

November 28, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

Will definitely watch.

November 28, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterTyler

Glenn, thanks for this wonderful review. As a classic movie buff, I can't wait to check this one out!

November 29, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

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