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The untold story of Hedy Lamarr, a pioneer in both Hollywood and tech

The classic cinema actress invented the concept behind modern WiFi – it’s time we learned who she is

When you look back at the Golden Age of Hollywood there is a face that stands out more than most, and that face is Hedy Lamarr’s, though the axis-spinning story behind it has barely been acknowledged.

The Austrian-born actress fled Europe during World War II, escaping not just Hitler's forces but an unhappy marriage to a Nazi munitions supplier – thanks to a chance meeting in London with MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer, she wound up in Hollywood and went on to become one of the most famous stars of her era.

New documentary Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story lays out her incredible life beyond her titular movie appearances and affairs many characterised her by, in entertaining and rather shocking fashion. Lamarr scandalised international cinemas with an on-screen orgasm in Ecstasy, while also innovating as an early tech pioneer and inventor. In the 1940s she had developed the concept of “frequency hopping” with her friend, composer, and pianist George Antheil, a technology that provided the foundation for the creation of WIFI and modern communication as we know it.

Hedy never reaped the financial rewards for the invention and the story of her genius was often overshadowed by the more scandalous aspects of her life, which are all detailed in this sprawling movie by filmmaker and investigative journalist Alexandra Dean.

Dean worked with Lamarr’s family to uncover the truth about this remarkable woman’s achievements, both on the screen and off, and was privy to correspondences, interviews and letters that all paint a picture of a brilliant woman overlooked. Having raided mostly untouched archives, Dean’s production sifts through family photo albums, interviews with living family members, and never-before-heard recordings of Lamarr herself. It’s a stunning, tender narrative that travels up to her death in 2000 and her legacy.

Here, the filmmaker talks to Dazed about sharing this story, what she thinks Hedy would be doing today, and how the late star would have shared her #MeToo stories with the fervour of Rose McGowan.

How did you come across Hedy’s story?

Alexandra Dean: I had been looking for this story because I had been working on a series called Innovators, Adventures and Pursuits, which was about inventors today and the obstacles they were facing, how they needed better funding. Especially women, because getting funded and taken seriously is hard when you don’t look like what an inventor is “supposed” to look like. So there was an issue of who came before, and how women are portrayed in the media. It was a hidden figures question: had we forgotten about the certain amount of people who had created in the world?

That’s when a colleague came to me with the book Hedy’s Folly, which was brought out in 2011 – it was 2014 at the time, and I just knew I had to tell her story, especially when I learned that certain people were trying to discredit her and suggest she stole the idea from engineers at her husband’s factory.

It makes you think there must be plenty of other Hedy Lamarrs who have had men take credit for their work?

Alexandra Dean: Women are 50 percent of the population, there is no way men created this world without us – just because we haven’t had an official role until now, that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. That’s my thinking. I think when we look closely there is a lot of men taking credit, which made sense at certain times in history.

There are major examples in history where an invention has been made by a couple and the woman’s identity has been hidden. Hedy’s way was unusual because she didn’t hide her history to Robert Price, a man who played down her history. She told him clearly that she had invented the ‘frequency hopping’, I have the original email that says he had recorded it in his notes, but in the forwarded emails he had sent, he redacted that line and continued the idea that she had stolen the idea. Seeing that it was intentional was really shocking and eye-opening.

She was obviously a feminist before that word even became popular, and the fact that she was producing her movies was pretty progressive at the time too. How was she able to have that sort of creative freedom when the industry was still so dominated by men?

Alexandra Dean: She was just able because she was such a big star and able to raise money. She had the power to raise money and she knew how to use it. The thing about Hedy, she was brave. What stands out so much beyond the beauty and the brains is the bravery. She did not take no for an answer, she did not put any limitations on herself. That function of being so bright and beautiful, she did have a lot of doors open to her which weren’t open to other people, and she didn’t have any sense of boundaries. That’s why we root for her so much, she felt able to do those things and so she would push the envelope and do them. She never stopped, she even designed her own plastic surgery! She was bold and determined to make the world in her image, that’s so unusual. I think that’s what makes her the perfect parable for women today.

How do you think Hedy would navigate the world today?

Alexandra Dean: I think about that a lot. She was really a master of her own image so I think she’d be a YouTube sensation or some sort of Instagram sensation.

“She was bold and determined to make the world in her image, that’s so unusual. I think that’s what makes her the perfect parable for women today.”

Really?

Alexandra Dean: Yeah I do! I think she was amazing at spinning her own image and using it, but at the same time, I think that would have typecast her at a young age. So when she had a big enough profile, she’d have ended up in Silicon Valley, and she would have come up against what women today come up against: a repeat of what Hedy had gone through back in the day.

What do you think she would have invented today?

Alexandra Dean: She would have had her own social media platform for sure, probably with her technology behind it and she would have gone off to Silicon Valley to get that funded and they would have laughed at her.

You don’t think she would have wanted to be an actress in this modern day?

Alexandra Dean: No. It was a means to an end. She tried to spin it in her biographies that she had always wanted to be an actress but it never rang true. I think she was a brilliant child and totally seduced by the power of her looks. She loved to influence people, but she didn’t really care if it was through her looks or her mind. It was her ticket out, the acting, her looks were always the escape hatch, she was kind of an escape artist, and it worked until her looks went. And what’s terrible for women is the idea that when your looks go, your power goes, so I think that’s why she got the plastic surgery, to try and keep control.

What do you think Hedy’s position would be on the Time’s Up and the #MeToo movement – she would have no doubt had her own stories to tell?

Alexandra Dean: I have to believe that she would have been open. I don’t think she would have been on the Brigitte Bardot side of things. I think she would have been a vanguard in the movement. (With) her letters – I have her private letters written in German back to her mother – there’s no doubt in my mind that she was victim to some casting couch abuse, and she was angry. She was incredibly angry, you can tell even though it was written in code as these letters would go through the studios, but she was furious. She called them “pigs” and “bastards” and the anger is so deep and visceral it feels like Rose McGowan.

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story is in cinemas March 9