It’s likely that even the most ardent movie fan is not familiar with the name Hedwig Kiesler. It’s even probable that a good share of regular moviegoers don’t know the name Hedy Lamarr. But they’re one and the same. Kiesler, a young, up-and-coming starlet in her native Vienna, had her name changed by studio executives — or maybe it was a publicist — after she was discovered by Louis B. Mayer in the 1930s, signed to a $500 a week contract, and shipped off to live and work in New York, then still the movie capital of the world.

Lamarr made a lot of movies in the States, after generating all sorts of controversy in Europe with her nudity-filled “Ecstacy.” Under Mayer’s guidance, and the back-breaking demands of his contracts, Lamarr became a star here for her performance opposite Charles Boyer in the atmospheric and romantic 1938 film “Algiers.” She would go on to have leads in numerous forgettable movies, make a comeback in the popular “Samson and Delilah,” and would live out her days (1914-2000) as a recluse, knowing that she had made a name for herself on the screen, but disappointed that she was never recognized for other talents, such as inventing a radio communications device that would work against Germany in the 1940s war effort.

Yes, Hedy Lamarr, who was never appreciated for her acting talent, but was at one time known as the most beautiful woman in the movies; who was the loving mother of two children, but couldn’t quite get the hang of marriage (she had five of those); who became a producer but suffered from erratic behavior probably due to an amphetamine habit, and eventually had a nervous breakdown … all of those Hedy Lamarrs … at one point was acting on sets in the daytime and tinkering on inventions in her home-lab at night.

This fascinating documentary by Alexandra Dean sheds all sorts of light on Lamarr and the bad luck and inexcusable behavior of the powerful men that dogged her throughout her life. The film revolves around Lamarr’s voice and stories she told about herself on some cassette tapes of a lengthy phone interview she did with journalist Fleming Meeks for a 1990 profile in Forbes magazine. She was 76 at the time, and though there is regret in that voice, there’s also a sense of humor that had stayed intact.

Dean makes it clear that Lamarr got ahead because of her searing beauty, but keeps pointing out that Lamarr wanted to make her mark on the world in other ways, and was frustrated by the cards she was dealt. While there’s only a small amount of footage of Lamarr speaking — late in her life after plastic surgery had ravaged her face — there’s plenty of early footage of her from her films, and there are various people talking about her: Her son and daughter, her granddaughter, as well as iconic filmmakers including Peter Bogdanovich and Mel Brooks.

Dean also works some wonders with archival footage, as she makes imaginative and entertaining use of generic scenes of Vienna in the 1920s by fashioning them into a story that appears to be specifically about Lamarr.

And she keeps the part about people not knowing her for who she really was because her beauty “got in the way” right up front. One of the worst instances was when American military honchos ignored her amazing invention ideas and strongly suggested that she’d be of more help entertaining the troops and selling war bonds.

Hedy Lamarr never reaped the rewards she should’ve received, but this film pays her the respect she deserved, and even manages to give her story something of a happy ending.

— Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.

“Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story”
Written and directed by Alexandra Dean
Not Rated