Lamarr deserves a great biography, but this comic isn’t it
A graphic novel that ties together the threads of an iconic Hollywood starlet, one who wasn’t only known as the world’s most beautiful woman, but who also laid the technical groundwork for Wi-Fi (!) seems like it should be required reading. How did Hedy Lamarr balance a life that included dealing with the luxuries and problems associated with her outsized beauty and an obsession with inventions and solving problems? An exploration of how she navigated being a woman ahead of her time as a brilliant free spirit seems like it would be juicy and relevant.
But the graphic novel Hedy Lamarr: An Incredible Life translated from a French version, feels like a gorgeously illustrated Wikipedia entry with big chunks missing. It brilliantly recreates vintage Hollywood one-sheets of the actress’s big roles alongside Clark Gable, Judy Garland, Jimmy Stewart and others, but never seems much interested in Lamarr herself as an actress, or even as a person.
Instead, it hits the beats of some of her six marriages, hints at some of the scandals and #metoo problems she had working for Louis Mayer at MGM, and shows us a father who fostered her love of technology. But it stumbles getting us from point A to B to C, instead jumping over huge swaths of time but still finding time to linger on whether her breasts were big enough. In a galling last section, it depicts how she became a litigious recluse and victim of bad plastic surgery.
It’s not that all these things aren’t or weren’t true; the graphic novel appears to draw heavily from Hedy’s Folly by Richard Rhodes. But it doesn’t tell her life story with much understanding of her motivations or how she went from ingenue to patent-holding tech wizard. It makes the unfortunate choice of keeping her inner life at arm’s length and leaving her contributions to science off stage for most of the book until it’s able to tie in how she partnered up with composer George Antheil to develop frequency-hopping radio jamming. Much of the story marks time by which man she happened to be involved with, personally or professionally.
This is all a shame not just because Lamarr probably deserves a better understanding, but because the artwork by Sylvian Dorange is often remarkable as it re-creates movie sets, voyages at sea, and the expressive face of Lamarr herself. The book ends with Lamarr winning an Electronic Freedom Foundation award for laying the groundwork for our modern networking technologies. It was a ceremony she didn’t attend. Was that really the peak of her whole life, or just a modern touchstone meant to bring the story home? This graphic novel shows a lot of beauty and not enough brains, which would have irritated her to no end. It feels like Hedy Lamarr, the real one, is largely absent from her own story.