Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story
Exclusive Interview with Director Alexandra Dean
When it comes to women, whether in real life or as depicted in art, there always seems to be a tendency to place them in some sort of dichotomy. They’re either a whore or a Madonna, a butch or a femme, a beauty or a brain and never the two shall meet. From the 1928 silent classic Metropolis to the 2008 modern-day pop ballad You Belong With Me by Taylor Swift, the lumping of women into easily identifiable tropes can be found pretty much everywhere. However, if you are a woman or perhaps just happen to know a few, you’re well aware that women are much more complex than portrayed in certain sects of the media.
In her debut documentary Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, director Alexandra Dean tells the story of one such woman. Touted by MGM as the most beautiful woman in the world, Hedy Lamarr is often remembered for that: her beauty. And while, yes, she was an absolute knock-out, she was far more than JUST a knock-out. She was a funny, talented actress who also had the intellectual fortitude to invent a guided torpedo that hopped among 88 frequencies, thus preventing enemies to lock onto allied targets. The invention has gone on to be used as the basis for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS, ya know, pretty much everything we need to navigate through the modern world.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Alexandra about her documentary, Lamarr and her own challenges being a woman in a male dominated field.
I am curious about the title of your documentary: Bombshell. Considering Lamarr’s own frustration with being given that identity by the studio and public, can you explain that choice?
So, bombshell has a triple meaning. One, obviously, is that she was described as a bombshell but that is the least important of the meanings to me. The most important, of course, is that she was designing a bombshell. She was literally designing a torpedo for use in the Second World War. And the third meaning is that people, when I tell them her story they respond with, “Wait, that’s kind of bombshell. Her story. That she was an inventor and such a beautiful woman ”
So the word really kept coming back to me. The bombshell movie star. Inventing a bombshell. Her story was a bombshell. It meant so much - that word. By the end it was obvious that was what we had to call the movie.
Hedy Lamarr: The Beauty
The long-lost Forbes interview tapes seem like a goldmine and your most direct source into the mind of Lamarr. How did those tapes help you structure the documentary?
We found the tapes six months into making the documentary. I basically threw away the old structure of the film I was making, then followed Hedy’s lead when we found the tapes. We let her tell her story in her own words, which she wasn’t able to do in her lifetime. It was a huge undertaking for us (to restructure the documentary) but it was definitely the right way to go. The more that I let Hedy lead the way, the better and stronger the story seemed to get.
You have so many wonderful and diverse interview subjects in your film including the great Mel Brooks, many of her family members, and the US Military. How did get manage to get them all to participate?
It was really necessary to cast a wide net because people didn’t know Hedy’s whole story. The few that are still alive only remember parts of it or interacted with her during a short time over her very long and very varied life. So, finding every single person that I could talk to that had something directly to say about her was so important.
It wasn’t like a lot of other documentaries where you have the option of just going with three interview subjects or having the option of just letting one person tell the whole story. No one knew the whole story. In fact, there were all these aspects of her story that we kept uncovering and we would then have to teach to the historians who had written about her. They would read the primary source and they would be able to tell it back to us. We were forging new ground.
Who was the interview subject that shed the most light on her story?
The most crucial were her children, Anthony and Denise. They were incredible. Denise had done very few interviews in her life. She really doesn’t love to talk about this but she did eventually come on board as a partner with me in making this film. For that I am profoundly grateful. And her (Hedy’s) son, Anthony, really is the keeper of the flame. He is the guardian of her story and without him there is no story. He kept the archive – every bit of evidence in my investigation came from him.
The most important of her friends was Robert Osborne. He was her best friend for about a decade. And he brought back to life this fun-loving, cheeky, silly, Hedy that nobody else could really describe. He would sneak into the back yards of different stars in Be-Air with her, in their huge gardens. They were really naughty and cheeky together. It really showed a new side of Hedy.
And Robert Osborne gave us his last interview two weeks before he died, even though he was not in good shape. He had given multiple interviews with us but in the last one he really wanted to set the record straight because he was so concerned with how she had been maligned in her lifetime. So he had this real mission to tell the world who she really was.
Hedy Lamarr: The Brain
Early in the documentary, you make it a point to highlight that fact that Hedy had something of an intellectual fascination in her own beauty as a source of power over others. Do you think her willingness to utilize her looks as a tool early in her life unintentionally aided in her own “bombshell” stereotype later in life?
Yes. I think Hedy struggled with how to use this double-edged sword of her beauty. It’s part of what is so fascinating to us, particularly as women, but some men as well, in her story because it’s something that we don’t often talk about in the media – this double-edged sword that is great beauty. But I also think that all of us struggle a little bit with how much to use the power of looks when you’re young and beautiful because it does create this backlash when you’re older.
The more you lean on your looks when you’re young for your power, the more the vacuum is intensified when you get older and those looks fade. Where you put your power, where you see your self-worth, all of those things are very important. Hedy’s story makes you look at that in your own life.
Many of Lamarr’s inventions seemed to come out of a desire to aid the war effort, such as the coca-cola tablet and frequency hopping technique. Do you think without the war, she would have merely been a hobbyist? Or do think Hedy’s need to do something great with her intellectual abilities was innate?
I don’t know if she would have done it without the war. The truth is the war was personal for Hedy because she was Jewish, because she couldn’t tell anyone is Hollywood that she was Jewish, because was her mother was trapped in Britain during the blitz.
Hedy was in an extreme situation and it’s often in those extreme situations when you find sides of yourself you didn’t know were there. In this case, Hedy wanted to save her mother’s life. She also wanted to save the lives of orphans who were being ferried across the ocean and getting blown up by the Nazis. She was in a state of in extremis and that did bring out this incredibly bold and incredibly brilliant side of her.
Hedy Lamarr‘s Patent
Earlier in the film Diane Kruger stated, “She created her own reality.” This line really stuck with me, especially in relation to Lamarr’s various plastic surgeries, because at that point it seems she wasn’t necessarily creating her own reality but conforming to a reality she thought others expected from her. This ultimately led to her life as a recluse because she could not maintain what she thought others wanted from her. I’m curious if you have any more thoughts on that, outside of what you were able to put into the film.
Hedy tried to shape her own reality and had great success doing so when she was young. She was able to, because she had all this power both with her mind and her looks, escape the Nazis. And in her flight, she became a major movie star – the stuff of fantasies.
But as she got older the power of the face faded, as did her power to shape her reality. Her reality became a nightmare to her. She couldn’t invent her way out of it. She tried. That’s what she was trying to do with the plastic surgery, she was trying to invent her way out of this problem she was having, which was the world reacting so negatively to her looks. But she couldn’t, and it backfired on her.
So, you get this sense of the more power you have when you’re younger to shape your world, the less you have when you are older – unless you have found a way to navigate that problem apart from your appearance.
You’re a first time female feature film director. Lamarr was a first time female patent holder. Did you find yourself facing similar challenges that Lamarr had, as you both were entering a male dominated field?
Yeah! The parallels are really striking. It’s surprising. We’re in a moment where the number of females, if you look at the industry as a whole, has been hovering around 15-16 percent. With the top films, it’s more like seven percent. It’s dismal – no better than the inventors in Silicon Valley and no better than Hedy in 1945. So, that’s depressing. But I do think we’re really starting to take notice for the first time.
In fact, as this film rolled out across the country, the reaction I had from people was this moment of awakening. One of the reasons I think this film really struck a cord is that people are starting to realize how much women have been overlooked in various ways even though we think we’ve made progress in those areas. We haven’t made as much progress as we thought and it’s been this sentiment that’s echoed through science and invention as well as the history of film, particularly directing. So, it’s an incredibly parallel journey for me and Hedy.
I have taken a lot from Hedy’s story and I do think about it a lot as we female director. One of the biggest things for me is what Hedy says at the end of the film:
“You may not feel like you get applause for your greatest accomplishments. You might never feel recognized but do it anyway. Do it anyway because it’s in trying to move the needle and trying to make a mark on the world that you’ll find meaning in your own life.”
Hedy Lamarr inventing
What was the most surprising thing you learned about Lamarr while making this film?
The most surprising thing for me was sort of meeting her through the tapes. She was funny! She had this warmth and this humor. She was a bit capricious, a bit cheeky – a little naughty. When you read history about someone, you often don’t get the nuances of their character. And so I was putting her on this pedestal as this beauty with brains. Once I had met her, almost as a friend, she was so different than that. She was so human, so complex, so three-dimensional. You know, with so many thoughts and so many strengths. I found her easier to identify with than I had expected.
She was flawed but that doesn’t make her any less brilliant.
What compelled you to make this film? Why was it important for Hedy Lamarr’s story to be told.
I think I have a bit of an obsession with the idea that people’s stories are not taken seriously because they just don’t look the part. Because their appearance, for some reason, hides or obscures who they really are.
I think my own grandma experienced that. She was a really incredible woman who played in Second City in Chicago and was an incredible actress then gave it all up to have her four daughters. She was one of my favorite people on earth and when she died, her story wasn’t out there on Google. You couldn’t find her anymore. But she was the most extraordinary person I have ever met. That drives me to tell the stories of extraordinary people who have been lost or hidden or overlooked – trying to bring them back.
Are you currently working on another project in that regards – trying to bring someone back?
Yes. I’m looking at, who I like to call the greatest artist never known, Niki de St. Phalle. If you look at the Dior collection this year, it’s all emblazoned with her artwork. Google has used her to shape their google letters in the past. So, she’s everywhere and yet we don’t know who she is. She’s American and yet she’s only known in Europe. Her art work was shaped around her own #MeToo moment as a young woman and we were not ready for her yet, but I think now we are.
I would like to extend my gratitude to Alexandra Dean for taking the time to do this interview with us. If you haven’t yet, you can order your copy of Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, you can do so by clicking here!
Minoo Allen for Classic Movie Hub