by Steven Prokopy
It’s almost impossible to watch the documentary BOMBSHELL: THE HEDY LAMARR STORY and not find it incredibly relevant and timely as an archetypal story of a vastly under-appreciated and underestimated woman. Not only was the Austrian-born actress brought over to America and labeled the most beautiful woman in the world, she also happened to be a certifiable genius and inventor of (among other things) communications technology during World War II, variations of which are still used today in GPS and cell phones, known as frequency hopping.
The first-time filmmaker behind BOMBSHELL is Alexandra Dean, a producer in the documentary field who is more than aware of the modern relevance of Lamarr’s struggle for recognition. Dean balances this story of an artist and a creator, but ultimately decides to center her movie on Lamarr’s struggle for some degree of recognition for her inventions (this film being a part of that process, although the actress passed away in 2000). Please enjoy this talk with Alexandra Dean…
Question: Where did your fascination with Hedy Lamarr begin, and was it about her as an actress or as an inventor?
Alexandra Dean: It was the inventor side. I had been doing this two-year investigation into inventors for Bloomberg Television a while before for a series I was producing called “Innovators,” and what I had from that was a really deep dive into who are the people who invent our world today, how do we recognize them, and what are their problems? So I talked to every kind of inventor over the course of two years, and one thing that recurred for me were people who did not look like Thomas Edison. Anyone who did not look like Thomas Edison was finding it harder, especially today, to go to Silicon Valley with hat in hand and try to raise some money, because we do have this subtle bias that inventors look a certain way, and they felt that subtle bias working agains them.
So I was looking for a story like this one. I was starting a production company and wanting to do a story that I really felt was something different. My mission was to reframe the conversation, and I wanted to reframe the conversation around this. Why do we think the people who invent our world look a certain way? So I told everyone that, and this producer in our shop had given me the book “Hedy’s Folly [The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World]” by Richard Rhodes, and because he was a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, the fact that he posited that she could have feasibly done this invention and really been the brain behind it was enormous. My background is as an investigative journalist, but also doing this long-term look into invention, so I started investigating because I wanted to answer, did she do it and to what extent? So that’s where it began.
Question: Tell me about this series. Who were some of the other people that you were looking at that fit that bill of inventors who don’t look like inventors?
AD: Oh, so many. Ayah Bdeir who made littleBits, which is the click-together engineering bits that you might get your children at Christmas. Jane McGonigal is this wonderful-looking woman with this long, curly blonde hair who makes video games, and she believes video games can solve all the great problems of the world and she’s done all these completely groundbreaking video games. Limor Fried who is at Adafruit; she broke open engineering for kids. She put all the component parts of engineering on sale for everybody and started to help everybody invent new things at home whenever they want to. She invents things on live stream. She's completely groundbreaking. It’s a long list, actually. Meghan Conroy at CaptureProof. I interviewed these people for two years, so a lot of them are now my friends. I follow them and champion their trajectories. They’re brilliant, brilliant women, but now that they’re my friends, I do know the challenges they face.
Question: Hedy’s story as an actor is one well worth telling. It’s a fascinating journey from Vienna to Hollywood and MGM. And of course, being labeled the most beautiful woman in the world, that’s a lot to live up to for anyone. You even illustrate how other actresses stole her look. But coming at her life from the inventing standpoint, what was it like investigating her acting career? There are a lot of people that care about that.
AD: Of course, and it was big at the time. When I spoke to people in Hollywood about it, there was a unanimous feeling that she had affected Hollywood more with her look than with her acting, not necessarily by fault of her own, but because the roles that she took. She wasn’t a terrible actress—some people think she was—I really don’t. I think she had some real power on screen. I actually think she was a great comedic actress. I think if she was given more reign in that area, she would have made more of a mark in acting. But she herself said all through her record that that wasn’t where she made her mark. Investigating the acting side, I have family that worked in Hollywood, so for me, that side is very interesting too. It’s fascinating and something I actually know quite a bit about, because my granddad was working in Hollywood around the same time.
Question: You’re essentially creating and constructing these parallel story lines that are her life and they very rarely intersect. Her knowing Howard Hughes would be a moment where they did come together. Talk about landing on that idea of the structure that you have—she was becoming more and more famous for acting, but also inveting is where her real passion was.
AD: For me, the really big breakthrough was the moment I realized that her whole life was about making her mark, and that was the way to weigh it and that was the way to give a verdict to Did she give her mark? For this woman, the whole chess game of life was about power. She wanted that power to make a mark, to leave a legacy, to change the world in some way. So the acting was one method and the inventing was another, and they both came spontaneously out of her, but the inventing was more spontaneously because it came out at childhood, it came out during her acting career, it came out after. She couldn’t suppress it. It was so completely a part of her, and that’s very interesting. And the acting was something that came to her because she was so beautiful. It was very clear that that was very correlated with her beauty, and her beauty had tremendous power over people, and so she used that, she wielded that. think she wanted to also make her mark with acting, but I think because it wasn't so completely a part of herself in the same way, she didn’t.
Question: This movie could not have come out at a more appropriate and vital time, when there’s a discussion going on about undervalued women and pushing that to the forefront. Why do you think Hedy’s story is so relevant today?
AD: It’s unbelievable. I could never have predicted that the #MeToo movement would happen at the moment we were releasing the film. It made even me see the film differently, in a different context. I just think this film resonates up and down, because this is a woman who was given all of the cards in the playing deck of life—beauty, brains, but also real courage to do whatever she wanted to become powerful and become somebody who makes their mark, and she still couldn’t. She played the game really well but she couldn’t really win her hand.
And that really I think speaks to many people who are concerned about everything that the #MeToo movement is about. Everything it means about women not being able to play with a full deck of cards when they go out there to make their mark in the world. It’s the context for the problems we have today, and I’ve seen that throughout taking this film to festivals and theaters across the country. Woman have come to me, I’ve gone out drinking with them afterwards, I’ve had people crying on my shoulder because we’re touching this nerve which is “What if we don't have a fair playing field here? What if it’s not fair for women, and we can’t make our mark the way we were taught we could? What do we have to change?”
Question: I was expecting in any way outraged by this story. I just thought it was going to be about someone who was just never quite got their due, but then to find out the military basically just steals her patents from her because she was an illegal immigrant. So you’re also telling an immigrant’s story here, and there couldn’t be a more perfect time to be telling that story. Talk about Hedy’s life from that perspective.
AD: That really popped out to me, funnily enough, when we started to have the immigrant conversation in this country. Not long after President Trump was elected, we started to talk about immigration because of the first executive act about immigration. I was on the train home thinking, “I’m pretty sure I read something in one of these original documents I’m working with about Hedy being an immigrant and that being on of the reasons the United States could take the patent back from her.” I hadn’t cracked that, but this conversation made me have the burning desire to crack that, because I had it on my mind “What do immigrants contribute to this country?” And Hedy was an immigrant.
So I went back, and that became the impetus to follow the breadcrumb trail, which is what you feel like a lot of these things are as an investigative journalist. I went back to the original documents and called more people and made more connections, and suddenly this picture came into focus very clearly that there was an agency that went around taking patents and other private property from people of Austrian and German decent at that time, and Hedy was one of them, even though she was Jewish; it didn’t matter. She was still an “enemy alien,” that was her classification, and you could take anything you wanted from somebody who was in that classification, including their intellectual property, and they did.
Question: If I ever see this with an audience, I can’t wait for that moment in the movie just to hear the response from the crowd.
AD: Yeah. It’s angry noises.
Question: Does this movie even exist without that taped phone interview with her later in life?
AD: Well, it did [laughs].
Question: The insight and perspective that it gives us is invaluable. How do you find out about that existing and how did it change the biographical structure that you had?
AD: Completely. I had a film that was much more, I would say, impressionistic. It had to be. We didn’t have a lot of answers to a lot of questions. It was not linear; it was a completely different film I was making based on what we knew of what Hedy had gone through, but it was completely seen from the outside, because she never left behind any record, and that seemed intentional when I started working on this. She died a recluse, she didn’t want to tell anyone about her story because she felt embittered about the fact that no one understood who she was. So she left the world saying, “No, I’m done. I don’t want you to know.” That’s what it felt like.
I was about six months into making the film, and there was just this feeling I had that I was overlooking something and I was up every night with the feeling. I was waking up at night, staring up at the the ceiling. It was a horrible feeling that I was making this film and missing her voice and somehow not doing right by her as a result. So I made my poor, beleaguered team go down a list of 70 people that could possibly have any record of her talking about this. And we went through it a couple of times without luck, and the third time down, we found out we had the wrong email address for Fleming Meeks [a Forbes magazine writer at the time, who wrote a 1990 article based on a lengthy interview with Lamarr]. And he picks up the phone and goes, “I have been waiting 25 years for you to call me,” as if I had been dragging my feet for 25 years.
But it was wonderful, because he was sitting on these tapes. He knew their value. He had to hunt them down. He found one of them behind a trash can in the beginning. We actually rushed up when he found that one. But he didn’t know where they were. He had been dragging them from house to house, office to office for 25 years, knowing that one day these were going to matter to somebody, and nobody ever called him. So it was just this wonderful moment of discovery, and suddenly I felt like I could breathe again. The tapes were not linear. They were not even comprehensible at first. It took us a while to figure out how she was thinking. She would make these great big leaps within a sentence. She would go from paragraph to paragraph, thinking one thought then bringing in another. It was a strange thing.
So the reason the film is linear is because when we took all these parts of her life that she had tried so hard to explain and that she could not explain on tapes and put them back linearly, boom there it was. It exploded in a way, and we realized every step builds on the next step. You couldn’t take it apart because it would take away some of the impact. We learned a little bit more every step of the way. Because her story was not really known when we started the film—it’s a bit better known now, but it wasn’t then—we just decided there was no way you could jump around. Every time we tried to, it just lessened the narrative. You had to let her build it the way she wanted to on the tapes.
Question: When you do dig into more technical details of frequency hopping, how do you go about putting that into more or less plain English for idiots like me who don’t know that much about it but at the same time keep it interesting? Keeping it… You know what I’m saying. Having to balance the two.
AD: That’s where my training at Bloomberg making “Innovators” became really handy. I spent a lot of time doing that, distilling science and math into really fascinating nuggets for everybody to understand and enjoy. I happen to think that science and math is wonderful storytelling. I really disagree with people who feel like it isn’t. I feel like it’s so fascinating, it’s just we have to find the story in there and translate it. For translating Hedy’s story, it’s really a trial-and-error process, and I had someone in the office with me who was able to draw on footage. So we played. We really drew on the footage and we played this way and that way, and we’d show everyone what we had and ask “Does this make sense?” and people would go, “Nah.” [laughs] And we’d go back and do it again. At one point, we had a torpedo flying through space. We had lots and lots of things we tried and we came to this one and it was really clear and we were really grateful we hit upon it finally.
Question: I want to bounce a couple of names off you that were a part this film. You have Diane Kruger doing the voice of the younger Hedy, which is an inspired choice. How did you get her involved?
AD: Diane Kruger was an actress naturally interested in Hedy’s story. I knew she had been interested for quite a while, and also I wanted somebody who didn’t have an American accent. What I didn’t really respect or understand at that point, I’ll be honest with you, was the difference between German and Austrian, which people have told me a lot since [laughs]. I’m so sorry. I really didn’t come from that part of the world and I thought Diane had a lovely accent, and she read very well and would do it.
Question: And you say she’s interested in doing the Hedy Lamarr story? Doing this story? She’d be a great choice, actually.
AD: Yes, she would be. She has been, for a long time, interested in doing a story about Hedy. There are actually three or four actresses that are interested and have been pitching projects for quite some time.
Question: You have Susan Sarandon as your executive producer. What was her contribution to the work?
AD: Believe it or not, Susan gave us the loft in which we worked. We really needed a home and realized how a documentary is a bootstrap operation, and her three children had just moved out of their loft that she brought them up in, and she’s an empty nester. She lived just a little ways down the road, and she opened it up and let us use this incredible loft as our offices.
Question: I don’t know how old the interview is, but you have an interview with Robert Osborne [the Turner Classic Movies host, who passed away in March 2017] in this.
AD: Yes. Two interviews.
Question: That has got to be really special that he’s a part of this film.
AD: Let me tell you. That’s a good question. You asked a very good question there. He did one of our first interviews and one of our last interviews, and our last interview with him was two weeks before he died, and we had no idea he was sick. He had been very key to us at the beginning because he was one of the only people who really could describe to me who Hedy was when she was younger. He was very close with her. He was one of her best friends. That moment where we find out who she was, that she liked charades but she was so lighthearted that she wasn’t very good at them but she was a lot of fun. That’s all Robert brining you a sense of who she was when she was a young woman, and that was priceless for me because everybody else I talked to knew her from after her breakdown and the drug use. And what I really was trying to unearth was who she was before. Who was the person who did the invention? And Robert knew that person. So he was huge for me.
When we talk in the beginning about her wanting to make her mark, that that was her mission, that was the bite we brought out at the beginning, the first thing we hear. I went back to him and said, “Listen, we need someone to distill whether she felt like she did make her mark? I need you to do a 20-minute interview with me.” He said, “I love to, but I have a cold.” I said, “We’re about to wrap the movie. It’ll be so short.” He lived just down the road. And he said, “Okay, I’ll do it. I need hot tea, the room to be warm, and can we just make it 20 minutes, because I do have a cold. If you like, we can wait a couple of weeks.” And I said “No, let’s do it right away because I’ve just got to wrap the film, I’m so sorry.”
So we went, and he came in in a wheelchair and was about a third of the size that I remembered him. He was absolutely bent over, he was being wheeled by somebody, and we had the hot tea ready. I was in shock about his health. I had no idea. I said to him, “Let’s not do this. This doesn’t make any sense. I’m so sorry, I didn’t realize you were so sick.” And he said, “I want to do this for Hedy.” He was very adamant that the record be set straight about her, because he felt terrible about the way she had been shamed by the press at the end of her life. So I said, “Do you think she made her mark?” “She did. She did make her mark for the things she did for other people. That she’s going to be long, long remembered for.” And that’s the ending bite of the film. So he gave us the beginning and the end, and that was about all he had strength for. And then he went, and it felt like seconds later—it was two weeks later—when I saw the banner headline that he had died and I was absolutely shocked. I just couldn’t believe. It was one of the last things he did was get himself out of bed to do that. How incredible.
Question: It’s wonderful to see him helping a friend in his final days. That’s phenomenal.
AD: It is phenomenal, and he gave us the ending of our film. He really nailed it. He understood her better than anybody and he gave us the beginning and ending. He was an incredible man
Question: There’s a certain generation of film lovers that know Hedy Lamarr’s name from BLAZING SADDLES, where Harvey Korman’s character is named “Hedley Lamarr.”
AD: Yeah! I’m among them [laughs].
Question: It’s fantastic that you got Mel Brooks to talk about this, but it’s clear that he would have been the right age to have this huge crush on Hedy. I get this impression that all you had to do was say, “We’re doing a film about Hedy Lamarr.” And he’s said, “I’m in.”
AD: He was there. That’s exactly right. He was like, “Yeah, I loved Hedy.” He was crazy about her. Originally, I have to tell you, we wanted to talk to him because she sued him for the BLAZING SADDLES thing. Then we found out that the lawsuit hadn’t resulted in much of a story; it was just that she was destitute. She wasn’t even mad about it. Apparently, she found it funny, and he knew that. He did give her some money out of court, as if to say, “Yeah, we did use your name, here’s some money, and I hope you’re okay.” And she was like, “Thank you very much,” and that was it. It was much friendlier, because he did love her and he had tracked her and he knew what happened to her, which says a lot for Mel Brooks. He’s so funny about her story and so open. He even did his Hitler impression for us. He said “It’s true that I made fun of Hedy Lamarr, but I also made fun of…” and then he got the comb out, and the whole crew was crying laughing.
Question: Alexandra, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us. Best of luck with this.
AD: My pleasure. Thank you for covering it; we appreciate it.