Documentaries tell the world’s hidden stories. It like they sit you down for 90-minutes and demand your focused attention because you’re not going to believe what they’re about to tell you. Documentarian Alexandra Dean did just that with her film, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (Film Threat Review). Dean tells the story of Silver Screen legend Hedy Lamarr from her escape from Nazi Germany to her race to stardom in the Hollywood studio system. And on her off time, how she invented the technology we use today in secured WIFI and GPS systems.
Film Threat spoke with Alexandra Dean about Lamarr’s impact on modern feminism, her triumphant and tragic life and the challenges documentary filmmakers face in their craft.
Tell us about your documentary, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story.
Bombshell is the story of a woman who was playing with a full deck of cards. She was the most beautiful girl in the world. She was the Angelina Jolie in terms of being on the cover of every single magazine cover in the 40’s. And then she turned out to have this brilliant mind that matched her looks in terms of its kind of intensity. She came up with a way for us to securely communicate during the second world war that would eventually make its way into our WIFI, GPS, and Bluetooth today.
How did you become a part of this project?
I was striking out on my own as a filmmaker. I wanted to tell a story that resonated with this question in my head. For two years, I’d been doing a series about inventive people in the United States. I started to question whether the tech industry was making it more difficult for women to invent because people in Silicon Valley didn’t seem to be taking the ideas of women seriously.
It’s like history was suddenly completely devoid of women inventors. I mean, do we think of all our inventors as one kind of person? Did we erase the stories of women? Then I was given a copy of Hedy’s Folly by Richard Rhodes, and boom, there she is. This is the story I had to tell.
“It’s like history was suddenly completely devoid of women inventors…”
How do you personally connect with Hedy Lamarr’s story?
It’s really a morality tale for me. I see this woman who had so many gifts—the gift of beauty and the gift of intelligence. In spite of all her “advantages,” she struggled against the system and ultimately lost. It made me think about the world we live in today. And how we might need to navigate it differently or even call for change.
You could easily sum up her life as the tragic Hollywood starlet. But at the same time, she had this brilliant mind and she never got credit for inventing Frequency Hopping.
Yeah, she comes up with this technology that the US military hands over to freelancers. One of them actually credits Hedy Lamarr for the technology he used to create surveillance drones over Vietnam and for sonobuoys, which talk to submarines in the waters around the United States. We now know her invention percolated out into all these things we use today. Yet the military never turned around to her and said, “Look, this is now worth billions of dollars, let us give you something.” And that’s hard. It was hard for her at the end of her life. We found these tapes of her talking about her life, and she talks how difficult it was for her that she was never recognized and never paid.
I think the worst outcome of Hedy’s story is not just that women are not given that chance, but also think about the thousands of women who have been overlooked just because they are women and what they could have created if only given a chance.
I think women are not simply overlooked. Here’s the real problem, sometimes they’re not believed. In my two-year investigation in Hedy’s case, I spoke with this man, who took it upon himself to be the historian of secret communication. He hunted down Lamarr, who at that time was living in reclusion and conducted one of her final interviews. It lasted only 10 minutes. She said “My husband, the military manufacturer did not come up with this invention. George Antheil, my co-inventor did not come up with this invention. I came up with this invention.” As he went out into the world to publicize her story, he erased that line. It was an intentional omission. He just didn’t believe her. Her story continued to remain a secret because he decided it would be stupid to go out into the world and tell the world a story he didn’t believe.
“…women are not simply overlooked. Here’s the real problem, sometimes they’re not believed.”
From the broader picture, consider all the undiscovered treasures that have never come about because we just never gave women a chance.
It’s not just women. It’s everyone who doesn’t look right to the powers-that-be for whatever reason and who is therefore discredited or marginalized. And think about how much we lose when we do that to so much of our population.
Your film outlines in great detail how she came up with Frequency Hopping, pursued it, ran with it, got it patented and gotten it out there. And then from that moment on, she was shut down, which makes you wonder what could she have come up after that.
It’s really sad to think about who she could have been. At in the end of her 20’s, Hedy had incredible powers. By day, she was a starlet on stage with Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Jimmy Stewart. The biggest of the big. And at night she was going home and inventing, first with Howard Hughes and then with this famous musician George Antheil. And they were coming up with many inventions. The frequency hopping was only one of them. She and George came up with three inventions to help the war effort. And only frequency hopping was far enough away from anything else they were working on to become something that she got a patent for.
She did all out of a sense of duty too.
Yeah, she was mobilized by the war.
I also found interesting an amazing woman with a great mind, a fabulous career, which ultimately led to a life of seclusion.
Hedy Lamarr, for whatever reason, was born a woman who did not believe in boundaries or barriers. She broke barriers and crossed boundaries. She managed to do the first orgasm on screen as a teenager. She convinced Louis B. Mayer to hire her as one of his biggest movie stars, while she was fleeing the Nazis. In the States, she actually engineers a career where she becomes one of the biggest movie stars. When Louis B. Mayer got what he wanted out of her career, she fights with him to the point where she leaves him and becomes a producer in her own right. Which nobody, male or female was doing except Betty Davis in 1946.
You see this pioneer just blasting through barrier after barrier as if they don’t exist. And then the word starts to turn on her. She loses this powerful face. This gorgeous face she has. The doors stop opening. She starts to experience the limitations of a more ordinary woman. Realizing that so much of her power was in her face and she starts dabbling in the early days of plastic surgery. Like in technology, she became a pioneer in plastic surgery. She’s doing innovative stuff that’s never been done before in the field, but at a cost. When she loses her face and in fact becomes a monster because of this plastic surgery, she then pulls away from the world.
“…they talk about Einstein…Nikola Tesla and soon they’ll talk about Hedy Lamarr.”
And another topic I want to talk about is the idea of feminism. She was, for the most part, a feminist, when that term didn’t exist. But I also see her as something even bigger. She was really fighting for herself. She never let anyone really tell her how she should live her life. In that way, it was groundbreaking for feminism altogether.
Hedy thought she could be anything. She thought she should be Louis B. Mayer. She should be Cecil B. Demille. She didn’t have a sense that she should be limited in any way because of her gender. That’s what makes her so compelling to watch. She has the brilliance. She has the beauty, and she has the bravery. When she finally crashes up against those boundaries, that’s when we all have a feminist moment, because we go, “If she couldn’t make it, who can make it?” And I think the world has changed a little. We’ve shifted around those things, but I think the “Me Too” movement shows us that we haven’t changed as much as we’d like to think we had.
What you’re seeing with the “Me Too” movement is the women rushing through. We’ve jimmied it open enough to get our legs in; we’re going to go through. And I think you see the whole structure being shaken as a result.
My real hope for this film is that it does raise her back up into some sort of pantheon. In every elementary classroom discussion about inventors, they talk about Einstein. They talk about Nikola Tesla and soon they’ll talk about Hedy Lamarr.
Let’s go into the documentary filmmaking process. How do you start a project like that? After your research, is the story something you have preconceived or is it something that kind of develops as you’re doing the interviews.
It’s definitely a story that develops as you do your research. This is something I learned as an investigative journalist. You’re not a very good journalist if you don’t let your evidence dictate the story. In fact, what you need to do is check your preconceived notions at the door when you begin. Also, I didn’t just want to let others tell Hedy’s story. Wouldn’t it be good if she could tell her own story?
“I’ve been waiting 25 years for you to call me.”
And this is where the Meeks interview comes in.
Yeah, we were six months into the process before we found his tapes. We were frantically searching for Fleming Meeks. Tracking down every lead, we finally found him. He picked up the phone and said, “I’ve been waiting 25 years for you to call me.” He had four tapes of Hedy telling her life story in detail. He never wanted to use them for anything except a small article in which he quoted her seven times. The rest of her story had been, you know, kept in a shoebox.
At what point then do you approach the family about telling their mother’s story.
The family is crucial. Really, step one—you get the family on board. Having the family, having the rights to their archive, that’s crucial. I first spoke with Anthony Loder, who had designated himself the keeper of his mother’s story. He had boxes and boxes of material and archive going back 30 years, 40 years, 50 years. I mean, some cases back to 1914. And there was so much material that he himself hadn’t been able to go through it and really catalog what he had. It laid in many ways the foundation for what I knew was my story.
As a documentarian, you have a wealth of information, yet at the same time, you lack the key information. Talk about the idea of filling in the gaps.
It’s a treasure hunt. I call it a treasure hunt. The great thing about being a journalist for 15 years is you start to realize that anybody can investigate anything. It doesn’t take a genius, and you don’t have to have any special keys to the kingdom. You can start with an aggressive Google search and then discover where you hit your boundaries. Then start to think outside the box. Think as wild as you can.
In terms of Hedy, we were really interested in whether or not she tried to track down her invention in the 60s. She knew something was happening to it and was trying to figure out exactly what. And so we ended up buying letters that she’d written to a lover in the 60’s off of a Hollywood auction site. The site didn’t disclose what was in the letters. We just had to buy it on blind faith. We bought bundles and bundles of letters and went through them to find out if there was needles in there. And then, sure enough, one of those letters had a line in it where she’s writing to a guy in the Navy, “Can you find my patent?” We began to realize; she’s trying to track it down. So, you get these exciting adrenaline-filled moments from the treasure hunt.
“…Believe in your ability to investigate. Don’t stop digging.”
It’s that moment when you find the actual needle in the haystack.
A needle in the haystack and there were many needles in this haystack, you know from Dr. Feelgood to this letter, to the tapes, to …. every moment on this that you’re watching the film, we found a needle in the haystack, and we’re putting it in there for you. But we plant it delicately, so you don’t feel like it’s punch after punch after punch.
What’s the biggest lesson you learned specifically with Bombshell: The Hedy Lemarr story that you can pass on to emerging filmmakers.
The lesson that I’d love to tell a room full of young filmmakers is really don’t give up. Believe in your ability to investigate. Don’t stop digging. You’ll never get everything in your story. So even when you’re editing, keep digging. Be involved in every aspect of your character’s life. Go on all the message boards. Talk to all the fans. Talk to all the people. You know, in this case, it was the Hollywood fans, the engineers, the feminists. Everybody who was following her and who had nuggets of information, I was trying to talk to. I became immersed in the world of Hedy Lemarr and didn’t stop those dialogues and didn’t stop digging until we actually were at the final cut.