Screening on Opening Day of #NFF17, BOMBSHELL: THE HEDY LAMARR STORY shares with the audience an unseen side of Hedy's private life.
Good looks made Hedy Lamarr a 1940s Hollywood siren, but her beautiful mind earned her a spot in technology history. During World War II, the Austrian Jewish émigrée developed a secret communications system that she hoped would help defeat the Nazis—one that would later serve as the basis for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Weaving in archival interviews with the glamorous actress, this film for lovers of history, Hollywood, and science reveals Lamarr's under-acknowledged role as a pioneering inventor.
We spoke with producer/director Alexandra Dean - read more below, and join us for the film on Wednesday, June 21 at 1:30 PM and/or Thursday, June 22 at 9:30 AM!
NFF: What prompted your interest in/fascination with Hedy Lamarr?
Alexandra: I have always wanted to know why there aren't more female inventors. Inventing is so creative, and it shapes the world we live in. I wrote about inventors for Businessweek and did television segments and I was always surprised at how few women identified themselves as inventors. The women I did profile told me they felt like pioneers because they had no role models who came before them. That's changing now with Hidden Figures, but at the time it seemed true that women didn't see technology and invention as their domain. I refused to believe there were no female inventors that changed America and I suspected the women who came before were simply forgotten, but I didn't know for sure. Then a colleague gave me Hedy's Folly by Richard Rhodes and i was delighted to discover that hollywood star Hedy Lamarr was an amateur inventor. As I read and read my eyes turned to saucers... she really did invent something that changed the world, and the only reason we don't know it today is that she was so far ahead of her time. Her invention went unrecognized partly because it seemed so unlikely someone known as "the most beautiful girl in the world" could turn out to be among the most brilliant as well. But she was! The story seemed incredibly timely and surprising so I jumped at the chance to make a documentary about it.
NFF: Do you think Hedy was a product of or a victim of the time she was born into?
Alexandra: Both. I think Hedy was an extremely strong woman who rejected the idea that she was a victim of her circumstances at every turn (she convinced Louis B Mayer to make her a star while fleeing war torn Europe! She invented a secret weapon to fight the nazis! She was among the first movie stars to produce her own films!) but eventually, over time, she did become a victim despite her best efforts to remain in control and powerful. The world applauded her beauty and her style and ignored her mind and her achievements out of the spotlight. Finally, worn down by drug use and ridicule from the press, she did start to believe that her own self worth was in her looks and not in her other qualities. Thank God the world started to recognize her as a brilliant inventor just before she died and she did see a glimpse of the legacy she left behind, which was all about her mind and not at all about her famous face.
NFF: Why do you think women face the challenge of being beautiful or smart, but not both?
Alexandra: In my edit suite, I propped up a note that reads: "this is a film about power" to remind myself that the question of power is really what lies behind our endless discussions about women, beauty and brains. Being beautiful and smart are two forms of power, and for whatever reason women are usually allowed to own one of those forms of power, but not both. Perhaps its because, traditionally, being a great beauty is about having the timeless female power of seduction; being something that other people want to posses, an object of lust, obsession, reverence. It's a passive power. The power of "being smart" on the other hand, is an active power that allows the person wielding it to take control of their own narrative. In the great literature of the world pre-1950 that person was traditionally male: the subject in the drama of life, not an object. Hedy tried to transition from the traditional passive power of being a trophy wife and a renowned beauty into an active role as an inventor that changed the world. That transition is what the public resisted. Even today women struggle to exist on both sides of that line: powerful for their beauty and their brains. It's like society says: decide, you are either going to take the traditionally male role or the female one, but you can't have power in both spheres. Perhaps in the future the world won't remain so gendered in its power structures. In fact, I see those bright lines becoming dimmer all the time and that gives me hope. I think we will live in a much more interesting world when we can really mix it up. Why not?
NFF: What surprised or challenged you the most while you were making the film?
Alexandra: The biggest challenge when I started making this film is that I could not find Hedy's voice anywhere. She never talked about inventing in TV interviews and only mentioned it casually a handful of times in her print interviews. The invention and how she invented it remained shrouded in mystery. There was an autobiography but it was very salacious. I didn't want to base the documentary on her book "Ecstasy and Me" because she sued the ghostwriter for $21 million claiming it was all lies. So I would go to bed every night dreaming that somewhere I would find tapes of Hedy talking about her life and telling us answers to all the mysteries about her. Finally I decided that I had to stop dreaming about the tapes and just go out and find them. My whole team divided up the names of everyone who had ever talked to Hedy Lamarr on the record, and after about six months of searching we found Fleming Meeks, a reporter who interviewed her for a short article in 1990. When he picked up the phone he said, "I've been waiting 25 years for you to call, because I had the tapes." I got chills and half an hour later we ran into his office with the camera running and that's the scene you see in the film when Fleming says he just found the last tape hidden behind his trash can. Once we made that discovery, Hedy's voice took control of the narrative and we scrapped the film we'd been trying to make in favor of a new one with Hedy at the helm.
NFF: Why are you excited to show the film in Nantucket, and/or what do you hope Nantucket audiences will take away?
Alexandra: I'm excited to show the film in Nantucket because I think the crowd here are an incredible group of people really in love with film and storytelling. It'll be in this gorgeous place where we can drink wine on the water and talk power and gender politics and sexy movie stars. I absolutely can't wait.
I hope Nantucket audiences will come away from this film remembering Hedy's wisdom at the end: When you are bold the world might kick you in the teeth and everything you build may burn to the ground. Do it anyway.