“I heard she was a scientist, is that true?” Mel Brooks asks director Alexandra Dean innocently enough mere minutes into “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story.”
Of course, Brooks worshipped the actress, to the point that he named one of his most famous characters “Hedley Lamarr” in “Blazing Saddles” after the Austrian-born screen siren. But like many, he couldn’t have been aware that any of her time spent away from movie set was likely devoted to creating all kinds of useful technology, from airplane design that would make flight faster and smoother by combining the way fish swim with how birds fly to spread spectrum technology, a kind of frequency hopping that would evade guided missile jamming during World War II and eventually serve as the basis for Wi-Fi. However, Dean, who was on the innovation beat for years as a journalist at BusinessWeek and Bloomberg Television, had wondered why so few people did know and arrives at some startling conclusions in “Bombshell,” which doesn’t simply recount Lamarr’s remarkable double life as an actress and an inventor after escaping Austria during the rise of the Nazis, but does so in such a way as to see her always active mind at work and see the many realms of society she touched, even if the world at large was unaware of the full scope of her brilliance apart from the screen.
When “Bombshell” premiered earlier this year at the Tribeca Film Festival, it felt revelatory as a lively and invigorating portrait of Lamarr, as entertaining as any film she starred in as an actress, in charting her wily navigation of Hollywood, including shrewd negotiating tactics with studio bosses, and her many marriages to men who couldn’t keep up with her, but in an environment when female voices finally are being heard on such issues as sexual harrassment, it comes across as downright prescient as a cautionary tale of what is and has been lost in a culture where gender equality still isn’t a reality as Lamarr’s achievements were often dismissed or outright denied because of a belief she couldn’t be anything more than a great beauty. As remarkable a history as Dean compiles onscreen, complete with Lamarr’s own words in rare interviews and letters in addition to insightful interviews with the likes of Diane Kruger, Peter Bogdanovich, and the late Robert Osborne, the efforts of the director and her crew to uncover Lamarr’s story in full might be worthy of a film all its own, with twists and turns Dean recently described in an interview before the film’s Los Angeles run at the Nuart as part of its theatrical tour across the country.
How did this film come about?
It was a few years in the making because I had been on this beat of covering inventors at Bloomberg Television and I wrote a little bit about inventors for BusinessWeek Magazine. [The question of] who makes our world and how was just something that I was really interested in, and one of the things that kept coming up was [there were] not that many women and women that I did interview would say there was nobody who came before us because a lot of times it seems like it’s hard to get funding or to get taken seriously because somebody looks at a woman and think, “Not necessarily an inventor or an innovator.” When they said that, that rankled a bit at me and I started to think, is that true? Is our whole world created by one kind of person?
That sat with me and when we started Reframed Pictures, our mission was to reframe the conversation around issues and the one I really wanted to tackle was this issue of hidden figures in inventing. We had a great film producer at the time – Katherine Drew, who brought me the book, “Hedy’s Folly” by Richard Rhodes, and in that book was really the first serious suggestion that Hedy Lamarr, this movie star had invented something that was fundamental to our lives, [after it had long been a rumor]. It was given credibility by this Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and yet there were still a lot of unanswered questions. As an investigative journalist, it lit up my brain and I thought we can dig in here and find a way of telling this story that explains how this incredibly gorgeous movie star who was on three soundstages at once [during the day] was at night inventing something that would change our world [which in turn] I hoped that would change the conversation around inventors.
You’ve said this started without the tapes of an interview Hedy did with Fleming Meeks that form the backbone for this film, which seems unimaginable now. How did that discovery change what you could do?
Those tapes are the most exciting thing that’s happened in my journalistic career because it was really one of those moments where six months in, I’m thinking, “This film’s okay the way it is, but it doesn’t have her voice and it’s not going to do what I hoped it would do without her telling how she did it and answering some of these sticky questions about how it was possible?” It was really something that I couldn’t get out of my head and I finally rallied the whole team and said, “Look, we’ve got to work like investigative journalists here and make a list of everybody who could’ve talked to her and scour the earth and decide for ourselves if there’s any record. We can’t just assume that there isn’t.” So we did. We made lists of everybody that had ever talked to her, everybody who’d ever known her who was still alive and I just methodically went down that list.
It really was that we’d had Fleming Meeks’ e-mail wrong at first and we were tweeting at a dead account that led us astray, but six months in, we went back to the list one more time and found out the real e-mail for Fleming. It was just magical because the moment that e-mail was sent out, [Fleming] called me and said, “I’ve been waiting 25 years for you to call me because I’ve been keeping these tapes in a box, hoping somebody would tell her story.” And it was just, “Jackpot.” [laughs]
Once you know the full story, you realize Hedy must’ve been in a very different frame of mind towards the end of her life when that interview was recorded. Did the tapes line up with the woman you had researched in her earlier years?
She was different, but firstly, she was incredibly charming on the tapes and she has a sense of humor that couldn’t be translated in any other archive. I was delighted and tickled by her humor and I fell for her in a new way. That was lovely to discover. She was also in some ways addled by the amount of drugs she had taken at that point and I really understood how her mind was a little bit scrambled by the 1990s. We had to do some detangling to figure out what she was trying to say on those tapes and reconstitute some of her sentences and things like that. But once we did, a very clear picture emerged of this really extraordinary woman who had done this extraordinary thing and was grappling with realizing that the world was probably never going to applaud her for it in her lifetime.
You’ve said that there are some incredible personal parallels and even some direct connections to Hedy that you were unaware of before filming. Did making this film feel like destiny?
Yeah, it was very weirdly destined. Fleming Meeks was a great friend of my Aunt Jean’s and they were having drinks every Friday down at the Odeon, so while I was searching the earth for this man, he was under my nose. Then my uncle had dated Hedy briefly for eight months and I didn’t find that out until after I made the film! He was the stepbrother of my father and my mother was just calling everyone, saying that we had done this film and Uncle Bill called back and said, “Oh, I dated her!” [laughs] And then my own grandfather had an escape that was very parallel to [Hedy’s], so her story resonated in this familiar way. Isn’t that weird? From the beginning, it felt like oh, I know this person. Because I’d always wondered what would my grandfather have done if he was a girl, being a girl myself and when I [learned] her story, I was like, “Boom, there it is. That’s what a girl of his caliber would’ve done.”
Hedy’s son Anthony also seems to have kept an incredible archive. What was it like to delve in?
It was amazing. Hedy’s son really was careful to collect this archive and he let people into it, but it was vast and there were whole sections of it that hadn’t been opened up. For instance, he had all of these extraordinary letters in German that had never been translated from the Second World War. That was an incredible boon for us because we got her voice pre-drugs, pre-Hollywood, and that allowed us to get to know her when she actually was making the invention. That was this jewel that was in there, and another was that amazingly on the tapes that Fleming had, there was the discovery of Bob Price, who was kind of the keeper of the history of secret communication. Along with another communications engineer, he was the guy who could put on the record whether she did it or not for a whole community of engineers and he intentionally decided to leave her testimony out.
Usually, you sense the mechanisms of patriarchy working against somebody, but you don’t hear from an individual so clearly the way you do in Hedy’s story. [Price] interviewed her in person in ’83 and he wrote notes back to Anthony in which he made bullet points of everything that she said to him during that sit-down interview right afterwards for Anthony to confirm with his mother for verification, so they’re very clear. One of the bullet points is “Did she do it [invent signal changing]? Was it George [Antheil, her husband]? Or was it Hedy alone?” And she says, “I did it. It wasn’t George. He just helped.” And I [thought], “That’s surprising because later Bob Price says she didn’t do it. She was a spy.” And he became the one who really goes out to the press with that and even tried to get her the Congressional Medal of Honor based on the fact that she was a spy not an inventor.
So in Anthony’s archives, I went back in and saw if there was any later other evidence that would explain what had happened. Sure enough in the ‘90s, Bob Price starts to e-mail Anthony about the possibility of making a fictional film about his mother’s life and in this fictional film, he’s promoting the idea that she’s a spy. Again, he attaches this record of this conversation he had with Hedy Lamarr, but this time he’s actually redacted the line where she says she did it. He actually erased her in that process and actively changed the narrative! I think he was genuine – it [probably] seemed more likely to him that that’s what happened. But you very rarely get to see those moments exposed where somebody’s acknowledgement is actually taken away from them.
It sounds like you could’ve made a compelling movie about the making of this movie.
I built a version that was much more going back and forth between my own investigation and the drama of the film because we were so astonished at the way the investigation had gone and thought maybe the drama was there as well. But I really didn’t like it. I felt it wasn’t my story. It was Hedy’s story that needed to be told and all that needed to be kept of the investigation was the salient points that we had uncovered. But I do like to talk about it because it was so amazing.
One of the real strokes of genius on your end, however, is how you use animation to bring Hedy’s creative process to life. How did you figure it out?
I wanted to be a writer all my life and I think I became a documentarian because of the joy of collaboration with really brilliant people. And [animation] was part of that. In this film, I got the real joy of collaboration with the graphics people. We had Versus doing [the sequences] when you get immersed in the world of Hedy and you see her escaping [Austria] on the bike or you see her with the notebook [to develop her ideas for inventions] with the fish and the bird becoming the plane. Versus were [comprised of] just sweet, wonderful people who would really be in conversation with me and incredibly adaptive. They were willing to kind of invent with us, which is so perfect for this film.
Then we had Sam [Hayes], a kid who basically came in as a graphics intern who turned out to be so talented that he and I started to have this playful [experimentation] where we were looking at how do you show Hedy’s inventive mind? By drawing right onto the footage. And he just moved in with us and as we were cutting the thing, creating these drawings that we’d animate onto the footage so we could see her creative mind. We just went wild with it and [actually] pulled back to the things we felt were really good. But usually, you have to spend so much money on animation you don’t get to play to that extent, so it was really wonderful.
Playful seems to be the watchword for this. For the interviews, you’ll really subjects out of a sitdown style interview to do something different, whether it’s Guy Livingston playing the music of Hedy’s husband George Antheil or Diane Kruger reading Hedy’s letters. Did those kind of requests come naturally?
It was playful. We loved the idea of Guy playing George because he actually does that in his life. He’s acknowledged as the greatest scholar on George and also the one pianist who’s really allowed to play all of his works in concert. He sometimes dresses up as George in concert, so we went and called Steinway and said, “Would you think about donating a piano for this unbelievable moment [in the film]? We’ll light it beautifully, have him play George and also tell us about George at the same time.” And it was just great fun. We got a camera and a dolly, and actually we even had him in makeup as George for a while and an actress in there also playing Hedy for a while – we tried that and didn’t work, but yeah, we were playing. [laughs]
Then with Mel Brooks, we were having a ball. In that interview, at one point, he brought out his comb and pretended to be Hitler and we were just all on the floor laughing, the whole crew. He wasn’t supposed to be such a big character in the piece, but he was just so fantastic. And I asked Diane [Kruger] to read the letters because I thought we need a voice of Hedy and at one point, I thought Diane would have to do the whole thing, but then we found the tapes. Then there was this great question of how do you blend the letters and the tapes and in the end, it worked great the way it was. In the past, she’s Diane, and in the present, she’s Hedy.
It’s amazing how many different worlds she touched – was it easy to determine who to talk to?
Yeah, it was a huge array of people and that part of it is just a joy. You get to meet new people and travel to these places and really inhabit somebody’s life. That’s why I became a journalist and I used to be able to do it at PBS at “Now,” Bill Moyers’ news magazine. I was under David Brancaccio and I used to go all over the country and get to talk to people about their lives and it just became a thing I really loved.
Robert Osborne is probably the [interview] I remember now the most fondly because he gave us the last interview of his life. He told me he had a cold – obviously, I didn’t know he was about to die – and the previous time I interviewed him, he was completely healthy. He was wheeled into the studio with the shawl over his back and he said, “Can I have just have some hot tea waiting for me?” And I [asked], “Yeah, but do you want to do this another time?” And he said, “I’m going to do the best I can.” He gave us these incredible soundbites that are in the film about Hedy wanting to leave her mark and that she did leave her mark – it was the things she did for other people. It was incredibly important to him that the world understand this person was his best friend for a period of his life and I later found out he basically gave us a half-hour of the last two weeks of his life to do that. It was profoundly moving.
What’s it been like bringing this movie out into the world at this particular moment?
Mindblowing because I had no idea when I made the film that we were going to have this conversation about “#MeToo” and Weinstein and the whole power structure of Hollywood right when this came out. That’s been astonishing, to be able to go across the country sharing the film at festivals at the same time as this drama unfolds, having these conversations with women – and men – who want to talk about the film – and it turns out it’s a cultural moment where we want to strip it all down and look at it from its foundation. And [Hedy’s story] is the foundation of what’s going on. You have to understand how Hollywood was constructed and what that experience was like for a woman like Hedy, who had the full deck of cards – the brilliance, the beauty and how she struggled within that system because there was so much power in the hands of so few men who dictated everything. That’s the backdrop for what we’re talking about today.