Between the rise of the #metoo movement and Time Magazine naming "the Silence Breakers" as their Person of the Year, the role of courageous women has only intensified in 2017. Adding onto the pile is director Alexandra Dean's investigative documentary on Hedy Lamarr, Bombshell. In the last 24 hours it took home the Best Documentary prize from the New York Film Critics Circle in what's hoped to be the first of many awards. Dean sat down to talk to Cinema Sentries about researching her complex subject and Lamarr's renewed place in history.
What was your history with Hedy Lamarr before you decided to tackle this project?
I knew her as the Hedley joke in Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles. I had been doing this series of innovators for two years for Bloomberg Television, so I'd been talking to inventors, people like Limor Fried, people like Megan Conroy or Jane McGonigal, who believes video games can change the world. They're some of my favorite people. I love talking to these female engineers and inventors, and something that came up from a lot of these conversations was "we feel sometimes it's hard to be taken seriously because we don't look the right way. We feel like no one came before us." That created a stereotype in people's minds of the female inventor. That really stuck with me and I was a looking for a story like this. Katherine Drew, our producer we were working with at the beginning of this project, gave me Hedy's Folly by Richard Rhodes - that's the first book I read - and I was like, "Bingo! I think this is the Hidden Figures story I was looking for" to start to explore the notions of who invents our world.
Since you've made Bombshell have you gone back and sought out her film work?
Oh, yeah! A part of it was watching all her films and I was pleasantly surprised by a few. I'd been told by many people she was not a good actress and that I shouldn't expect much from her filmography. I loved Ecstasy; Ecstasy is a beautiful arthouse film. We use a lot of it in the film because we love the visuals so much. I loved Algiers! I mean that close-up of her and Charles Boyer; it's a lot of fun. Come Live With Me with Jimmy Stewart is a beautiful film and has some lovely, delicate comedy in it. Jimmy Stewart is one of my favorites anyway but I love seeing him with Hedy. That [film is] peak Hedy and it was actually when she was doing inventions. Of course H.M. Pulham, Esq. is a really good film and the only reason it didn't break out and make her legend was [because] it was released during Pearl Harbor. I really feel for her [there since] my film is going to be released during the California wildfires.
I have seen Hedy in Ziegfeld Girl and Lady of the Tropics.
That's a weird one!
Lady of the Tropics is weird because every time it thinks it wants to be feminist...
It backs away.
You have Stephen Shearer in this film who wrote the Hedy biography Beautiful, and in his book he says Louis B. Mayer didn't know how to use her. In researching Hedy how do you think she should have been utilized in film? As a comedienne, a dramatic star?
I think she could have been a great comedienne. Mel Brooks actually said that to me and I thought that was an amazing endorsement of her comedic abilities. She did My Favorite Spy with Bob Hope in which she has real comedic moments, and she went on the record saying a lot of her greatest comedic moments had been cut from the film to keep the focus on Bob Hope, and I believe her. I think Hollywood at the time was more rigid back then in typecasting you as the pretty face or the funny woman. She wasn't able to mix the two, which is a loss for us.
I'd love to know more about the interview she did with Fleming Meeks for Forbes. How far into production were you when that popped up?
We had to hunt for that. Nobody knew those tapes existed. In fact when I started this everybody said, "The biggest challenge for you is going to be that she never talked to anybody on the record about her inventions, except for a handful of small articles during her life." Each of those articles I had were about a sentence on the inventions. I was in a real pickle for awhile at the beginning of making this film. I was looking at all the different ways of doing it. Do we have Diane [Kruger] reading her letters throughout the film? I discovered there weren't enough letters, there was only a handful and they were between the years 1938 and 1940, a very tiny window of her life and they did not go into the inventions.
I thought maybe we'll find the tapes from the big court case she had over Ecstasy and Me, her autobiography which she sued the ghostwriter for libel and said he made it all up; I thought the tapes must be somewhere. No, it turns out those had been destroyed and the court records were no longer available. Then we just went down the list of every person alive who could possibly have the tapes, if they were to exist, and that was when we found Fleming Meeks six months into this arduous investigation. Going down that list we realized we had the wrong email for him, found the right email for him and he called me right away and goes, "I've been waiting 25 years for you to call me because I have the tapes." It was this unbelievable moment because I'd all but given up.
Other than telling this fascinating story about her inventions were there any other goals you set up for yourself in telling her story?
There were so many questions for me. I read through Hedy's Folly; I read Stephen's book; I read Ruth Barton's book when I started this and I came out with questions about this shift in her personality. It was very clear [Hedy] had been this lovely mother to her children when they were young, and then she shifted into this really difficult figure and, possibly, according to some records, schizophrenic. That just didn't square with this incredible mind of this woman who had the ability to invent at night while she was on soundstages everyday with Clark Gable and Jimmy Stewart; then she's going home at night and inventing with Howard Hughes and she's schizophrenic? It just didn't seem right. One of the biggest questions for me was "How do I square this to account?" And that was the discovery that she had been Dr. Feelgood's [Max Jacobsen] patient, which was more investigative journalism, finding out that she was actually on his patient rolls; we found her name there.
Then we found out she invested in his lab, and we found out the extent of her involvement in the drugs. And then I started to research what that intensity of drug use would do to your mind. Basically it makes you bipolar and schizophrenic, synthetically. So what we see is that, at that point where she gets heavily in meth she becomes a different person. And so figuring that out, sorting out when this happened and that she was two different people in her life was the key because I felt that had never been properly explained before.
Considering the rise of the #metoo movement and the sexual harassment allegations coming out of Hollywood today, how do you think this movie will play in terms of reexamining outspoken women of the past?
I think some of the success we've had has been propelled forward by, has been lifted by, the #metoo movement. I don't think that's a mistake. I think it is, in fact, because we're having a dialogue that's really the endpoint of what started with Hedy Lamarr. With Hedy and the studio system you see this brilliant, beautiful woman fighting against the structure that she lived in and that structure was like a straitjacket eventually around her that she had to break free of. When we see this woman that's playing with a full deck of cards struggle that way we start to question our own lives, and how the structure works around us today. How much has it changed? And I think you see through the #metoo movement that it hasn't changed enough.
There's a brief moment with Hedy's adopted son that I found intriguing but I'm assuming for time you couldn't go in-depth into their relationship. Were there certain things you wanted to include but for time or cohesion you couldn't make work?
So many things, I can't tell you. That was the hardest part of making this doc, how much had to come out. For instance Hedy had great female friendships and that was one of the last things I had to cut for time. Lucille Ball was one of her best friends and she met [Hedy] when she first came to Hollywood. [Hedy] found Lucille Ball crying on the backlot behind Louis B. Mayer's office after an altercation with him. Hedy was feeling great compassion for another woman who was going through the same thing as her, got in the car and embraced this redhead she'd never met before. The redhead said to her, "I'm done. I'm washed-up. I'm not going to make good as an actress." And Hedy says to her, "You are. Keep the faith" and they became fast friends. So that moment [in the documentary] when you see Lucille Ball being Tondelayo [Hedy's character in 1942's White Cargo] and making fun of her is a betrayal as far as Hedy's concerned. After [Hedy] shoplifts Lucille Ball comes to Hedy's aid. She's the first to call Hedy's son; she rallies everybody that worked with Hedy to show up at her shoplifting trial, and then after she was acquitted she threw Hedy a party where everybody who attends has price tags attached to their clothes. It would have been fabulous [to include]. There was a lot like that. You wouldn't believe how many wonderful things had to go because you can't have a two-hour long movie.
I know this is your directorial debut and you might not stay in the genre forever but are there certain stars or subjects you'd love to make a film on?
A lot. Marlene Dietrich; I'm really interested in her. I happen to know her grandson through my father who happened to be his roommate in school for awhile, which is a coincidence. I have had preliminary conversations with him about maybe doing something on Marlene. Of course the trouble with her is that there was a fantastic doc done on her during her lifetime, so we'd have to find a new angle. I'm interested in Amelia Earhart and Anita Hill. I'm sorry that docs were just done on them. What I like to do is bring the investigative eye to these things. I don't want to settle for what's out there. So if I can't break news with it, and bring you a new angle of the woman that you didn't see before I don't think I'd do it.
The documentary is called Bombshell. Stephen Shearer's biography on her is called Beautiful. What one word would you use to describe Hedy?
Funnily enough it's another "B" word; I'd call her brave!
Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story is in select theaters now