Tribeca docs focus on the tragic cost of fame


The Tribeca Film Festival’s documentary lineup invariably includes vital films on injustice, repression and crises around the world. But even the more “glamorous” doc offerings are often touched by great sadness. Case in point: new documentaries on three major stars who burned bright but ended their lives in tragedy. Two of those films seek to redeem their subjects’ reputations from tabloid salaciousness, while the third casts blame on the controllers and enablers who hastened a brilliant artist’s demise.

Arguably the saddest of the three is Whitney: Can I Be Me, Nick Broomfield’s chronicle of the life of pop superstar Whitney Houston. A powerhouse singer who became an instant sensation at the age of 21, Houston was groomed by producer Clive Davis (the subject of Tribeca’s opening-night film, which included a long chapter on the pair’s relationship) to reach the widest possible audience, and her rather wholesome public image belied her upbringing in a tough neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey. According to the doc, she experimented with drugs at a young age, like her siblings and peers, and she would increasingly turn to drugs as the pressures of stardom and her turbulent personal life became too much to bear.

Much of the doc’s material comes from a 1999 European concert tour with both onstage and intimate backstage footage shot by Rudi Dolezal; an early scene shows Houston taking a long pause in the middle of her signature song “I Will Always Love You,” looking exhausted and daunted, then belting its dynamic climax to the rafters. That moment encapsulates both her extraordinary gift and her wavering grasp of it. The personal struggles included a demanding and possibly jealous mother, the soul singer Cissy Houston; snickering that her hits weren’t “black” enough (she was even booed at the “Soul Train” Awards, to her mortification); a philandering, bad-boy R&B-star husband, Bobby Brown; alienation from her beloved father John, who sued her for millions; and the banishment from her circle of her closest friend and supporter, Robyn Crawford, with whom she was rumored to have had a lesbian relationship. A star of the doc is her colorful Welsh former bodyguard David Roberts, who wrote a memo detailing her severe drug and performance issues that was ignored by Houston’s handlers and resulted in his dismissal. Houston was a phenomenal performer, as the doc’s clips attest, but she required a healthier personal environment to maintain her amazing instrument and, not incidentally, allow her to “be me.” You come away from the film appreciating both her singular talent and her heartbreaking struggle.

Another blazing, beautiful star of a different era was Hedy Lamarr, the subject of Alexandra Dean’s Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story. Born in Vienna as Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, she became a worldwide sensation at the age of 18, appearing in the 1933 Czech film Ecstasy completely nude and simulating an orgasm in one scene. She fled her German arms dealer husband four years later, landed in Paris, and met Louis B, Mayer, who was looking to sign new European talent. In 1938, she became a Hollywood star opposite Charles Boyer in Algiers, celebrated as one of the most beautiful women in the world.

But there was more to Hedy Lamarr than just beauty. She was also a precocious tinkerer and inventor—when she dated Howard Hughes, she came up with a more efficient design for one of his planes. Despondent over the Nazis’ takeover of her beloved Austria, she fought back the best way she knew: by devising a system to counteract the jamming of the Allies’ radio-controlled torpedoes. Her solution, done in collaboration with her friend, avant-garde composer George Antheil, was something called “frequency hopping,” the constant changing of frequencies as a torpedo is propelled towards its target. They patented their invention in 1942 and it was rejected (on paper, at least) by the Navy, but it became the basis of later military applications and most of today’s wireless communications. Lamarr never earned a cent from her groundbreaking invention, which is said to be worth $30 billion today.

Rather than take Lamarr’s intellect seriously, the Armed Forces sent her out on war bond drives, where her looks proved lucrative. The actress had a number of hit movies, but never reached the heights of contemporary movie goddesses like Garbo and Dietrich. Her biggest hit was the 1949 Cecil B. DeMille spectacle Samson and Delilah, but a subsequent self-produced epic called Loves of Three Queens never got a U.S. release and her final movie appearance came in 1958. The film claims that amphetamines supplied by the studio during her MGM heyday led to subsequent drug problems, and her quest to preserve her legendary beauty resulted in botched plastic surgery and a life so reclusive she didn’t have the courage to show her face when the Electronic Frontier Foundation honored her in 1997.

Just as that previously unseen 1999 footage buttresses the Whitney Houston doc, a newly rediscovered 1990 audio interview with Lamarr by Forbes writer Fleming Meeks amplifies Bombshell. Meeks was at the Regal Battery Park screening on April 29 along with director Dean, her producer brother Adam Haggiag, and Lamarr’s son from her brief marriage to actor John Loder, Anthony Loder, who was effusive in his praise for the film. Dean called Lamarr “one of the most misunderstood people of the last century,” whose impact on all our lives is huge. “It was the best unknown story I’d ever heard,” she said of Lamarr’s remarkable life, voicing her hope that her film brings the actress/inventor “her moment of redemption.” Though the doc ends with the voice of Lamarr asserting the importance of pursuing your goals no matter the outcome, you still come away angry over the injustice of a brilliant woman defined and diminished by her alluring face. The filmmakers are anticipating a theatrical release for the doc, which will be broadcast as part of PBS' "American Masters" series next year.

Despite her trials, Lamarr lived to the age of 85; Heath Ledger, one of the most dynamic and promising young actors of this new century, died suddenly in 2008 at the age of 28. Directed by Derik Murray and Adrian Buitenhuis, I Am Heath Ledger was assembled with the full cooperation of the actor’s family and close friends, and benefits from the fact that Ledger recorded much of his life with both video and still cameras. The portrait that results is of someone with tremendous energy, curiosity, restlessness and drive, along with charisma that landed the Australian the lead role in the first Hollywood movie he auditioned for (10 Things I Hate About You). Paradoxically, Ledger loved to turn his camera on himself (partly as a way to investigate his own gifts), but he was far from comfortable with the scrutiny and mass adoration that came with stardom.

With testimony from his parents, siblings and bold-face names like Naomi Watts, Ben Mendelsohn, Ang Lee and Djimon Hounsou, the film tracks Ledger's rise through such films as The Patriot, Monster’s Ball, Ned Kelly, Lords of Dogtown, Brokeback Mountain and I’m Not There and his posthumous Oscar-winning turn as The Joker in The Dark Knight. Equal time is devoted to his many experiments with his video camera (including an impromptu “suspense” scenario shot in hotel corridors) and his budding career as a music-video director. (Singer Ben Harper was especially devastated by the loss of his close collaborator.) Watching that footage, it becomes clear that Ledger had a second creative career as a filmmaker in his future when he took that fatal dose of prescription drugs to help him sleep.

At the packed screening at the Tribeca Festival Hub on April 23, People and Entertainment Weekly editorial director Jess Cagle moderated a panel that included the directors, Ledger’s sisters Kate and Ashleigh, and his production company partner Matt Amato. Kate said the Ledger family deliberately waited “until we felt comfortable” before getting involved with any project about the late star. This was her third time seeing the doc, an experience she finds cathartic. Ashleigh said her personal reason for getting involved was “to show the world what they didn’t know about him,” especially as a photographer and filmmaker. Amato expressed his hope that the film would be “an antidote to a lot of the gossip [surrounding the circumstances of Ledger’s death]… Everybody’s life should be celebrated… Some corrections needed to be made.”

One of the speculations, which the family vehemently denied, was that Ledger became so consumed by his demented performance as The Joker that it led him to abuse drugs. “That was him having fun," Kate insisted. "Every report was coming out that he was depressed and that [the role] was taking this toll on him, and…it was the absolute opposite." In fact, the family contended, he was thrilled with his work on the film and in a buoyant mood during production.

The one key person absent from the documentary is his ex-partner Michelle Williams, who gave birth to his daughter Matilda in 2005. She might have provided a more shaded portrait of Ledger and what drove him and perhaps destroyed him, but certainly the testimony of those who participated in the film attests to Ledger’s generosity, warmth and creative spark.

I Am Heath Ledger airs on Spike TV on May 17 and plays on more than 300 movie screens nationwide on May 3 via the “Fathom Events” network.