The Brightest Star: Alexandra Dean and executive producer Susan Sarandon reveal the real Hedy Lamarr
For anyone who thought Hedy Lamarr was merely a stunningly gorgeous actress who, while sometimes effective, was definitely no threat to Garbo in the acting department, Alexandra Dean’s documentary Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (from Zeitgeist Films and Kino Lorber) will prove a revelation. It would seem that the woman was twice inordinately blessed, with celestial looks and a brilliant mind which came up with the concept of frequency hopping, the technology which, decades later, would fuel our present-day cellphones and Bluetooth devices.
Always interested in women asserting their place in the world, Susan Sarandon got involved as producer, and Film Journal International met with these two ultra-vibrant women for an interview in a private club in Manhattan.
Film Journal International: Congratulations on a wonderful film, filled with revelations about a star about whom I thought I knew just about everything. All amazing things considered here, Lamarr could easily be named the greatest star of all for the legacy she left. Most movie stars leave behind their movies, maybe some honorable charity work...
Susan Sarandon:And rumors.
FJI:Yes, rumors! But this star is simply mind-boggling, both to look at and learn about. What was the impetus behind making this documentary?
Alexandra Dean:The impetus behind this film was the idea of Hidden Figures. I really don’t believe that this wonderful, diverse world we live in was created by just one type of person [male]. The three of us [including producer Adam Haggiag] felt that way and we wanted our first film to answer the question of: How do we talk about somebody who’s a little different?
Our company is called Reframed Pictures and I think the conversation needs to be reframed about this beautiful icon. Her legacy wasn’t just as a movie star but something much more profound. Despite her being the most beautiful girl in the world and the most brilliant, there was something in Hedy’s story and her struggle to define herself in a world that wouldn’t let her be all these things that really resonated with me. And I think with a lot of women and men, judging from the reaction to our film as we take it around the country and see its effect.
FJI: Susan, how did you come aboard?
SS:As a woman or girl, you’re always fighting this thing of: Do you want to be pretty and sexy? Or do you want to be smart? You have to choose, and in this world you rarely have someone to look up to who could be everything, like Hedy. So that appealed to me, along with the tragedy of what Hollywood does to you—at that time and I guess it’s still happening. How disposable you are when you no longer fit their idea at that moment of what is acceptable or successful.
Hedy fought against it as much as she could, as did Bette Davis, whom I recently played, and others who tried to do something different. And then she had this whole other science thing that was completely discounted. It’s a great story because it’s so shocking, how she was discounted because she was so gorgeous. It’s also fun to see all those old films which give you a glimpse of old Hollywood, but also important to encourage people today to not fall victim to not just the beauty stereotype which limited her, but every other kind of stereotype: the color of your skin, how fat you are, how thin you are, how athletic or how old you are.
How can we get rid of those things and meet someone eye-to-eye without judging people and coming up with a scenario before anyone even opens their mouth? We live with so much hate-baiting and people are getting their news from clickbait and not getting the full story, just living very much on the surface. Hashtag hashtag info. I think it is important to retrain ourselves to benefit from throwing those clichés out, like Hedy was obviously one thing, so she couldn’t possibly be that other.
When we entered the project, we were hoping there was really somebody else there and Alex really had to dig and dig and dig. We didn’t even know going into it that she would really be vindicated. Her whole life was so excessive, no matter what happened, and crazy, but we were hoping to find the person we needed Hedy to be and luckily she turned out to be that person.
FJI: Were you aware of Hedy, growing up?
SS:I don’t think I was aware of anything, growing up the eldest of nine kids in New Jersey. When I ran away from home, it didn’t occur to me to go to New York, so I just ran three blocks away. I was very much in a bubble. But I always loved the old black-and-white films, so iconic and still are. I knew who she was, that she was picked up for shoplifting and how she kind of disappeared, very superficial things, so when the science stuff came up and these guys kept digging to get more and more stuff, she was full of surprises. Even for those of us who read Stephen Shearer’s biography, on top of that she turned out to be a much richer subject than we even thought.
FJI: Well, you’re pretty brainy and one of the great beauties of the screen yourself.
SS:I never saw myself that way. I survived because I saw myself always as a character actress. There were so many people who were far more beautiful. I was symmetrical. But I was always hired when they couldn’t cast a part and were stuck. I did supporting roles, never really as the star beauty. I think it was easier for me, as I had a broader base, was a character actress, and not a gorgeous ingenue, because most of those gals I started out with disappeared.
FJI: Was being a character actress a personal choice for you?
SS:Those parts were more interesting to me and also what was offered. It wasn’t a conscious decision, although I would go to a casting call with no makeup. I didn’t have this Internet platform then, or constantly take selfies which makes it all seem so self-conscious. When Hedy was in the business, like Bette, the studios controlled so much, and in exchange for their protection you had to do certain films.
But they decided. You didn’t have autonomy, like actresses today developing their own projects—you didn’t have that alternative. In some way, you had to use whatever you could to get those powerful men to want you and put you up on the screen. Bette played the parts that were unattractive and found her way up, but Hedy didn’t have that opportunity.
FJI: The ironic thing about her was the fact that her brilliant mind seemed to stop short when it came to her own perfect beauty, as she became so addicted to staying young through plastic surgery that she ended up completely disfiguring herself.
AD:That again was her inventive mind, however, trying to prolong the power of her face. When we talked to Beverly Hills plastic surgeons, without prompting them they’d say, “Oh, Hedy Lamarr was incredibly famous in this circle because she would come in and tell you how to do it: ‘You’re going to cut here and cut there, and turn this fold over.’” They were at first incredibly reluctant, but they did it and then everyone wanted the “Hedy Lamarr,” as it came to be called. She was a real pioneer in plastic surgery.
SS: But some of her ideas obviously didn’t work.
AD:Like most inventors, she also made mistakes, and she was her own canvas, as you say, David. There were things she didn’t know as a pioneer, like don’t go into the sun or the whole thing will tighten up.
SS: Oh, I didn’t know that.
AD: Yes, that was true of early plastic surgery. She got it all wrong and it aged her. But early on, it worked, and was great.
SS:So how old was she when she started?
AD:There are people who say as early as in her 20s.
SS: Oh God.
AD:And definitely by her late 30s/early 40s, she is totally into it.
FJI: I’m fascinated because you can see, even in Samson and Delilah, when she should look absolutely luscious, she looks a little past it, as Technicolor reveals a lot.
AD:That’s a little unfair. I mean, she looks fabulous!
FJI:Well... No, I know Hedy, and am fascinated by the aging process, especially in regard to famous beauties. Vivien Leigh, who was her gorgeous contemporary, also aged quickly, all that hard living.
SS:Yes, I was going to say, when drugs and drinking are involved, and trying to keep your weight down.
SS:Yeah! That all takes it toll. You’re sacrificing your skin, and when young actresses ask me about my skin, I say, “Well, are you smoking?” Because that’s really not going to help matters at all. And they were all on amphetamines for energy and weight control.
FJI: What I’m finding out is that they were all being shot up with crystal meth by notorious Dr. Feelgoods who would come in and give them “Vitamin B-12” shots for quick energy.
SS: Yeah, when I was in New York, early in the cast of Hair, a lot of people had somebody—I have no idea who it was—who would come in and shoot them up with speed, because everyone was so exhausted. No one was educated that that was what was really happening.
FJI: The fact you were able to locate all those audiotapes of Lamarr’s real voice describing her life is just brilliant.
SS: Yes, that’s a good story. Tell him!
AD:That was a kind of miracle, and I still don’t quite understand it. It originally was just a wish that Hedy would be able to tell her story in her own words. Because her story had never really been resolved and there was that autobiography, which was totally debunked when she sued the ghostwriter over it.
We didn’t know how she would have answered questions, especially about her invention. Did she do it, or her husband? So there was no real reference to start with. We made lists of anyone she’d ever talked to, 70 people, family, journalists. We called them all—nothing, a very dark moment for us. And then we figured out Fleming Meeks talked to her for Forbes magazine in 1990, but had moved to Barron’s. We found his e-mail at Barron’s and sent him one. Almost as soon as I sent it, my phone rang. “I’ve been waiting to talk to you for 25 years! I have the tapes!” He was just blocks away from us, so we went running over with my camera. It was like it was conjured out of thin air. It was kind of a mess, but from this semi-coherent conversation, when we put the jigsaw puzzle together, a narrative emerged, and we threw out our first six months of filming. It was four audiotapes, a total about two and a half hours long.
FJI: And now with the affair de Harvey Weinstein, Hedy’s life seems more relevant than ever.
SS:The guy is going to become the code word for any kind of sexual harassment, like a verb or adjective: “Did you get Harvey’ed?” I just got asked by someone, ‘Why are all the actresses today speaking out, why didn’t they before?” That was always the deal and not just in Hollywood, where you are trading your looks and body, going into a meeting; it’s all a little bit grayer, not black and white. Although I’m not condoning it, there was a different casting couch which was taken for granted. There was a certain style to the seduction and about what was exchanged. You didn’t have girls being chased in hotels or guys greeting you at the door naked or coming in flower pots! That exchange was not seen as brutal, although I don’t know, maybe some girls were raped and there was ugliness. I’m sure there were many girls who came to parties where they were solicited to serve drinks and maybe make a friend along the way and find themselves a producer or agent. Marilyn got both of hers that way. This was how careers were made, like it or not.
Having played Bette Davis and Marilyn Monroe’s mother, and learning about their time, why people are speaking is because there are more options now. Before it was on an unlevel playing field when everything depended on a gatekeeper who was a male, as opposed to now, with women producing and having other avenues of power and standing together as women. People have more options now.