Reflective Persona

The feature directorial debut of Alexandra Dean, Bombshell: The Heddy Lamarr Story sees the director explore the formidable, yet misunderstood persona of this Hollywood star. This Austrian-Jewish émigré transcended movie stardom, a trailblazer in both the cinema as producer, and in the communications field, inventing technology that is now the basis for modern day secure WiFi, GPS and Bluetooth. In conversation with ASFF, Dean discussed the bond formed with her subject, the difficulty of transforming or escaping identity, and Lamarr’s story as a litmus test for the film’s audience.

ASFF: What compelled you to tell the story of this one individual and why now?
AD: I had to make this film right now because of who Hedy was. She was this woman who captured my attention completely, and I actually think it was not so much about the moment right then, but the moment right before, when we were making the film. There was something about Hedy’s story that completely compelled me to look closer. She had been so overlooked, kind of erased, and she’d had this struggle in Hollywood. Her greatest achievements barely registered in terms of actually getting the attention and the exposure she deserved in her lifetime. Yet at the end of her life, she had this perspective that was very compelling; she felt what she had tried to do was to make her mark on the world, and that’s what mattered. I was drawn to the wisdom of that and what I could learn by going through that experience with her, and reconstructing it.

ASFF: One of the fascinating things about film is that it’s not a permanent form, but changes through the interaction with each individual viewer. Can you talk about the nuances of the response from watching it with an audience, and how that has effected the identity of the film?
AD: It is so interesting watching different audiences react to this film because it is kind of a litmus test for how interested you are in what’s going on with women in the world today; the history of how women have been treated. If you don’t think that whole history is very interesting, even though Hedy is so fascinating, I am not sure you are going to fall in love with her. But for those who do care, there is an extreme love affair that happens and that becomes a part of their conversation about what is happening today. So that has been interesting, and I’ve spent many evenings with groups of people afterwards who wanted to cry a bit, rage a bit, and then laugh a bit, and talk and talk all night about what she went through; everything she was up against.

ASFF: Whilst time is linear, the themes of Hedy’s story present time as cyclic rather than a pure linear construct.
AD: [German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich] Hegl said time is a spiral, and I like that; like a coil. So it feels familiar, but it has moved somewhere even though we seem to be repeating certain steps, or going back to certain themes. It is because we are spiralling back to that part of the coil that we just left. I think that’s what happened here with Hedy’s story, spiralling back to a place where her experience is extremely relevant.

ASFF: As humans we have innate fascination with the lives of others, which Alfred Hitchcock understand that saw him frequently play upon the the theme of voyeurism. Would you agree that this aspect of human nature must underpin our interest in films such as Bombshell?
AD: Especially with someone who was so extreme. We tend to like to watch those people and we have a voyeuristic nature, which I think part of it is because we don’t know what it’s like. We are looking for something that we almost can’t understand, like the extreme of being that beautiful, of being in Hollywood and that big a star, and of being that brilliant and that misunderstood. In her life there were those three extremes, and each one we resonate so much with even though it is not our reality, we feel we can understand even those extreme reaches of the human experience. I think we like that, and we feel as though we have voyaged through the unknown parts, and understood them a little bit.

ASFF: It is reputed in the film that studio head Louis B. Mayer had a perspective of women as either angels or sinners. This simplification of identity is a theme at the heart of the film, touching upon the habit of pigeon holing creativity, which is integral to Hedy’s attempts to produce as well as act.
AD: Yeah, the Madonna and the whore dichotomy. It is actually something that many artists suffer, especially if you’ve had a big success, and in some ways Ecstasy was a huge success for Hedy. Anything that totally penetrates people’s consciousness and has come in hard will have defined you right?! Then you have to try and escape that mould if it isn’t what you want to spend the rest of your career doing, which I think in many ways people don’t want to just repeat the same exercise over and over. For Hedy she didn’t want to be this rebel teenager running around nude for the rest of her life; she didn’t want to be defined by that, as a whore. So there was a real attempt again and again to get Louis B. Mayer to see her as someone different, and then the fact that you’d seen her whole career through that lens is hard to see it any other way. Sometimes she is rebelling and sometimes she is giving in, and sometimes she is reeling against the whole thing and suing him, I understand the whole arc and how hard it was that she was being forced into that box of scandal and whore.

ASFF: Personally, how did your perspective of Hedy change through the experience of making the film?
AD: It actually changed how I felt about her dramatically. Before I found the tapes of her and Fleming [Meeks], I had a different woman in my head from reading all the biographies, of reading Ecstacy and Me, and from even talking to her children; I had really only talked to Anthony Loder at that time. I felt that she was a sphinx, that there was an hardness to her, but I didn’t understand the sense of humanness of her. When we finally found the tapes and pressed play, someone else with humour and softness, an unpredictable flight to thought emerged. In five minutes of listening to her voice, there was a completely new appraisal of who she was. I almost felt like I was making friends with her for the first time, meeting her on the playground and becoming friends as I listened to her talk about her life. Then to have this relationship where I’d have these long discussions with her in my head: No Hedy, I don’t think this is the darkest part of life. Yes Hedy, you did mean to say that. I found myself having conversations with someone who has been dead since 2000. It is such a funny thing, but it helped me enormously to understand her, and I think it helped the viewer as well. Without her voice telling stories the way she does, we would really not get her in the same way.

Paul Risker

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story is available now On Demand and DVD courtesy of Dogwoof.

1. Trailer for Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story.