The bombshell brain of Hollywood: Diane Kruger and Alexandra Dean give Hedy Lamarr her due
It’s the story of one of a woman whose face inspired the original Catwoman, Walt Disney’s Snow White, and was a screen legend that stood up to movie mogul Louis B. Mayer. At a time when women were often told their only place was in the home, this immigrant was not afraid to show off her remarkable brain. Her passion to help the war effort led to her inventing the technology behind WiFi and Bluetooth, which she patented in 1942.
In a world of Hollywood remakes and reboots, the story of Hedy Lamarr should stand out brilliantly. Yet actress Diane Kruger says nobody she pitched to wanted to know. “It was not something that studios wanted to make. It was often very frustrating trying to explain to men why her story needed to be told,” Diane tells Electra.
Diane had stumbled across Bombshell, a book about Hedy’s life five years ago and was instantly hooked. Her pitch was to make a television mini-series based on Hedy’s story that is now finally due to go into production later this year with Diane set to star in the title role.
Before that though, comes this week’s documentary, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, written and directed by Alexandra Dean but featuring Diane Kruger voicing letters that Hedy once wrote.
After repeated rejections, Diane does feel the wave of women’s voices now being heard played a part in studio executives changing their minds towards her Hedy idea. “It’s fucking great,” Diane laughs, admitting it out loud. “It feels liberating. It truly felt like pushing a rock up a mountain while we were trying to get people excited about Hedy’s story and all of a sudden we have incoming calls about it. And from women as well, so now we have real momentum it’s great”.
The more people shouting about the life of Hedy Lamarr, and how she developed the notion of frequency hopping, the technology behind WiFi, so much the better agrees Alexandra Dean. “So many of the inventors that we honour in the pantheon are men,” Alexandra points out. “They are white men like Thomas Edison, which is fine, except the world cannot have been created by one kind of person, it's too diverse itself.”
“I was looking for a story like Hedy's that would start to explain how some people are lost from that narrative of inventors and I wanted us to really challenge how we learn who shapes our world.” She makes a salient point, and it’s worth noting that funding in part for both Alexandra’s Bombshell documentary, and Diane Kruger’s upcoming television series comes from the Alfred P Sloan Foundation, which awards grants to projects that educate about science and technology.
One of the producers on Bombshell was Susan Sarandon, whom Alexandra says “resonated strongly with the story of this brilliant woman who was just never understood for the complicated genius that she was because she was an actress”. “I think Susan knows intimately what Hollywood is like and she is always careful, she says to me 'I don't want to bash Hollywood because Hollywood has been good to me' but nonetheless she knows the reality of being a really smart woman in that system.”
What felt smart to Susan Sarandon on this film was to let the production move in, literally, to her own apartment in New York. “We took over one of her old bedrooms and made it our edit suite,” says Alexandra Dean. “We had people there 24 hours a day. (Susan) was filming Feud at the time, but when she wasn't on set she would come in and have a look and give us feedback so she was like a mother hen. Without her it wouldn't have been done.”
Which means without that support, we wouldn’t get to watch the story of a woman recognise her worth, and fight to get a fairer salary. Which is exactly what Hedy Lamarr did in the 1930s when Louis B. Mayer first offered her a contract with MGM.
“One of the delights of covering Hedy is you feel you're watching this millennial woman wandering through history with all that bravado,’ adds Alexandra Dean.“It doesn't seem real that she could have been that way but she was. She was an only child and she was very assertive with her parents and her father really made her feel like she could do anything if she put her mind to it, which she clearly could.”
Hedy’s childhood in Austria resonated with Diane Kruger too. “I grew up without a dad as well,” says Diane, “and I’ve always been jealous of that male influence on a young girl. Her father encouraged her to be scientific and he opened her up to the Arts. At that time Vienna was the hot spot for everything artistic and creative, and when Hedy got to Hollywood she thought she would be able to speak her mind. Instead she would be put down, or not taken seriously, just for being smart.”
While Hedy Lamarr did have bags of bravado, there were limits to what that could achieve. She was a complex woman (aren’t we all?) with complicated relationships (six marriages and three children) and she succumbed to plastic surgery later in life, eventually becoming a recluse. “It's like she gives up this battle that she's waged her entire life to be recognised for more than her face,” says Alexandra Dean, “and it’s right at the wrong moment when she is about to be recognised for her mind but how could she have known that?”
Disappointingly, because she stood up for what she believed was fair at work, Hedy was given the nickname ‘Hedy-ache’, labelled as someone who could be difficult to work with. “That still continues today, for sure,” adds Diane Kruger. “Men are applauded for fighting for what they believe in, while I have certainly experienced ‘she’s a bitch, she’s difficult’. Women learn to sweet talk and if you don’t, you get labelled a bitch.”
“That happened to me at the beginning of my career,” continues Diane. “The good thing with age is you don’t give a fuck. I remember being younger and being on set and you have ideas about the script so you speak up and you see people roll their eyes. In the beginning you want people to like you and if they think you're difficult, you worry you won’t get another job and people are completely inappropriate with you.”
“Now I’m older I’ve learnt to create that respect for myself, I don’t allow that space anymore. I’m extremely polite, I show up for work on time and learn my lines and I have the luxury now to not work for people who don’t appreciate that. It’s heartbreaking that didn’t happen to Hedy – her story needs to be told.”
By Natalie Jamieson
Special live Q&A preview screenings of Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story from 8 March and released wider on 9 March