Lifting the Mask
My mission as a filmmaker is to investigate the ways we forget ourselves. Often we disguise what is painful, difficult or challenging behind a shiny persona. We tuck away embarrassing feelings behind a smiling face. Sometimes we even hide the ways in which we think we are banal, wrapping boring traits in personality quirks. The desire to repackage ourselves is universal and understandable. After all it can be crucial to our survival and success. But we have become so used to hiding parts of ourselves that we often lose sight of the raw, original person who lives inside. What we don't realize is those difficult elements that we hide, those secret selves, they can contain the most beautiful bits we have . . . the most universal and glorious parts of who we are. That’s where the documentarian comes in.
It’s our work to discover how those masks are constructed and what they’re hiding. The further apart the person from their persona, the more interesting the project. In fact, identifying the space between the person and their wrapping is the best way to examine our culture works and how it pressures and shapes us without our ever knowing how it happened.
When I directed the documentary Bombshell I had the opportunity to do that work for Hedy Lamarr. I knew she was a movie star considered the most beautiful girl in the world in the 1940s, and I’d read a book (Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World by Richard Rhodes) that suggested she was also an inventor who may have contributed to the creation of modern wifi, GPS, and bluetooth! The fact that she was famous for her beauty and not her inventions was intriguing to me. Her intellectual life was shrouded in mystery and I wondered if that was because she was too gorgeous for anyone to believe she had a mind worth studying. Perhaps even she didn’t know how to present both sides of herself to the public. Perhaps her story was unknown because she didn’t know how to tell it! I decided to investigate.
The hardest part of my job is figuring out how to reveal a person that has been ignored, erased, or maligned without harming them in the process. The only way I’ve discovered how to do this is to quietly challenge the cultural assumptions, blind spots, and biases that kept them hiding in the first place. It’s a tricky, vitally important maneuver. If we do it right, however, we invite everyone in our audience to enter that safe spotlight created by our film. It becomes a place for people to explain their own hidden identities.
What I discovered while investigating Hedy was a woman whose work was intentionally erased. It turns out that Hedy had tried to tell her story to a man who had the ability to enshrine it in the history of science, making her a legend in the world of invention and secret communications. Robert Price approached Hedy Lamarr at her apartment building when she was a reclusive old lady. He’d heard about her invention. He also had an enormous crush on Hedy Lamarr as a child, watching her in films like My Favorite Spy. He bought her a pair of earrings and asked her for a private interview. He asked her outright if she’d actually pioneered a groundbreaking secret communications system or if she’d stolen from her first husband who was a Nazi sympathizer. When she insisted she came up with the invention herself, he asked her if the invention was mostly designed by her friend and collaborator, the musician George Antheil? Hedy told him directly and without embellishment that she came up with the invention herself and “George just wrote it down.” Robert Price wrote down her responses in a notebook and sent them to Hedy over email so she could verify her answers. I have a copy of the email. But when Robert Price helped to write the definitive history of secret communications, did he include Hedy’s insistence that she had come up with this technology? No. Instead, he wrote her story as a quirky sidebar and in private communications he advanced his own theory that she was a spy for the Allies who dazzled Nazi officers with her beauty and stole their secrets. Robert Price intentionally erased the story Hedy told him, because he was sure his own narrative was true and hers was false.
My job with Bombshell was to figure out how Hedy struggled with that beauty of hers, knowing how it created that doubt in people, and knowing that it gave her great power while in some ways it robbed her of her greatest achievement. She told her granddaughter her beauty was her curse, and over the course of investigating the film I went from scoffing at that line to believing her, at least a little. I learned how she tried to take control of her powerful beauty... she perverted it, defaced it, and finally reckoned with it on her journey through her life. My job was to see both the struggle and the person behind Hedy’s beautiful face. She came into focus very slowly, but over time I found a woman who was funny and warm, as well as bitter and worn out.
I had to hunt relentlessly through her documents, letters, and audio tapes through her interviews and her films, and the memories of her friends and loved ones until I could understand her. But at the very end of my journey making this film I was lucky enough to receive a gift from Hedy’s son Anthony Loder. He had been my North star throughout the process, guiding me and feeding me clues to her inner life. Now he gave me the best clue of all: a voicemail message that Hedy had left on his machine before she died. In it she recites a poem called the “Paradoxical Commandments” by Kent M. Keith. I'm going to paraphrase here . . . but what she said was that even if you feel like you are never recognized for what give the world, give your gifts anyway. Tell your stories anyway. Love anyway.
It was when she delivered that lesson to me through her voicemail that I finally fell in love with that true internal version of Hedy Lamarr—so in love that I could teach my audience to love her more than the mask behind which she hid (which given Hedy’s extraordinary face was no small feat). She was a force to be reckoned with and she did change the world, both through her beautiful mask and the far more extraordinary mind that hid beneath it.
Alexandra Dean is an Emmy Award-winning journalist and a documentary director and producer. She produced news-magazine documentaries for PBS before becoming a series and documentary producer at Bloomberg television, producing programming about inventors who shape our world. She also wrote about invention for Businessweek magazine. Today, she is a founding partner at Reframed Pictures. Bombshell: the Hedy Lamarr Story is her latest feature documentary. The film won best documentary of 2017 from NY Critics Online Society and the Women’s Film Critics Circle and had its television debut on PBS American Masters in 2018.