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'Bombshell' director Alexandra Dean talks women in STEM, female celebrity, and Hedy Lamarr's legacy.


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Alexandra Dean is the woman who directed, edited, wrote, and produced the fantastic documentary film Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story. It tells the extraordinary story of a glamourous Hollywood icon, whose beauty in the eyes of society precluded her intelligence.

Despite her genius invention of frequency hopping is what led to a breakthrough in military technology, and opened the way for Bluetooth, WiFi, and many other essential technologies used today, yet she was treated as a sexual trophy and whose genius went unrecognised.  

As it soon becomes clear, Bombshell is not intended in a mere superficial sense. Yes, obviously “she was called a bombshell as an actress,” but she also “invented a bombshell, a torpedo that was remotely controlled.” And thirdly, whenever Dean “told anyone about the story they just kept saying ‘Well, what a bombshell!’ So, for me it had so much resonance that I had to go with that as the name of the film,” the director explains.

This film pioneers a new perspective on Hedy Lamarr’s life, establishing her not only as an immigrant actress, nor as a woman who spent her last years a recluse, but as a genius inventor who did what she could for her adoptive country. “I was really looking for a powerful woman who’d gone through a very unusual experience, and had a life I could learn from. On a deeper level, that’s what I was looking for.”

Dean continues, “I had done this series called Innovators, Adventures and Pursuits, which allowed me a great amount of time to look at inventors today. I knew of the problems inventors had, and I knew a lot of the female inventors weren’t getting the funding they needed from Silicon Valley.”

She draws parallels between the treatment of women in STEM fields today and that of Hedy Lamarr all those decades ago. Even now, “people weren’t thinking of Hedy Lamarr, or even of any woman. They were thinking of a young man who looks a bit like Thomas Edison. And those were the types of people who were getting the funding, and consequently, are defining our future right now. And I thought well, I’ve got to really try and fight that notion. That was all in the back of my head when I discovered Hedy’s story.”

It’s maddening that over 70 years later, there are still gender imbalances in science and technology fields. “I hope young girls and young women will be really moved by it,” Dean says of Hedy’s story, “I hope they’ll be a little big angry, and I hope they’ll be inspired to change things.

“I think we’re at a really important moment, and I want young women to realise that we cannot let tomorrow’s world be designed only by men. Not even just women need to hear that, but every person of colour, of different social backgrounds. All need to realise that we are just a wonderfully diverse population, and we need a future that reflects all of us.”

Certainly, Dean hopes Hedy’s story can remind audiences of the amazing things that can happen once we, as a society, stop judging people based on assumptions and prejudices. Of course, it’s a message that is universal, but it’s one that is particularly important to the STEM fields right now. Recruitment of women and minorities isn’t going up; “At this absolutely critical moment we have to turn that tide, and I think Hedy should inspire women to realise that they can change the world too!”

Not only does Bombshell touch on the role and treatment of women in scientific fields, it also deals with perceptions of female celebrities as idealised beings. Hedy fought against others’ attempts to pigeonhole her throughout her life, pushing her into the role of a trophy wife, a sex icon, or an aging woman desperate to hold on to her youth. Never was Hedy the symbol, allowed to be Hedy the woman.

Dean seems optimistic about how far society has come in their perceptions of female celebrities. “I think they are in a better position than they’ve ever been. In fact, one of the things I think we’ve learned a little bit, as a culture, is that celebrities can be deep, and fascinating, and interesting, and have abilities. Women are taking over big production companies and making their own choices, and I find that really inspiring and exciting.

“I think our problem tends to be, that we as ordinary men and women can still be stuck in the assumptions of the past”, but Dean appears hopeful about the future, both for women in entertainment and in STEM.  

The most incredible aspect of the film is that Hedy herself narrates it. Dean and her team “struck gold” in finding previously unheard tapes of an interview Hedy Lamarr had given to Forbes magazine in 1990, just ten years before her death.

After so much of her life spent having her voice silenced, there’s something incredibly powerful in how Dean allows Hedy to take back control of the narrative. “It really is magical, the way the tapes allow her to insert herself back into her own story… For the first time she’s telling her story and we are listening, and seeing her for who she really was.”

After taking on such a difficult and complex character study as her directorial debut, Dean may have some difficulty in finding topics that grab her interest in quite the same way again. “I’m interested in complex women, in interesting overlooked women.” Hinting at future projects, she continues, “I have one woman that I found as fascinating as Hedy, but unfortunately there’s so little literature that I’m having to reconstruct her life first, and then write it as fiction.”

It doesn’t sound like Alexandra Dean’s following project will be coming out just yet, but it’s enough to keep everyone excited about what this amazing director will come out with next.

With her parting words, Dean recommends three Hedy Lamarr films for newbies to the actress’ work: the first is the one which shot her to fame, Ecstasy, which “has almost no language in it, and it holds up the test of time, it’s really beautifully shot.” Next is Algiers, “when you see that iconic moment of her walking through the bazaar, and everybody gasps at her beauty, that film’s actually quite good.” And the last one, H. M. Pulham, Esq., “that one was actually her first acting performance, in which she plays a career woman. She’s very funny and smart, and you get to see this other side of her. Unfortunately it was released at Pearl Harbour, and it was completely forgotten, but definitely one to watch.”

Bombshell: A Hedy Lamarr Story is out now, distributed by Dogwoof. 

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