AMERICAN MASTERS PODCAST

Susan Sarandon, Emina Soljanin, and Alexandra Dean on actress and inventor Hedy Lamarr

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Young women entrepreneurs today can find inspiration in the story of Hollywood star Hedy Lamarr. In her time, she was known as the Most Beautiful Woman in the World, but it was her groundbreaking work as an inventor of a secure communications system that has turned her into a legend. Recorded live at the Whitby Hotel in New York, host Michael Kantor moderates a panel including Academy Award-winning actor Susan Sarandon, Rutgers professor and IEEE fellow Emina Soljanin, and filmmaker Alexandra Dean, as they discuss Lamarr’s legacy. Co-executive produced by Sarandon, and directed by Dean, with major support by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, “American Masters – Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story” is streaming now at pbs.org/americanmasters and PBS OTT apps.

Transcript Print

Hedy Lamarr: [00:00:01] I want to sell my life story to Ted Turner because it's unbelievable. The opposite of what people think. The brains of people are more interesting than their looks, I think.

Michael Kantor: [00:00:12] That was Hedy Lamarr, the Hollywood star whose name became synonymous with beauty in the 30s and 40s. Snow White and Cat Woman were both based on her iconic look. But behind the scenes Hedy was an inventor with a knack for science who patented a covert communications system intended to help the United States defeat the Nazis in World War II. Her concepts became fundamental to the creation of secure Wi-Fi, GPS, and Bluetooth technologies, but Hedy never saw a dime for her work.

Michael Kantor: [00:00:46] I'm Michael Kantor executive producer of American Masters and we're very excited to present a special live American Masters Podcast episode here at the Whitby Hotel in New York. I'd like to welcome to the stage tonight's panel: Alexandra Dean, the director of Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story is here tonight. She's an Emmy Award-winning journalist and producer. She's produced newsmagazine documentaries for PBS before working on Bloomberg Television on the series Innovators, Adventures and Pursuits. She's also a founding partner at Reframed Pictures. Susan Sarandon is executive producer of Bombshell. She's internationally known as an Academy Award-winning actor who's made a career of choosing diverse and challenging projects. Susan's produced documentaries, feature films, and episodic television and she's a founding partner of Reframed Pictures. Emina Soljanin is a professor at Rutgers University, where she works on large scale data storage and computing. She's a distinguished lecturer and IEEE fellow, the world's largest technical professional organization dedicated to advancing technology for the benefit of humanity, and currently serves as the vice president for that society. Thank you all for joining us.

Michael Kantor: [00:02:14] Alex, how did you discover Hedy Lamarr, and why did you want to tell her story?

Alexandra Dean: [00:02:17] Well I've been doing this series for two years on inventors. It had been this great opportunity to kind of travel the country and talk to a lot of incredible young people who had a vision for what world they wanted to create tomorrow. And I saw many of the projects that we profiled become things in the world that had a huge amount of attention and interest. But those things that were designed by the young women that I became friends with who are inventors were often not funded. And I started to worry that there was a sense in our culture somehow that only one kind of person was worth funding if they came up with a brilliant idea. And that really haunted me. And we were starting Reframed Pictures, several years ago now, and I really wanted to start with a film that's that spoke to me, that spoke to some conversation that I've been having in my own head, and our development producer at the time, Katherine Drew, had this book "Hedy's Folly" that she'd been sitting on for several years, thinking this would be an amazing film, and she gave me the book by Richard Rhodes and I read it and I thought that's exactly the person I've been wondering if she existed, if this kind of figure existed who, for some reason, we'd erased from the narrative we hadn't taken seriously who had invented part of our world. So it seemed like a really natural fit.

Michael Kantor: [00:03:44] And Susan, as executive producer of the film, what inspired you most about the story?

Susan Sarandon: [00:03:50] You know we're told as women that you can be pretty or you can be smart. And the thing that tripped Hedy up was that people didn't want to accept that she could be that smart because she was so beautiful. She was a victim of her own unbelievable beauty. Couple that with what Hollywood does to women, especially more at that time... threw her out when she was 40 and she fought so hard to try to be relevant and to raise a family. And it was just an interesting story of how a woman that was that smart could fall victim to exactly what she didn't want to have happen, which was to be judged by the way she looked and to ruin the way she looked because she felt that kind of pressure. And so it had.. you know, it was pretty juicy and at the same time, relevant. You know I think it's really fun to watch all those old bits and pieces of film. It was shot so beautifully. And at a time that we don't talk about that much anymore. So I knew that that would be fun. And meanwhile you can kind of slip in all the relevance while you're being entertained. And I'm proud of what Alex did and how it turned out. Because I think it is amusing, but at the same time it's sad and, you know, makes you wonder, and I'm glad that girls now, young women now, are, you know... When my daughter was growing up, she's 33 now, my eldest, and you know everyone was reading the Ophelia tragedy book, you know, about how girls didn't raise their hands anymore in class once they turned 11 and, you know, weren't taken seriously in math and weren't encouraged to do science. And I think little by little people are at least having this conversation and funding some of the projects to encourage girls to code and to, you know, reward them. And here because of the Internet, as a young woman, you can see examples of women that are - whether it's a movie like Hidden Figures or you know this documentary - you have now women that you can look up to that you know have done this.

Michael Kantor: [00:06:06] In this excerpt from Bombshell, Hedy Lamarr's son Anthony Loder and historian, Guy Livingston, explain one of Hedy's most important moments of inspiration during a critical point of World War II.

Anthony Loder: [00:06:20] So in this article Hedy says I got the idea for my invention when I tried to think of some way to even the balance for the British, a radio-controlled torpedo I thought would do it.

Guy Livingston: [00:06:35] A torpedo launched, on a given trajectory, might need to be changed, redirected. You want, ideally, your launching boat to communicate with the torpedo.

Anthony Loder: [00:06:48] The problem is you can't control radio communications. They're not secure.

Guy Livingston: [00:06:54] Your enemy - if they are smart - finds the frequency with which you're talking to the torpedo and jams it.

Archival Clip: [00:07:02] Jamming! The Germans fill the air with radio interference.

Anthony Loder: [00:07:09] She came up with the idea of a secret way of guiding that torpedo to the target that couldn't be interrupted, that couldn't be jammed, that couldn't be messed with. It was secret. Instead of just one transmit frequency communicating, she said, "What if we change those frequencies constantly in sync with each other?" Frequency hopping. You couldn't jam it because you'd only jam a split second of it in a single frequency. So frequency change, frequency hop, frequency hop, frequency hop. That concept, secure radio communications, was brilliant.

Michael Kantor: [00:07:48] Emina, how important is Hedy Lamarr's invention of frequency hopping?

Emina Soljanin: [00:07:52] It's very important as a concept, that you can be hopping from here to there and therefore you cannot be caught, that was what she had in mind. In addition to that, not being discoverable, frequency hopping provides an opportunity to not be seen interfering with others. And now that we use modern smartphones, all together in small rooms at the same time, you don't want to interfere with each other, and therefore in a way, frequency hopping or some derivatives of it, in general called spread spectrum, are parts of today's wireless standards and this particular hopping solution is very similar to what we use in Bluetooth, for example. So it is important both as the invention itself and as a general concept.

Michael Kantor: [00:08:51] And how does Hedy's discoveries, how do they influence your area of study?

Emina Soljanin: [00:08:55] Actually interestingly very recently I was told by the National Science Foundation that they would recommend a proposal that I wrote for funding. It enables covert communications by using the Internet of Things. So again, as in Hedy's discovery, little pieces of signals or messages would hop, not from frequency to frequency, but from little thing to another little thing that has capability to transmit messages. So for example, if I wanted to go for dinner with you and not want anyone to know I might say, I may plant a little message in Alex's earrings, and say, "Michael." And then another little message, in, say Susan's lipstick, and say "Seven o'clock." And then once, when you mingle around this party you would collect from these little objects that people have, a message from me.

Michael Kantor: [00:09:58] Can't wait for that messenger. Susan, how do you think Hedy Lamarr's tory resonates, especially now, in the, in the Time's Up movement and beyond? You're central to the world of Hollywood, and I'm curious how it speaks to you.

Susan Sarandon: [00:10:17] Oh god that's a tough question because sex is the currency of showbusiness. I mean, if you're going to be honest, you know that's why it's so tricky. And I think it's really tricky for young women who are developing their identity and they know that what they're offering, even if it's not taken advantage of, is somehow sexual, is somehow sensual, is somehow desirability. That's the that's how things are cast. And even now when they use the Internet, they look at how many likes you have, how desirable are you. And everybody knows that, and they don't want to say that, but you know because it makes it seem as if somehow, in the old paradigm, that you deserve it, therefore if you're harassed but it's not necessarily true obviously. But Hedy came about at a time... she knew what she was selling, you know, and she did use it. And so that's what made her so vulnerable as she became older and felt herself less able to sell herself. It's a different business. I mean I don't know. I think... somebody I was talking to somebody about this, another woman about this, and she said "Yeah, but that's in Silicon Valley too. That's in a lot of places." But it's really almost unjustified in show business. So I think Heddy, you know, definitely knew that this was the way things operated. I mean when she, she got on that ship, she took her dresses and she sold her persona to get a better contract. I'm not saying that she necessarily exchanged sexual favors, but she definitely didn't go on and just have an intellectual conversation by itself. You know, that's what she was... That was her strength. That was her power at that moment. And so just like Joan Crawford, and especially Joan Crawford, not Bette Davis necessarily because she was never a sex symbol, but the same kind of thing happened to her, where she doubted her relevance once she started to turn into a different version of herself as she started to age. And so I think that women are examining now, you know, their power. And again, you know, not having to choose one or the other. But in my business especially, I think it's very confusing. And when you become... And when you're a male that becomes entitled and becomes powerful and is in that position, I think that it's a very easy to slip a horrible slip to to bully or to harass someone. But the atmosphere in which this is going on is so permeated with, with that kind of exchange that I think... It's it's a, it's a very interesting time for women to examine how they handle that, you know, and what their responsibility is and how they can make it clear that they're not, you know, available in that way necessarily, but at the same time, in this sexualized atmosphere. Did that answer your question?

Michael Kantor: [00:13:28] Yeah, no it's... We could talk about that one subject.

Susan Sarandon: [00:13:34] No, I don't want to go any further. I can see my foot going right in my mouth, everything being taken out of context and showing up somewhere. But anyway...

Michael Kantor: [00:13:42] Hopefully not.

Susan Sarandon: [00:13:43] Hopefully not.

Michael Kantor: [00:13:44] Alex, what do you hope that young women will get out of the film?

Alexandra Dean: [00:13:49] You know there's a lot of hope. I hope young women will get out of the film. I mean and I think I made the film mainly for young women. You know, I hope that they will understand that women have always been struggling with the issues that I think many of them are struggling with and, you know, in the world of social media today, which is, you know, how do you present yourself? How do you navigate a world where you may be given this enormous power at a very young age, that you didn't earn, that there might just be about the way you were born the way you were born looking? And then you don't know how to wield that power, and you don't know what to do when that power ebbs away, also completely out of your control. And you also don't know how to deal with, you know, trying to gain respect, trying to navigate the world with your mind, and how hat interact, interacts with this other power that you have with your face. That... I think Hedy is a case study in that whole problem and almost a parable. And she, I hope, gives you kind of grist for a great conversation, at least, about that where you start to examine how that interacts in your life. And maybe because you talked about it you don't you're not just subject to the whims of these different powerful forces in your life, but you navigate them with, with intent.

Michael Kantor: [00:15:11] The other day we were talking, and you used a phrase, a sort of analogy to windows and mirrors. Could you, could you speak to that?

Alexandra Dean: [00:15:17] Yeah. Windows and mirrors actually came up when I was talking to my sons school, Ethical Culture, here on 63rd Street. The teachers there were teaching me about it, but it was a while ago, and it really changed my perspective, which was when you learn about somebody that looks like you, it's a mirror, in some ways. And when you learn about somebody that that maybe doesn't look like you, comes from a different background it can be equally inspiring, but they call that, they call it a window because you're looking outwards, but you're not, again, seeing yourself in that person necessarily. So my example is, for me growing up, there was no greater hero the Martin Luther King, but it wasn't necessarily a mirror. I didn't necessarily see myself in Martin Luther King and create a set of actions for my life based around exactly what he did, although definitely to some extent that was true. But the power of a mirror, of seeing someone like you in a position that you're trying to reach, is that it does seem to affect a child's life. And that is a real movement right now in progressive schools to make sure that children see people like them in kind of heroic roles or whatever roles that , that make you change the direction of your life. And so for me H edy is a mirror, not that, you know, I think any of us know what it's like to be that beautiful or that powerful, but because she is somebody who's, you know, clearly female and working in the feminine space, and yet so brilliant and so magnetic and so, so much navigating how her world through her mind and her face. That's a mirror, and therefore gives me a, you know, a new way to live my own life. And I hope it creates a mirror for a whole generation of younger women who are moved by people like Hedy.

Michael Kantor: [00:17:09] And Susan, why are you so passionate about making documentaries?

Susan Sarandon: [00:17:12] Well, first of all, you don't know how they're going to turn out. I like that. And I just think they're so good now, and people are more used to the idea of watching documentaries, especially since you can, you know, watch them in your home. And so you're willing to take a chance to enter into something that you don't know anything about. And I know, I fell in love with documentaries because I work for free when I narrate them usually. And so everyone comes to me to narrate them when they're all these little documentaries.

Michael Kantor: [00:17:48] I didn't know that.

Susan Sarandon: [00:17:48] Not this one. And, you know, so I started to be called upon to do voiceover work on a lot of very inspiring, tiny documentaries, and I was learning so much about people and places, so many inspiring people and what was going on in countries that I couldn't go to, or I didn't go to that I wouldn't have known anything about. And I think that that's just the... for, you know, a lazy person, that's the easiest way to really expand your funnel on the world, is just to turn on a documentary. And also really the human heart, the human soul, the perseverance, the generosity, that we are not encouraged to identify with now because mainstream media is just full of bad news and fear mongering and limited information. You, you, you see when they highlight a person that's, you know, one person at a time making such a difference in a community, and you see these stories of people that have persevered against just enormous odds. And you just say "Wow," you know, "Look what we're capable of." Let's not go down the depressing road of what we're seeing and hearing constantly. Let's, let's opt hat kind of person. And so I think that we, we give people the opportunity to have discussions that are maybe a little more than the Kardashians or Stormy Daniels, you know, just a little bit more interesting than just the same thing over and over. And so you can go and have... watch a documentary with someone and then really have a great conversation, and I love that idea. So going to narrative film, you know, fiction is also great, but I think there probably are more really great documentaries than there features these days. Features are made so often by committee really because people are giving money, and they have a vote then. And so less and less do you get a vision of a director you get a... something that's trying to appeal to everyone, which means it's not very specific, right. And so occasionally, on some of the other platforms, you'll get something wild like Handmaid's Tale, or something, that can can be very brave. But for the most part, the industry is now headed... you know making these great big superhero movies, and a lot of other things.

Michael Kantor: [00:20:29] Tentpoles.

Susan Sarandon: [00:20:30] Yeah. And so how great it is to be able to, to find documentaries on a lot of different places and, and take a chance and watch it. So I think they're the future and they're becoming better and better. You know, not just...

Michael Kantor: [00:20:46] And more profitable.

Susan Sarandon: [00:20:46] Are they?

Michael Kantor: [00:20:48] Yeah.

Susan Sarandon: [00:20:48] I'm so glad to hear that.

Michael Kantor: [00:20:50] No, I think, I think, um, it's a golden age for documentary now with different platforms, whether it's you know the subscription video on demand or in theatrical. The Hedy Bombshell played in theaters around the country, did quite well. So, there's that hope. I don't think anyone in document, documentary filmmaking gets into it because they think it's terribly profitable. But let's ask Alex if we can, what were the difficulties that you had trying to make this into the beautiful film that became?

Alexandra Dean: [00:21:22] Our biggest problem was trying to find Hedy's voice itself. We knew at the beginning that we were going to make this film based on her voice, but all we had at the time was this autobiography that she'd written that we knew she hated. We knew she'd sued the ghost writer. And over time, I felt more and more like a fraud basing her doc on this book she hated. So it wasn't until six months into making the film that we kind of gathered in the offices at Reframed, and decided we're going to we're going to try and find another record of her voice. We think that she would have left it somewhere. And so we made a list of everybody on earth who could possibly have this voice of Hedy Lamarr and we were so lucky because we went down this list of 72 people. When we hit the reporter F leming Meeks, who had t alked to her in 1990. We called him and he said immediately "I have been waiting 25 years for you to call me because I have these tapes!" And he been shuffling them around from house to house, office to office, waiting for somebody to call and say "What was Hedy's true story?" And he had talked to her over this course of four different phone conversations. She'd hung up on him sometimes, he'd sent her flowers and she'd allowed him to call back. And I think he didn't know at the time why he recorded this long ranging conversation, except that he was a little bit in love with her as a child. And so I think he felt joy at hearing about this world that she lived in, and great respect for her in a way. And I think he also sensed that there was a story here that would eventually be important. And then, you know, we, we got these tapes and we put them in the tape player and they jammed. The first time we put them in, sound actually literally fell off the tape itself because it was so old and, you know, somebody said "Never put a cassette tape into a cassette player when it's older than, you know, 1990 at that point, thirty years old." Take it to an audio expert. And when you take it to the audio expert, what they do is they put it in an oven and bake the sound back onto the tape and that seals it there so it can't fall off. And then they were able to play the cassettes, but only one time through each and they were digitized into cloud at that point. And in that process the tapes themselves were destroyed. So now we have this digital archive. It was terrible sound. We went through a huge process of restoring that sound to the best quality we could get it to. And then we had the fact that this was a rambling conversation that had gone on over days and weeks and didn't totally make sense, and it took us a long time to stitch back together what Heddy was trying to say. She would lose her train of thought and things. So it took us about three months to realize "Oh my God, we do have her story." With the good audio in the sound and everything put back together in the chronological order, suddenly there it was.

Michael Kantor: [00:24:26] Well we could talk about Hedy all evening, but we need to close with one last big question. I'd like you each answer in your own way. Is Hedy Lamarr a genius?

Alexandra Dean: [00:24:49] [To Susan Surandon] You're on the hotspot.

Susan Sarandon: [00:24:43] Yeah why not. Yeah I think so. I mean not because, just because, of her science because she kept a sense of humor after going through all that. I thought that was pretty genius. And I think she, you know, was a genius to think outside the box, and she definitely thought outside the box. And I think she tried to live an authentic life, which is pretty hard in Hollywood. So yeah. Why... I'd say I go for that box. I'll check that genius box.

Emina Soljanin: [00:25:19] I agree. For me a genius is someone who thinks differently than other people, and it doesn't have to be more deep or more mathematical, or technically stronger, but just different, and she definitely was an independent thinker. And you see that no matter what she does, she has also this engineering mind. I have a problem and I want to find a solution. And if it's a dinner out, dressing a certain way. If it's planes, I'll think about fish and birds. Not to even mention frequency hopping. And I think that the beginning of the movie, I was thinking, "Of course people could not relate to her because she was so beautiful." But then towards the end of the movie I was thinking, "She was such an independent thinker, and should relate so differently than other people that of course then she couldn't relate to others.".

Alexandra Dean: [00:26:18] Wow. How do I follow up with these two? I do think she was a genius. I think she was a genius because of the way that she did solve problems. She would say on the tapes I'm just looking for the simplest route between two points and I think that's true. That's what she was doing. But her brain was able to kind of frequency hop. You could hear it in the tape. She would leap from one thing to another. And I know in all of George Antalas correspondence her co-investor he would write about her genius because he was watching that mind leap and it would leap into this new space because I was able to take two unrelated things and smash them together and come up with something new. And I think that is part of the definition of genius.

Michael Kantor: [00:27:05] Well thank you.

Susan Sarandon: [00:27:08] I want to see a raise of hands of how many people think she was a genius in the audience. Oh that's a good amount. Cool.

Michael Kantor: [00:27:16] Well thank you all for joining us this evening for this special American Masters Podcast.Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story is available for streaming on Thirteen Passport and at PBS.org/AmericanMasters. Thanks again for coming. Have a great night.

Hedy Lamarr: [00:27:38] I was different I guess. Maybe I came from a different planet. Who knows. But whatever it is, inventions are easy for me to do.

Michael Kantor: [00:27:51] We want to give a special thanks to Harvey Somerfield and Billy Shinker at the Whitby Hotel for helping with our live recording. The American Masters Podcast is produced by Joe Skinner with sound engineering by Jon Berman. And I'm your host Michael Kantor. Listen to past episodes on our site at PBS.org/AmericanMasters or on Apple Podcast, SoundCloud, Stitcher and more. And please give us your reviews and ratings on Apple Podcasts. It's an easy way that you can help more listeners find our show. Stay tuned for more episodes in an all new season of the American Masters Podcast coming soon.