Susan Sarandon: “Hedy Lamarr was so strong, as well as brilliant”

The Oscar-winning actress tells us why she's co-produced a new documentary about the Hollywood star and technological pioneer

She might have been a Hollywood A-lister longer than Jennifer Lawrence has been on the planet, but at 71, Susan Sarandon shows no signs of slowing down. As impassioned as her equally tenacious old pal Bernie Sanders, Sarandon tells The Big Issue why she thinks progressive young women are winning the fight for the future, how every film is political, and why she and ex-partner Tim Robbins defied sage Hollywood advice and refused to give Dead Man Walking a romantic ending.

Sarandon is in the UK to promote her latest project, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story. It’s the timely story of the legendary forties Hollywood actress who was revered for her beauty, but whose part in discovering a seismic technological breakthrough was regarded with scepticism by the male-dominated scientific community and is largely forgotten today.

Along with friend George Antheil, Lamarr developed a frequency-hopping system that protected torpedo signals from being detected and jammed or diverted. It was Lamarr’s heartfelt contribution to the war effort, but the American navy chose not to invest and she was advised her assets would be better utilised selling kisses for dollars. Only when the patent ran out was the technology developed into the basis for wifi and Bluetooth.

The Big Issue: I can see why the Hedy Lamarr story appealed to you, but before you learned the details, what did you know about her?

Susan Sarandon: Not much. Some headlines. I knew she swam naked [in the controversial Czech film Ecstasy, which caused such a scandal the Pope felt it imperative to denounce it]. She was absolutely gorgeous. She got done for shoplifting. And her career probably ended before it should have. I knew some vague rumour about science. But the more I found out, the more interesting she became.

In the beginning there were many people saying that she wasn’t responsible for the frequency-hopping breakthrough, she couldn’t possibly have done it. And at first, we really didn’t know for sure. A lot of this stuff was discovered during the making of the documentary.

It felt like a very timely story to empower young girls now

What do you think is the most compelling aspect of her story, and the Alexandra Dean film you have exec-produced?

First there was the amazing story of Hedy’s life. How she escaped from the Nazis in Austria, went to England, taught herself English, broke into Hollywood, went through all these husbands. Hollywood wrote her off when she showed signs of ageing. But she didn’t fold, like other women did; Joan Crawford just drank herself into oblivion. Hedy really tried to fight back, and became a producer. It just didn’t work for her, but she was fighting all the way. She married the wrong guys, she was terrible with money, so she was always marrying to keep herself financially stable. She was really so strong, as well as brilliant. But eventually she got done for shoplifting, became a recluse and ended up dumped in an unmarked grave.

But for me as an actress, and as a woman, even more compelling in her story was the injustice of the idea that just because you’re beautiful you can’t have brilliant ideas. Because we do have a falling off of female students in science and math. The message has been delivered that this is not somewhere for women to go. And you don’t hear the stories of men and women working together when there’s a breakthrough – the men get the credit. This happens still. So that grabbed me right away. It felt like a very timely story to empower young girls now. They don’t need to choose one cliché over another. They can be a contradictory, multifaceted person; beautiful, smart, with a man or without, with children or without. There are so many options now. Hedy fell into the traps and conventions of her time. But they don’t need to exist any more.

It’s very moving to see how America puts her and her ambition firmly in its place. By the time she’s in her early forties she’s ‘ugly’ and ‘old’ and the pathetic butt of Lucille Ball sketches. This was not how male stars in their ‘distinguished’ middle age were treated.

Right. And then she tried to be a producer, at a time when all the producers were men. I think women are depending less and less now on men for their power. In my business there are so many female entrepreneurs and women who can green-light projects. So it doesn’t feel necessary any more for women to have to annihilate female competitors. That makes a big difference, when someone like me is going into a room full of female producers. You can have women as your allies. In fact, female allies make you stronger.

And women like us are raising sons who are interested in women for substance, not just to assuage their own insecurities. More and more men are being raised by working mothers to be feminists. Women in every walk of life, from nurses to movie stars, have been ignited and their sons and daughters are right behind them.

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In White Cargo (1942) Lamarr plays an exotic Arab seductress who shakes her breasts at rich white men to get them to marry her. Shimmying around a bedazzled Walter Pidgeon, she looks uncomfortable, almost like a trafficked prostitute. Not like a woman who was working on advancing military weaponry in her spare time.

Yes. A woman couldn’t be beautiful and clever. She was handicapped by how gorgeous she was. And Hedy was also in blackface for that role! I think female actors understand much better now how cautious they have to be when they choose roles which do things like link sex and race and violence. It’s not about being politically correct. I have a sense of humour and it doesn’t get in the way of me making fun of myself. But I think you have to take responsibility. Every film is political. You have to ask, what is this story telling you?

Do you regret any of your own choices in the past?

I stand by all my film roles. Even something like White Palace, a hot, sexy, funny film, also says, be the protagonist in your own life. Some films ended up being much more controversial than I expected. Thelma & Louise – we didn’t think that was going to be such a big deal when we were doing it. We didn’t understand that we were backing into this territory – older women having sex with men of a certain age – that would blow up like it did.

I’ve made films I didn’t think would get much of an audience but I really wanted to tell the story. When I found the book that became Dead Man Walking [for which Sarandon won a Best Actress Oscar, while Robbins was nominated for Best Director] I thought we’d make that film and I’d be happy that it would be on the record, but it would go to video because… who wants to sit through that? That it became a financial success was a real surprise for Tim and me. When I brought him the book he wasn’t even that interested in it. It took about a year of me throwing a fit before he really took it seriously. Because it was tough. And everyone told us no one’s
ever made money from a film that had ‘Dead’ in the title. And ‘couldn’t they get together at the end?’

The double murderer and the nun?

Yeah [she laughs]. We had to say no.

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story is out now

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