Find the Lady: Following the Shell Game of the Movies in Bombshell

MGM

Bombshell is a film built on performance. A magnetic Jean Harlow shines against a maniacally frenzied Lee Tracy; Frank Morgan, Una Merkel, and Franchot Tone erupt like firecrackers in moments, sparking life to scenes before stepping aside for the main players. As a screwball comedy, it offers the rapid-fire dialogue and wit, the farcical plot, the unyielding, frenetic pace. A confection of classic Hollywood, it spins itself out of gossip and self-reference. It’s rumored to be loosely based off of Clara Bow’s life, down to her three sheepdogs—or, if you like, allegedly cleaving similarly to Jean Harlow’s biography. Either way, it remains inextricable and inseparable from the locale and industry its plot centers.

More than perhaps any other place in American mythology, Hollywood remains the stuff that dreams are made of, something fantastic and incomprehensible, both glamorous and unseemly, imagined and real. It is a place many of us want to know in infinite detail, even when that knowledge might ruin it for us. It is a place we think we know because we’ve read about it, because we’ve charted its spaces in our imaginations, and Googled and YouTubed until our fingers and our eyes have revolted. It is, to paraphrase and appropriate Edward Said, an imagined geography, a site rampant for our projection and constructed by it—the ultimate trick mirror. We peer into Hollywood, its mirage and its movies, to explore ourselves, only to find the fiction; yet when we examine the fiction, we glimpse the truth of our selves.

Bombshell understands this more than anything else, choosing to layer the idea of performance into each twist of its plot. At face value, it is a story about Lola Burns (Harlow), an A-List celebrity who has a fraught relationship with her own publicity as a blonde bombshell, sex symbol, and perpetual gossip column item, all of which is engineered by the studio’s primary publicity man, E.J. “Space” Hanlon (Tracy). But the performance extends beyond the surface. Snippets of footage from Harlow’s other films masquerade as scenes from Lola’s repertoire. Lola, too, transforms herself into a seemingly different person with each smile and pose, from magazine covers to interview spreads and meetings with fans. And each persona is specifically crafted to satisfy the demands and expectations of whoever happens to be looking.

There’s also the question of her family—an alcoholic father, a gambler brother—who feign towards high culture in their suits and top hats and affected accents. There are myriad backstage hands, hairdressers, make-up technicians, and studio assistants, who smile and joke through their work, promising Lola loyalty we know none of them really mean. These are the little performances of everyday life, the performances that make everyday lives. From the moment the camera enters Lola’s bedroom and sees her unearthed from beneath a silk pillow, we join the camera in trying to unmask her, to pin the truth of her self with the strength of our gaze. With a simple fade transition, the movie draws back the curtain of Lola’s persona. Instead of glamour, there is the mess of her bedroom. Instead of presence, absence. The camera pans across, searching, but no Lola. She is lost among the detritus of her belongings.

Only when Loretta (Louise Beavers), her maid, reaches to retrieve the silk pillow does the camera find her. But this is not the Lola of the montage, centrally framed, made-up and posed, smiling. This is Lola, interrupted. The camera hovers in defamiliarizing close-up, but obscures her face. Our real introduction to Lola is the top of her head and a suggestion of the line of shoulders. We enter Lola’s space by disturbing its stillness, by clipping her body through the square framing of the shot. The rest of the movie is spent trying to piece her back together again. Or, rather, piecing them back together—not only this Lola, disheveled and sleepy underneath the covers, but also that Lola of the opening montage, glossy and brilliant. Having entered into the movie with its (fictional) audiences and their misty-eyed hunger for her image, we know exactly which Lola they want, and which Lola we have seen, and we know the camera is the only way to find them. To build them.But the camera never settles. The performances never stop. As the film peels away layer after layer, we come no closer to viewing the “real” Lola. Where a stable self ought to be, we find, instead, more performances. And Bombshell loves her for it. When a Photoplay reporter interrupts Lola, busy scolding her father about his exorbitant spending, the camera focuses on how she pulls herself together. We might expect a close-up, a study of emotions passing over her face, but that’s not what the camera delivers. It keeps its distance, choosing not to frame her face alone but also her upper body. The hat she wears, angled on her head, simultaneously emphasizes her face from one perspective, and hides it from another.

The commodity is not her image, but her performance. Her shoulders, slumped forward, pull back; her posture, collapsed with the irritation of a frustrated lower-class breadwinner, straightens; the shrill yell diminishes to a softer transatlantic accent, touched with a trace of British affect. This isn’t an actor becoming the star, it’s a woman moving between spheres of her life, between the masks she’s been assigned. It’s Lola, becoming. With the camera level and distant, it captures the process for us completely. We watch her assemble. We see the work involved in constructing Lola for this Photoplay interview, and this Lola will be different than the Lolas that follow. When the reporter crosses into the other room, Lola returns to the collapsed posture, the scowl, the sharp voice. And even so, Photoplay Lola never feels like a complete fabrication; it’s just another face, another angle on the diamond. If Photoplay Lola is a lie, the movie suggests, it’s only because Lola herself is too.

After all, she emerges not as a whole body, but as a construction within montage, a series of letters in neon lights intercut with shots of newspaper headlines and glossy photos; only once the film begins to track Lola as a person moving through her life do we discover the fragments of who she really is: The woman who fights with her father and brother, but indulges their vices out of love; who knows her staff steals from her but keeps them on anyway; who understands how she is manipulated by the system she finds herself in, but still shows up to work. Her cars are “borrowed” by the cook, by her brother; the very people she would trust and love are the ones who market her the hardest. Unverified rumors about her pregnancy are denied because “it’s not in her contract.” Lola understands herself as a cog in the wheel of the Hollywood studio machine, a financial resource for her friends and family, and an object of desire for everyone else. The desires of others define her image and her life and, as she fights to do throughout the film, she must articulate her own in order to seize any of that power back.

With the presence of the camera, however, it isn’t that simple. Lola may attempt to define herself, but she must do so within the gaze of camera lenses—whether the celebrity photographers who visit her home, the film cameras on the studio lot, or the actual cameras recording Bombshell in the first place. As she navigates the different gazes and lenses, she models the demanding celebrity, the perfect wife, the forgiving sister, but it is the (foster) mother she actively creates. After Lola latches onto the idea of having a child, she delivers her speech to Jim, her director ex-lover, and he replies, “You’re just in a mood, and you’re playing a scene with yourself. I’d like to have a camera turned on you right now, say, you’d be a sensation.”

But the camera is turned onto her, the audience knows the camera is turned onto her, and Harlow’s performance teases at her awareness of our presence. Her speech extolling motherhood is delivered in true classic Hollywood cinema dramatics, hands clasped in front of her, eyes turned 45 degrees towards the sky. This is a pose and a speech for close-ups, but the camera fixes her in a medium-length shot. Absent a close-up, the camera misses the detailed expression in her face and captures the artifice instead. What we find is not a dialogue, but a performer and her scene partner. She speaks at him, rather than to him, and he slips into the shadows and watches her, as we do. Victor Fleming’s direction heightens this tension throughout by finding the frames that contain her in the everyday. Bombshell presents Lola encased by the Ionic columns of her house, by window frames and doorways, by the rear window of a taxicab. Every actor needs their stage, and Fleming answers by framing each Lola in her own little theater.The functional role of Tracy’s Space Hanlon, however, is to push the limits of that kind of performance. As the studio’s head of publicity, he is Lola’s antagonist and erstwhile love interest; he cares for her—even “more than likes” her—but he’s also single-handedly responsible for many aspects of her day-to-day unhappiness. He peddles gossip items to the newspapers, he hires actors to pretend to be long-lost husbands for the headlines, he manipulates her back to work with a few hired actors and a two-bit lie. As he tells it, “she’s great copy because she don’t know what she wants, and she wants something different every day. That’s a story.” Stories are what Hollywood does best, and they’re the only things they sell—from the stories on screen to those doled out through the lives of the celebrities whose scandals and sagas await us in the supermarket aisles.

But Bombshell shows how Space, too, is a product of performance. His theaters are different—sometimes overlapping with Lola’s and sometimes not—but his work is the same. We see him insinuate himself into studio lots and offices, cajole emotionally volatile actresses, sweet-talk studio executives, and bait reporters. Where Lola plays her dramatic scenes with the grandeur of a silent film actress, Hanlon moves with the energy of a classic vaudevillian. He dances on stage, into frame, into scene. When he manipulates his audiences, he somehow manages to speak three sentences at once, interrupting his own lines to begin new thoughts, clapping his hands on several sets of shoulders, his face lit with manic, overwrought excitement. When he throws himself into scenes for Lola’s benefit, he hams it up: pretending to be drunk, pretending to be jealous, overacting in an attempt to play his hand.

But the same Space also draws Lola aside to whisper his affection for her. It’s the same Space who seeks to establish a kind of privacy when it comes to the relationship between the two of them. As a defining presence of Lola’s public life, he writes and rewrites her romances and paramours, her public scandals and sagas, but privately, he too is a part of it, though he seeks to keep his name out of it. “We used to have a lot of fun,” Lola says about their relationship, “but ever since I began to make a name for myself, he’s been double-crossing me with his rotten publicity.”

The trick is he’s in the room when she says it. Just as she finishes, his response laps over the end of hers: “He’s seen to it that Lola Burns is a family slogan from Kokomo, Indiana to the Khyber Pass…You’re international tonic, you’re a boon to re-population in a world thinned out by war and famine.” These roles come to define them, not only to themselves, but to each other. It’s this Lola that Space believes he creates from an actor fished out of the extras pool, just as Lola believes the force of her celebrity cemented the maniacal mask of Space, the publicity hound. Space may outplay the game, but he still reveals himself in doing so. Yet we are the ones who catch him in it, watching from outside and piecing him together.

In Bombshell, the outside—whether camera, audience, or scene partner—is the mirror; by playing with it, we make sense of who we are. And Lola and Space play the most, whether scrutinizing and commenting on each other’s performances, or imposing and demanding new ones. Equally audience and actor, they know exactly which Lola (and which Space) they came to see. When the role changes, they provoke it to change back, whether through the setting; the scene partners; or the pace, tone, and direction of the action.

And the movie is well aware of how we inhabit and alternate roles in our lives. We play around too much with the mirror to ever fully be captured by it. When the light moves, our faces are reshaped in the making, and that’s exactly what we want it to do. For women especially, the mirror is used to view and judge us early on, and we learn to navigate and deflect its gaze. For our own survival, for our own sanity.

From day to evening, adolescence to womanhood, performing femininity means trading between a series of masks and knowing when to wear what. For the famous woman stepping out in public, the demand is an even more idealized and hyperscrutinized femininity; the cameras are always on, the eyes are always watching. There can be no escape from performance if the gaze is uninterrupted. As Lola realizes over the course of the film, the only options then are either to resist performing, or embrace the veneer.Lola and Space opt for the latter, separately, but also together. Unusually for a classic Hollywood romance, this is not about a coming together, but an intersection of individuals. Sketched through the veil rather than witnessed firsthand, we see Lola and Space stage their romance rather than actively participate in it. The hallmarks are familiar and recognizable—an overheard emotional admission, an immediate reconciliation—but their climactic romantic moment underscores the film’s reliance on, and toying with, the gaze as much as it undermines the finality of their Hollywood ending. From a crowded room, Space draws Lola into an empty one; they take center stage, filling the frame. In a medium-length shot, Space grips Lola’s arms, holding her against his chest. A kiss in close-up follows, a sketch of a confession of love results. But the stage isn’t stable. The scene can’t hold.

Voices erupt through an open window—those of her recent fling and his parents, who rejected her as marriageable because of her professional calling as an actress. Or, rather, the actors Space hired to play her lover and his parents. It is a shock plot twist and a moment of reckoning and theatrics where the boundaries between reality and production nearly dissolve. Lola realizes her attempt to leave the studio and find happiness in real life was itself one of Space’s productions, spinning the reality of her life into another work for the studio lot; the actors passing by the window threaten the fictional climax of the romantic resolution. And the audience not only witnesses Space’s—and the studio’s—manipulation of Lola in person, but becomes another unwitting target. The romantic kiss ends in quick cut, abrupt and brief even by Hays Code standards; Harlow’s Lola jerks her head outside the window, breaking the composition of the romantic shot and turning her face out of frame. This is Lola as we first discovered her—segmented by the camera and temporarily unviewable. Unknowable. The face we came to see, to project upon, obscures itself from us, but still, we recognize her. Not as the Lola we made through the camera, through our spectating desire, but rather for who she is right now.

Space and Lola might fall in love, out of love, and back in love, but the romance of the picture is with movies and the business of making them. When Lola’s lover and his family reject her because of her career as an actor, Lola suddenly rediscovers her love for it. Responding with sudden passion, she cries, “What’s wrong with pictures? It’s perfectly honest work, isn’t it?…Is it any disgrace entertaining people, making them laugh and making them cry?” The question is posed to Space, but it’s the camera she faces and to us that she speaks.

The scene is nearly staged in counterpoint to her earlier performance with Jim. She does not face the camera, makes no dramatic gestures to perform her emotions, but responds naturally. Space is no scene partner, but a participant in the conversation. But her lines pierce the boundary between fiction and reality, playing on her awareness of our gaze. She isn’t looking at us, as she does in earlier scenes, but she seems to talk to us. This is no persona she seeks to impose upon herself, as it is with her determined motherhood, but a wearing away of the varnish. To the audience, to those of us who pay to see films, there’s nothing wrong here at all.

It’s that line between stage and seat, between performer and audience, truth and fiction that Bombshell highlights and blurs. Even the experience of watching it from the vantage point of the 21st century teases that out. To know Jean Harlow now is to know an image rather than a person: There are proven facts, there are gossip and rumors; there are unauthorized biographies and accounts. But for fans of the passed and passing, what survives is the image. I never knew Harlow, but she exists to me as a person, radiant and alive, within this space of a few hours and thousands of frames of film.

As Bombshell teaches us, life may be nothing more than a series of performances, overlapping, contradicting, and unstable. Traces of the exaggerated, the histrionic, the dramatic may rise up out of these roles, as they do for Lola. Yet it’s in these moments that we locate and craft those aspects of ourselves we find or hope to be true. Maybe we never glimpse who we truly are, maybe we can never consistently perform that self to the people we want to when we want to, and maybe that doesn’t matter. What matters are the little mercies of understanding and connection, of letting our images mingle with reality, of playing around with masks until we finally get it right. Until the light and shadow begin to dance.