Elizabeth Holmes, the disgraced Silicon Valley entrepreneur once touted as the next Steve Jobs, will be portrayed in two upcoming fictionalized projects, one starring Jennifer Lawrence and the other with Kate McKinnon.
Lawrence’s big screen dramatization and McKinnon’s Hulu miniseries won’t be out for a while, but no waiting is required to see a nonfiction treatment of the Holmes story—The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley is available right now on HBO on demand. It’s in contention for multiple Emmy nominations.
Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney directed the documentary, about the Stanford University dropout who launched blood-testing company Theranos and became the youngest self-made female billionaire ever before the enterprise collapsed in a blizzard of fraud allegations. Gibney says he didn’t anticipate how much The Inventor would resonate with viewers.
“The way it broke through kind of surprised me in the sense that now on Twitter there are things like #TheranosThursdays where people dress up as Elizabeth Holmes and take selfies of themselves,” Gibney tells Deadline. “I think it has to do with, people have a fascination with frauds. People have a fascination with Silicon Valley and a fraud led by a woman in male-dominated Silicon Valley; it seemed like a kind of trifecta.”
There’s also intrigue about her motive in launching Theranos—was it noble or a scheme worthy of Bernie Madoff? She created the company in the early 2000s, boasting technology that she said would allow a hundred or more medical tests to be performed from a mere drop of blood obtained through a pinprick.
“You would eliminate the need for a venous draw with a long needle,” Gibney explains. “The plunging of that needle into the flesh is something Elizabeth regarded as akin to torture.”
The tests could be performed, she promised, on a handy desktop-sized machine she and her team of scientists and programmers were creating. She grandly dubbed it the Edison, after inventor Thomas Edison.
“It was critical to her, not that she adapt something or just find a small change, she wanted to be a paradigm shifter,” Gibney notes. “She wanted to invent something brand new. It was something terribly important to her and to her self image…She had this vision of herself as being able to create a device like Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs did it, she was going to do it too.”
She outfitted herself in black turtlenecks like Jobs. Her voice was memorable too—so deep to be reminiscent of Jiminy Glick in the lower registers. Her unblinking eyes exerted a gravitational force.
“By all accounts she was a tremendously charismatic and persuasive person,” Gibney comments. “I also think that she was pitching a vision that people really wanted to believe in— a vision of doing something good for people, accurate blood testing. People could take better control of their own healthcare.”
As the documentary recounts, Holmes raised nearly a billion dollars, some of it from the likes of Rupert Murdoch, Oracle’s Larry Ellison, various Walmart heirs and Betsy DeVos, secretary of education in the Trump administration. The company’s board featured two former secretaries of state (Henry Kissinger and George Shultz), a former secretary of defense (William Perry) and a future secretary of defense (James Mattis).
At one point Theranos was valued at $9 billion, but it all began to unravel when Wall Street Journal reporter John Carreyrou published an investigative piece questioning the viability of the company’s supposed technology. Gibney interviewed Carreyrou for his film, along with whistleblowers—including a grandson of Secretary Shultz—who helped expose the serious failures of the Edison.
Theranos eventually went down in flames and Holmes and her second-in-command, Ramesh Balwani, were indicted on multiple fraud charges. They have pleaded not guilty; no trial date has been set.
Gibney has directed and produced dozens of documentaries over his storied career, including the 2013 film The Armstrong Lie, about another noted fraudster, Lance Armstrong. He sees parallels between Holmes and the derailed cyclist who once inspired millions with his story of overcoming cancer.
“Lance was telling a lie that a lot of people really wanted to believe—that you could come back from cancer, and without doing any performance enhancing drugs you could come roaring back and win the Tour de France…That was a powerful myth that a lot of people depended on and wanted to believe in,” Gibney observes. “I think the other thing that [Elizabeth] and Lance shared was that when it came to going after people who were challenging the lie, she could be very ruthless. She and Lance were both very ruthless and very aggressive.”
As she awaits trial, Holmes is reportedly living a new life in San Francisco. She has ditched the black turtlenecks, reinventing her image.
“Open collar now…she has a completely different look,” Gibney says. “This is a woman who is an inventor in every sense of the word.”