Illeana Douglas: A Life In and Out of the Movies

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Illeana Douglas has lived one of the most fascinating Hollywood lives in recent history. She was one of the defining faces of 1990s cinema, with iconic roles in everything from Goodfellas and Cape Fear to Alive to To Die For to Grace of My Heart. Along the way she met many of her heroes, from Lee Marvin to Dennis Hopper to Peter Fonda to Marlon Brando, and she famously dated Martin Scorsese for almost a decade. Even for the granddaughter of two-time Oscar winner Melvyn Douglas, it’s been a wild ride. This year she finally published her memoir, I Blame Dennis Hopper, and the release has more or less coincided with her monthlong TCM series Trailblazing Women, which showcased work by pioneering women filmmakers. Douglas caught up with Paste recently to discuss women filmmakers from the silent film era, Richard Dreyfuss, Marlon Brando and more.

Paste: I’ve been excited to see your TCM series Trailblazing Women catch fire.
Illeana Douglas: It was incredible, and the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. I give a lot of credit to the general manager at TCM, Jennifer Dorian, and also of course to Charlie Tabesh for programming the films. We were all talking about doing more of a focus on women directors, but making it something this big was a different thing. This is a three year initiative. It’s not just one month of programming. We’ll have three years to see the progression. This first year we approached it form the entertainment angle, just reminding people that all these great films were directed by women.

Paste: Certainly it’s a conversation that’s been in the ether this year. Any time would have been great to do this, but I think it got a lot of traction in part by being the right thing at the right time.
Douglas: Yeah, I get forwarded all these articles from the New York Times, or the LA Times, or wherever, and they keep mentioning Trailblazing Women, or suddenly they’re mentioning the movies of Ida Lupino, or the movies of Lois Weber. That’s how it seeps in. I just don’t think people were aware that women were making movies in, say, the silent film era. Because there’s nothing about that in the history books. But now that we’re recognizing it, it’s starting to make its way into other sources. So now Jennifer Lawrence and Meryl Streep are talking about Ida Lupino and Lois Weber, so that’s exciting.

Paste: I love that you had the segment on African-American women, as well.
Douglas: Yeah, that was fantastic. You know, that was one of the movies, Daughters of the Dust by Julie Dash, that would be an absolutely perfect candidate for a Criterion Collection disc. The films directed by Ida Lupino would be great too, and I’ve been pressing for Wanda by Barbara Loden; I just personally love that film.

issue216.jpg Paste: I think you need to be the “Trailblazing Women” curator for the Criterion Collection!
Douglas: Believe me, I’m trying to make it happen! Everyone else advocates for the films they love, and half of them I’ve never heard of, so I’m advocating on behalf of American female directors. And others, actually, as the show progresses. This year the focus of the show was on female directors and their historical contributions. But as we continue in the series, we can not only examine female directors, but also the contributions of people like Edith Head, who created all of the signature looks for Paramount and won eight Academy Awards. A lot of these women who were behind the scenes—Alma Hitchcock would be another prime example, how she contributed on all of Hitchcock’s scripts without anyone knowing about it.

Paste: I’m glad to hear you say that. My friend Antonia Bogdanovich, who produced this film I just shot, is the daughter of Polly Platt, and at Sarasota Film Festival, we just established the Polly Platt award for producing.
Douglas: Oh, that’s great!

Paste: I’m always beating the drum to have Polly and her cohorts get more historical credit for the impact they had. And even currently—I had a great woman cinematographer on my film, my friend Elle Schneider, who is also a director. And she told me that as bad as the situation is for women directors, it’s even worse for women cinematographers. There are only 14 women in the ASC.
Douglas: I think that there’s this insanity that women can’t carry the heavy cameras. When I did the series, I watched 60 films, and I had these reams and reams of research to go through. And one of the through-lines I saw was that women, when they were forced out of directing narrative features, went into documentary filmmaking. I think part of the idea was that was that the cameras were smaller, 16mm cameras. It was easier to pick up a 16mm camera and shoot a documentary than to have to deal with all the stereotypes: “Women can’t hold a big heavy camera.” “Men don’t want to work with a woman director.”

Those things aren’t true, but you hear them enough times and they have a brainwashing effect. And then women don’t even go in the direction of being a DP. But you know, in my coming-up period in the ’90s, it wasn’t uncommon at all to see female directors, female DPs. We’ve gone a step backwards, and I’m not quite sure why.

Paste: In the memoir, you have such great stories, and you have such a great voice as a writer—which many actors do not. I know you worked hard on it.
Douglas: I did work hard on it. You know, everybody’s got good stories. And I wouldn’t have written a book unless I had a through-line of what the book was saying. And it seems to me, we’re at a point where we’re about to lose that group experience of watching a film together. So the book is a love letter to films, but it’s also a love letter to filmgoing. Those memories people have of their grandmother or grandfather taking them to a movie, that experience of how a movie can change your life. I don’t know if we really have that any more, in our society. I don’t know if we see Star Wars and want to move to a galaxy far, far away. But I know that when I saw Romeo and Juliet, I was fascinated by star-crossed romance, and when I saw Lee Marvin, I became obsessed with him. Before I really even understood what movies were, these images stayed in my brain somehow, and they formed me.

Of course, the biggest homage is to Dennis Hopper, who in my mind really changed how movies were made. That movie changed a generation of people. We were exploring that, back when film was important. I think we’ve almost forgotten how important that film was. I started to do some research and found motorcycle clubs that were called Easy Rider clubs, and so many people that had parents similar to mine, that saw Easy Rider and changed their life. People change their lives now, but they don’t necessarily do it because they saw it in a movie. I think what Easy Rider expressed was this not wanting to fall into this capitalist, middle class, mainstream establishment. And of course that was easy for college kids to do, but I also think it permeated the middle class.

Paste: It’s interesting, the loss of the feeling of moment in seeing a great film. I think in the last decade, there have been some amazing, classic films. And some of them have changed my life in some ways. But it’s a very different thing to say that The Tree of Life, which I hold so dear, changed my life, than the kind of life-changing that you’re talking about, that happened to people when they saw Easy Rider.
Douglas: I use this comparison, because I find it so amusing. When Easy Rider came out, the studio was making The Guide to the Married Man. That’s the kind of thing they were making! Movies about how married men can cheat on their wives, with a groovy soundtrack. And then Easy Rider comes out, and Hollywood movies start to tap into the hippie culture. And then the independent movement starts to realize they can make their own films.

In the film, they’re sitting around the fire, talking about how the establishment is afraid of you being free, and Dennis Hopper says “That’s what it’s all about, man.” I don’t think we’re free anymore. But in 1969, you had a choice; you could be free. You could give up the two-car garage, and plant a garden, and live off the land, and make pottery, and have a simpler way of life. Not sure you can do that now. I think you’d be hauled off by the child welfare authorities.

Paste: I also really loved your Richard Dreyfuss chapter, not only because I adore his acting, but also because there’s a certain courage in writing that in some performances, you were trying to do Richard Dreyfuss. Every actor does that, but most of them won’t admit it.
Douglas: I always say to people that it’s so disturbing that no one knows who Spencer Tracy any more. When Richard Dreyfuss said, “I knew I’d never be able to be Errol Flynn, so I decided I wanted to be Spencer Tracy,” I could relate to that. I knew I’d never be Christie Brinkley or Farrah Fawcett, so who could I be? And I loved his confidence and his indignation. He wasn’t James Dean or Marlon Brando. And he’s not quite Spencer Tracy either, although he was trying to copy him.

But what I love about Dreyfuss is that he’s like a dog with a bone. And I love that kind of acting, that trying to get a rise out of someone with your performance. That kind of listening and answering, with his tremendous energy. And he projected this kind of intellectualism that as a young kid, I hadn’t seen in movies before. I always called myself a backseat kid, because I wasn’t cool enough for the front seat. The backseat kids were the class clowns. You rode around with the cool girls who had the nice cars, but you sat in the back seat. So when I saw American Graffiti, I really related to that Richard Dreyfuss character.

What I thought was so interesting about that performance was that he knew he was going somewhere that nobody else was going. And he had this kind of inner superiority. At the end of that movie, he leaves that town and never looks back. And you can kind of imagine that everyone else is still there, driving around in their cars, but he’s going to do something important with his life. That really struck a chord with me.

And then to see his performance in Jaws—look, I know it’s an action movie, and it’s about the shark. But who I related to most in the film, as a child, was Richard Dreyfuss. It’s a great action film, shot with all these great innovations. But for me, the energy of the film really comes from the performance Richard Dreyfuss. Because that could have been a stock character. We always have the scientist who intellectually explains everything for us. But his indignation…

Paste: There’s a sharpness to it.
Douglas: Yeah! It’s just this kind of dogged, bravura performance. I’ve always said, I can literally see him thinking in the film. He’s listening, but you know as soon as Roy Scheider stops talking, he’s going to blast him. He just makes scene after scene incredibly exciting, and for me he really brought the film to life.

Then, going into The Goodbye Girl, he was actually the romantic lead. And in my opinion, he ushered in a new kind of performance that you can see now in people like Seth Rogen, even Adam Sandler. Not the handsome guy, but the smart-alecky, cute guy who gets the girl by being funny and charming. And The Goodbye Girl could be easily dismissed as a feel-good movie, but that’s why the phrase was invented. I t makes you feel good.

Paste: Nothing wrong with being a feel-good movie. The Philadelphia Story is a feel-good movie. Right?
Douglas: Totally. Completely. And you know also, like so many actors I admire, he came in at the tail end of so much history. I mean, he worked with Barbara Stanwyck in Big Valley. He worked on Gunsmoke. He met Charlie Chaplin. People like that are our last tie to the classic Hollywood system, and to people that we all admire.

Paste: You think about those times as being ancient, and there being no links to them. But there are links. There are living links.
Douglas: Completely.

Paste: Well, speaking of links to classic Hollywood, you’re one of the only people I know who’s spent a day with Marlon Brando. And of course I love that chapter in the book. I won’t spoil all the things that happen in that chapter, but that had to have been a mind-blowing experience. I mean, in the acting community, there’s no one closer to God than Marlon Brando.
Douglas: Yes, especially for me. Part of the reason I tell these stories, what I always try to do is to show a side of them that we maybe haven’t seen before. I don’t present things from a critical point of view. I want to show a more personal perspective of what I received from them, and to paint a picture of the essence of the person and of what they’ve brought to the film world. That’s what I’m trying to encapsulate in one story.

Brando’s presence looms so large over the acting community. I never expected I’d ever meet Marlon Brando, and I never expected that I’d have a life-changing experience by meeting him. But I left myself open. And I still always leave myself open to that. I’m here to learn, and to be changed by experiences. But I wouldn’t write about it unless I could impart something about Marlon Brando that I think we’ve missed. People like Marlon Brando, Dennis Hooper, they’re larger than life figures, and there’s a reason for that.

So what I tried to do in the Brando chapter was to give some insight as to what it’s like to meet someone like him, but also to impart something about one of our movie gods. I mean, I was influenced, growing up, by reading people like Pauline Kael and Stanley Kauffman. They’d do actual profiles of people. It wasn’t like a little paragraph. They didn’t do this thing of “She sat down and ordered a V8. She was wearing a beautiful blouse from Barney’s.”

Paste: And then half the conversation is about what it’s like to be famous.
Douglas: Yes!

Paste: “George Clooney and I are riding motorcycles down the PCH.” Well, good for you. I don’t really care.
Douglas: Right! But I grew up reading these profiles of what this person was really like. And I took that into the next movie I saw of theirs. That kind of movie writing has kind of gone by the wayside. But I grew up loving to read, say, Francois Truffaut’s profiles. So that’s what I’m trying to do, what I’m trying to offer.

You can buy Douglas’ memoir I Blame Dennis Hooper here.