Ultimate Movie Geek Illeana Douglas Chats About Her New Book & The Need For More Female Filmmakers

Photo: Maarten de Boer/ Getty Images.
Actress Illeana Douglas has been acting professionally for three decades. She has worked with auteurs (Martin Scorsese, Gus Van Sant) and brushed shoulders with legends (Peter Sellers, Liza Minnelli). But she is refreshingly unpretentious about working in Hollywood. Because at heart, Douglas is just a big ole film geek who is so in love with movies that she keeps an autograph book, filled with signatures from the likes of Mike Nichols, George Lucas, and Vanessa Redgrave.

Douglas' passion for cinema fuels her new memoir, I Blame Dennis Hopper: And Other Stories from a Life Lived In and Out of the Movies (now on sale), in which she shares stories from her upbringing and her years on movie sets. She rhapsodizes about drive-ins and her Oscar-winning grandfather, Melvyn Douglas. She describes an extended hotel room lunch (that became a dinner) with Marlon Brando and her then boyfriend, Scorsese.

Douglas, who also executive produced and stars in the Refinery29 series The Skinny, talked to us about the movies young women need to see.

You have this legacy of film in your family, but I found it really cool that you opened the book with a chapter about Easy Rider and Dennis Hopper as opposed to one about being on set with your grandfather when you were little. Why did you want to start with how you were unconventionally tied to movies?
“I wanted to tell the memoir through movies because in a sense movies have really depicted and framed my life in a way that started even before I liked movies. My parents saw the movie Easy Rider and it had such a profound effect on them, and I believe that in a sense that changed my destiny… Because Easy Rider depicted the rise of the hippie culture and was very anti-establishment, they decided to become hippies and we lived in a completely different, alternative way. Even though we were living in Connecticut, we were not living the upper middle class Connecticut lifestyle. We were living in a hippie commune… My grandfather became very much a father figure to me... I started to learn about classical film and it was in a sense being thrust from one film, which was Easy Rider, into another film, which was a classic Hollywood black and white film… As I grew up I realized ‘Oh, my whole childhood was sort of like a movie.’ When in doubt, take things from the movies. It became more of a fan thing. My movies were like a way of making myself happy.”

Women, we’re chomping at the bit just to be able to tell our stories.

Illeana Douglas

One of the things that we’re talking about a lot in this day and age is how to diversify who directs movies, and how to create more opportunities for female directors. You write about loving directors and working with Allison Anders on Grace of My Heart. What’s your take on this ongoing discussion?
“I wrote in the book that my first love was learning about the director. My grandfather gave me a book and it was called The Men Who Made The Movies. It wasn’t called, you know, ‘and the women.’ When I was growing up, I just thought men were directors, and men made the movies. So the only role models that I had were these incredibly strong women actresses. You know, Jane Fonda, Jessica Lange, people like that, or some of the classic Hollywood stars. As I started to get success, especially with the film To Die For, I started to discover other female filmmakers, especially the work of a French film director named Agnès Varda. She had done this movie called Vagabond, which just blew me away. At the time, I was in a romantic relationship with Martin Scorsese — again, not known for making ‘women’s pictures.’ He had this collaboration with Robert De Niro and that inspired me to feel like, Well, why not, I would like to have a collaboration with a female director. At the same time, I happened to get cast in this extremely low budget film called Grief by the late director Richard Glatzer... It got into Sundance, and while I was at Sundance I saw Gas Food Lodging and I met Allison Anders and there was just something about that film that so inspired me and brought me back to Agnès Varda. It felt like, this is what I’ve been missing, working with a male director. After Allison I’ve worked with at least seven or eight female directors. More so than most people. After Grace of My Heart I actually had female directors seeking me out and saying, ‘Will you be in my movie or support this film?’”

Grace of My Heart
was 20 years ago now. Have you seen any change in how female directors and female creators are perceived in the industry since that time?
“Absolutely. When we did the movie it was sort of like the glory of independent filmmaking and the '90s… Penny Marshall was working, Nora Ephron was working, Barbra Streisand was making films. All these female independent filmmakers’ movies were coming out, like [Nicole Holofcener’s] Walking and Talking with Catherine Keener. Then all of the sudden it’s as if we hit this glass ceiling and then it became harder and harder for someone like Allison Anders to get her movies made.”
Photo: Courtesy of Illeana Douglas.
Douglas in the early 1970s.

You are such a fan of movies. You keep an autograph book. Why did you want to share your fandom in the book?
“I love movies, and I’ve read a lot about movies, and I’ve also met a lot of interesting people. On a film set people will say, ‘Oh Illeana, tell me that story about so or so or when you met Robert Mitchum, or this person or that person.’ That became very much a framework of wanting to tell these stories in the book. It was Roddy McDowall who said to me, ‘You know you’re going to meet a lot of interesting people, and I’m one of them. Start writing everything down.’ I realized at this point, with all these journals that I’d kept, in a sense I am The Rememberer. And sometimes people make fun of me, because I want to write everything down. At least I’m not videoing it! For many years I wanted to remember it for me because I didn’t want to forget these incredible experiences. I have all these amazing diaries, journals, and autograph books. I also want the world to see some of these people and experience what they were like because we’re beginning to forget the contributions that they made.”

Are there any films that you think young women need to see?
“When we were shooting The Skinny, the Trailblazing Women show was playing on TCM... We focused on the work of this director and actress, Ida Lupino. She was making movies in the 50s. She did a movie called Outrage, depicting a factory worker who has been raped, and how the shaming of that experience on her family makes her run away from home. People on the set were astonished, they’d never seen such a heartfelt film and [had] this realization that a women like Ida Lupino was trying to make a movie like this in 1950, way before anybody was talking about it. Then you go to the 1970s and there’s this incredible film called Wanda, again by an actress and filmmaker named Barbara Loden... She paved the way for personal filmmakers like Allison Anders. Lastly, I would say just to go and try to watch the movies of Elaine May and Nora Ephron. Women, we’re chomping at the bit just to be able to tell our stories. I’ve experienced gender bias and bullying all my life, and now suddenly we can actually talk about some of these things. I think that they actually make us stronger as women. From a creative point of view, in order to overcome the gender bias completely, I feel that women have to also be great technicians. It’s not enough to tell a personal and brave story.”

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