Interview, Audio: Trailblazing Actress & Film Historian Illeana Douglas

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CHICAGO – Long before 2017, the year of notable recognition for women filmmakers, the actress, producer and author Illeana Douglas launched the film series “Trailblazing Women” on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) in 2015. Her goal was to achieve recognition for the pioneering efforts of women in early film history and beyond.

“Trailblazing Women” had its third season in October of 2017, and again Douglas was the host. She has been an advocate for women throughout her show business career, besides having the ancestry cache of her grandfather – Oscar-winner Melvyn Douglas – who was a movie star and character actor from the 1930s through the 1980s.

Actress/Author Illeana Douglas in Chicago
Photo credit: Joe Arce of Starstruck Foto for

Illeana Douglas was born in Massachuetts, the daughter of Melvyn Douglas’ son Gregory and his wife Joan. She got the show biz bug as a young teenager, when she was able to visit her grandfather on the set of “Being There” (1979). After high school she moved to New York City to pursue a career. She studied acting while working various jobs, and met Martin Scorsese while he was editing “The Last Temptation of Christ.” She made her film debut in his segment of “New York Stories” (1989), and appeared in “Goodfellas.”

After her Scorsese work, she landed a prominent supporting role in “To Die For” (1995), and the lead role in the 1960s-set musical, “Grace of My Heart” (1996). Other notable films include “Happy, Texas” (1999), “Ghost World” (2001) and “Factory Girl” (2007). On TV, she has guest starred on “Seinfeld,” “Frasier,” “The Larry Sanders Show,” and HBO’s “Six Feet Under” and “Entourage.” She also was featured in the popular web series, sponsored by IKEA, called “Easy to Assemble.”

Her lineage and career also cemented her interest as a film historian and advocate, and she has also produced, directed and authored a memoir in 2015 entitled “I Blame Dennis Hopper: And Other Stories from a Life Lived in and Out of the Movies.” Illeana Douglas sat down for a comprehensive interview with about that memoir and her adventures in the film trade. In your research in the ‘Trailblazing Women’ series on TCM, what fact emerged about female contributions in film that really blew you away, and how do you think it affected the whole landscape of cinema history?

Illeana Douglas: The biggest thing I learned, which was very troubling and I don’t know how we would go back and fix it, is that the contributions of women in film have been edited out of the history of film. In my earlier film study days, I read about Cecil B. De Mille, I never read about any filmmaker contributions from women. It would come out as an aside or a sentence, for example, Mary Pickford was ALSO a producer of films. So we go back in the series, and we learn that the first narrative film (“The Fairy of the Cabbages”) was made by Alice Guy-Blaché in 1896. That’s a fact that we should have been learning in film school.

We should have learned about Dorothy Arzner, the only woman in the Director’s Guild from the American silent era through the 1930s, who first put a microphone on a fishing pole and technically invented the boom mike. And later, there was Ida Lupino, a triple threat who acted, wrote and directed films in the 1950s, but never was given her due. Then there is the case of Barbara Loden – the wife of Elia Kazan – who wrote, directed and starred in a festival award winning film called “Wanda” in 1970. She never got the opportunity to make another film, because Kazan told the press he wrote it, and she essentially was discredited. We’ve been conditioned that men are the directors, and women are the helpers, so it is important that the ‘Trailblazing Women’ series uncover these facts, and give women their proper credit. So much of people that we see ‘in the movies’ are based on the roles they play and the audience perception of them through those roles. What did you want to communicate through your memoir, and beyond, that you think is different from that public perception of your persona?

Douglas: The real difference came when I began to work with Turner Classics Movies, which showed the film historian that I am. Of course in my association as Melvyn Douglas’ granddaughter, people in my inner circle knew I had this broad film history knowledge. So when I wrote the memoir, I wanted it to be told through the movies, because they shaped my life so much. And the book has touched other people’s moviegoing experience, and that’s what I really wanted to talk about. Your provocative memoir title is a homage to how Dennis Hopper changed the perception of what American movies can communicate. When you finally connected to Hopper, what did he relate to you personally that connected into the admiration you had for his life-changing career and films like ‘Easy Rider’?

Douglas: For me, it was his presence, and his was certainly cinematic. It comes through when you watch his films. For example, when you see his performance in ‘Hoosiers,’ you’re also experiencing his ups and downs. After we met – which is chronicled in the book – I remembered him talking about meeting James Dean, and how it changed his life. Influenced by Dean, he began to think about altering how he approached performance, and that was the roots of his rebellious streak, which led to “Easy Rider.” One could argue that was one of the first major films in the 1970s independent movement, and it started through James Dean, and his association with Dennis. You were lucky enough to know your grandfather, and he played a significant role in your life’s work. Since he has passed away, what perception have you gained beyond the man you knew, based on the films that he made and the persona he has on screen?

Illeana Douglas as a Child with Melvyn Douglas
Photo credit:

Douglas: My latest perception is what a modern actor he was. And if you watch a film like ‘Ninotchka,’ his comic style is so unique. It was modern and earthy, with a sort of knowingness and kidding around quality that was really attractive, and ahead of its time in film acting. Besides ‘Ninotchka,’ you can see it during the same era in ‘Theodora Goes Wild’ and ‘Too Many Husbands.’

One more point about my grandfather. If he had just had the one movie career, that would have been amazing. But he went back to his roots on the Broadway stage when he got older, won a Tony for ‘The Best Man,’ then came back to the movies as an in-demand character actor, and then won two Academy Awards.

In the audio portion of the interview, Illeana Douglas talks about her direct experience with the film “Being There,” her early days with Martin Scorsese, and how “Goodfellas” feels like a home movie to her. To read and hear PART TWO of the interview, click here. For PART THREE, click here.

“I Blame Dennis Hopper: And Other Stories from a Life Lived in and Out of the Movies,” by Illeana Douglas, is available online wherever books are sold. For more on Ms. Douglas, visit her website by clicking here. senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Writer, Editorial Coordinator

© 2018 Patrick McDonald,

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