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October 21, 2018

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Film + Television:

Q+A: Illeana Douglas discusses ‘Trailblazing Women,’ ‘I Blame Dennis Hopper’


Katy Winn / AP

Illeana Douglas attends the 40th anniversary restoration of “Cabaret” at the 2012 TCM Classic Film Festival at Grauman’s Chinese Theater on April 12, 2012, in Hollywood.

Trailblazing Women

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Illeana Douglas.

When Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese filmed “Casino” here with Oscar winner Robert De Niro, the helmer’s then-girlfriend, actress Illeana Douglas, had the opportunity to cast some of the stars for the movie. She recruited Don Rickles and James Woods for the film. Her second Las Vegas experience was a year later starring in “Wedding Bell Blues” filmed at the Debbie Reynolds Hotel.

On Thursday, Illeana hosts a fascinating new cable TV series for Turner Classic Movies titled “Trailblazing Women,” which turns the spotlight on female directors in the movie industry. Incredibly, she discovered that the first director of celluloid was a woman. The series has an extraordinary three-year commitment from TCM.

Illeana also has the November launch of her debut book “I Blame Dennis Hopper,” which is a love letter to the movies. I talked with her about the book and “Trailblazing Women”:

So you have “Trailblazing Women” starting Thursday, Oct. 1. I assume that you’re the host because you’re a trailblazer yourself.

Well I hope so. It’s been fantastic working with TCM on the show. We’re going to be showing 60 films. The first one begins in 1896, and we go from there every Tuesday and Thursday in October. We go all the way up to the present with Kathryn Bigelow and “The Hurt Locker.”

It’s going to be a three-year initiative, but this first year focuses on female writers and directors and so many of the firsts that they’ve done from the very beginning of film and on through the ’20s and ’30s to the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s. It’s an amazing array.

So it’s a thorough film history of women’s roles behind the camera?

What I love about the show is again told in a very cinematic way with film directors from our generation now. One night is dedicated to foreign films, one night is African-American filmmakers, one night is independent filmmakers from the 1970s, so we really cover all of the bases. That’s what’s exciting, and it’s a reminder for everyone just to remember how great the films are.

I’m assuming since you come from a show-business family that Las Vegas played a role in your life at some point?

Wedding Bell Blues

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Illeana Douglas.

I shot a couple of movies in your city. I stayed at the Debbie Reynolds Hotel. We shot a movie at Debbie’s hotel and worked with her. It was called “Wedding Bell Blues” in 1997. It was really fun. I was also on the set of “Casino,” watched a lot of that filming and was behind the scenes on that. Those are two big Las Vegas experiences in my life.

“Casino” was a Martin Scorsese picture, and, forgetting your romantic involvement with him, you were developing properties, as well, for him, correct?

Yes. Behind the scenes, I suggested, and because I also worked in film, I suggested some people who wound up in front of the cameras: James Woods, Melissa Prophet, who ended up being Joe Pesci’s wife. I was always behind the scenes helping out and causing trouble. I brought in Kevin Pollack. Don Rickles was one of my crazy ideas to get him in the film, and I’m glad that worked out.

And now you’ve written a book about your life, “I Blame Dennis Hopper.”

I blame him for everything. People have always wanted me to write a book, and I wasn’t quite sure what the proper through line was. I love movies so much that I thought that the best way to tell my story was through movies. Basically in 1969, my parents saw the movie “Easy Rider,” and it changed their lives completely. They became hippies, and we lived this hippie lifestyle. They started a commune on our property with goats and chickens and all because of one movie.

So that led me in the cinematic direction. Then at the same time, I was also spending a lot of time with my grandfather Melvin Douglas and seeing how he lived in New York City. He would write his name on a notepad, and I could walk into Zabar’s and get whatever I wanted. The juxtaposition of staying with him while being on the hippie commune in Connecticut was pretty crazy.

That commune was even before Woodstock?

Yes, but we would go to New York and spend time with my grandfather and see Broadway shows and go to Sardi’s. I went on the set of “Being There.” My actual life was cinematic, and then spending time with my grandfather was cinematic because it was very strange to have posters of Peter Sellers up on my wall and then go to a movie and meet Peter Sellers. It just seemed very surreal. It just felt like my life was a movie, and I never stopped living it.

And I’m guessing if your father started a hippie commune, he was really not what we’ll say like the New York City suits of Melvin Douglas.

No, but he was very cinematic in his own way. He was taking after Dennis Hopper, so of course I would grow up, be an actress, then be in the “Search and Destroy” movie with Dennis Hopper where he’d play my father figure-type lover and I could work out my own emotions on the movie. That’s where you really do begin to think life is all one big movie.

The day that I met him, it was even more bizarre, and I tell this story in the first chapter. We were going to the set, and the underpaid intern who was driving me to the set actually fell asleep at the wheel, and we were in a car accident. The film was so low budget that they didn’t even have walkie-talkie sets, so I ended up having to walk to the set with a concussion.

I met Dennis Hopper laying on the ground with him over me bathed in light and the medical determination that I had a concussion. I started to cry, and he said, “Don’t cry, you’re going to be OK.” And I said, “No, I’m crying because you changed my life.” And I had this whole speech prepared, “This is not how I wanted to meet you.”

No wonder you say that your whole life is a movie. Did you enjoy making “Trailblazing Women”? What did you learn?

I learned a couple of things. Watching 60 films that were all directed by women, one of the things I felt was so interesting is that a lot of movies that women make about women, it’s trying to understand women. When men make movies about women, they oftentimes project women as a stereotype or a sex symbol.

A prime example is if I look at like a movie that Federico Fellini did, then we show movies by Lina Wertmuller, you know they’re just as sexy as the Fellini movies, but they’re more involved with the psyche of why a women does certain things. That extra depth proved that they’re not as cookie cutter as some of the male movies about the same subject tend to be.

I found that with a lot of these women films, everybody is a little bit edgier, the dynamic is a more interesting and messy, and I like that. I thought that that was very interesting. In seeing 60 films, I thought that the women shot better sex scenes than the men, I have to say.

First Love

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Illeana Douglas.

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Illeana Douglas at CES 2010.

There’s a movie from the ’70s called “First Love” with Susan Dey, and the whole movie is she’s in a relationship with a college guy, then at the same time she’s in a relationship with this older married man, and it’s really shocking.

The whole movie is very complex and interesting, but she’s naked in the movie for a lot of it. That’s going to air on TCM. I kept saying what time are we airing this movie? This is not going to follow Shirley Temple. Some of these movies are really R rated.

You mentioned women making movies as far back as the 1890s — women weren’t thought of in the 1890s as filmmakers?

We tell the story cinematically, and it was so eye opening to me. This woman, her name is Alice Guy-Blanche, she was working for The Lumiere Brothers in France, and at that point they were using the camera to do scientific experiments. Nobody thought of it as narrative filmmaking, so she actually asked if she could borrow the camera, and she ends up making what is now thought to be the very first narrative film about a baby.

It’s a one-minute film, we’re going to show it, about babies being born in a cabbage patch, and she continued to make films. She ended up leaving Lumière Brothers and started her own company in New Jersey and made 1,000 films. Yet she’s been completely cut out of the history of filmmaking, and that was something that I saw time and again of why wasn’t that in any film book that I read about all these women who were making films and the subculture of women making films?

We just never heard about them. She was making movies in 1906. One that we’re going to show is called “The Birth, Life and Death of Christ,” and it’s considered the first big-budget film of its time. She made another movie in 1912 with the first African-American cast. We’re going to be showing these movies, and I think the question is going to be why did we not know this before? She was so ahead of her time.

Going to your knowledge of the history of filmmaking, what year did Hollywood have its first movie?

It was “In Old California,” a 1910 silent movie directed by D.W. Griffith. That’s the one they always show on the Oscars. But this woman was way before that, way before Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin. You’re going to be hearing about her and another woman named Lois Webber who made movies in 1916. The extent of the contribution of her work is unresolved because so many of the movies that she made don’t exist anymore.

They’re trying to find them, but we discuss them. In 1916, she made a movie about abortion. In 1918, she wrote the first “Tarzan” film ever made. I never knew that. So along with somebody like D.W. Griffith, I’ve always heard of D.W. Griffith, but I’d never heard of Lois Webber, ever. Sadly, it was only after she died in 1960 that she even received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. There’s another woman we talk about quite a bit called Frances Marion who worked with Mary Pickford. So we’re just going to be putting so many names out there.

There’s a German filmmaker we talk about named Lotte Reiniger. She made a movie called “The Adventures of Prince Achmed,” and it is, again, get ready for this, a featured-length animated film that came 11 years before Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

So we go on this cinematic journey, from the teens and the 20s where women are prolific, then we get into the great year of Hollywood and this becomes interesting. There’s literally only one woman working in all of the Golden Age of Hollywood, and that’s Dorothy Arzner.

So now we have to blame Dennis Hopper for you rewriting American cinematic history?

Yes, I blame him for everything. We have Dorothy Arzner, then we get to the ’40s, and we have Ida Lupino. Then it’s not until 1970 that we have Elaine May, and she does “A New Leaf.” We’re trying to understand in that period why there are so few women directors.

Then it starts in again in the ’60s and ’70s, the ’80s, we get up to the ’90s when it becomes a very interesting period where women have arrived, and you have Nancy Meyers, Penny Marshall, Nora Ephron and Jane Campion. Women are making movies, then it stops again. That’s another interesting thing. What happened? Why were women shut out again?

So is it just the early women of movies in this first year of the three-year TV project?

This specifically concentrates this year on women directors, and over the next couple of years it will develop into different projects, but for this year TCM wanted to start at the beginning, the silent film, and we’re going to go all the way to the present.

So it’s a history of, in a sense, the female director and her journey in making movies. I think that the movies are also so great, it’s a reminder that these movies should be celebrated more than they are, and some of these women trailblazers should be celebrated more than they are.

In tabloid terms, it’s the untold story of the start of the movie industry.

Yeah, it absolutely is. I think that people are going to be astonished at how prolific these female filmmakers were. It’s funny because in my own history with my grandfather, he came to Hollywood because Gloria Swanson chose him to be her leading man. There was a time where women had all the power and clout, and he was chosen. It was really the women who had the choice of who their leading man was going to be.

So the gender gap really didn’t exist back then but clearly exists today?

That’s what I feel, and I’m not really exactly sure why that is. I think it’s going to open the door to talking about how this happened, and for me I just think that the movies aren’t as good if you only have one voice telling the story.

One of the interesting things that I point out again and again is that this is not happening so much in European cinema. Throughout all of filmmaking, and we have a night of foreign films, there is a long history of women filmmakers. There just does not seem to be this issue in some European countries. That was something very interesting to discover.

It’s thoroughly fascinating. Thank you for sharing it. I want to ask one question, which may or may not have anything to do with what you’re doing. Did any women direct movies or make movies or create movies when we went through that phase of Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, as the sex symbols of the industry?

No, because there wasn’t. Dorothy Arzner was literally the only woman making movies in America. This isn’t true in Europe, and by the end of the ’40s she couldn’t get work anymore. Joan Crawford hired her, she was practically destitute, she hired her to do some TV commercials for Pepsi.

Ida Lupino made a few movies, but not until the ’50s. It’s literally this gap, which is almost bizarre. It’s not until Elaine May makes ”A New Leaf” in 1970, so that’s a pretty big gap.

And that was the period when the American sex symbol rose her blonde head.

Yes; yes. That’s a great point because I’m trying to understand why. I’m also trying to understand why this was not true in Europe. In Europe, you had all sorts of people making films, in France, in Germany, in Italy. It’s just strange that in America, they weren’t.

It’s interesting in terms of tracing Elaine May because she was doing this comedy act with Mike Nichols, and she broke through with that, then transitioned into being a director, then after that, more and more female directors started coming across.

Another thing I noticed with women is that a lot of them when they couldn’t make feature films, they either came out of documentary filmmaking or they went back into documentary filmmaking, or they went into teaching. They would find a sideline way of working.

One of the things we’re hopefully going to talk about next year is the contributions of women like Alma Hitchcock and Paulie with Peter Bogdanovich, women who were behind the scenes influencing films but not really directing them. Nobody who’s ever read about Alfred Hitchcock acknowledges the contributions of Alma Hitchcock.

There are a lot people who will learn about film history they’ve never heard of from our new series. It’s truly fascinating.

* * *

“Trailblazing Women” airs on TCM starting tonight as a partnership between the network and Women in Film to raise awareness about the historical contributions of women working behind the camera.

Robin Leach of “Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous” fame has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past 15 years giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

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