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Illeana Douglas has appeared in countless films including Goodfellas, Cape Fear and To Die For and produced and directed many more over the course of her Hollywood career. In her new memoir, I Blame Dennis Hopper, she tells the story of her life through the lens of the movies that shaped it. In advance of the book’s release on Nov. 3, Douglas spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about how Hopper’s Easy Rider profoundly changed her childhood, being on set with her famous grandfather and her tenacious advocacy for women in film.
What’s the story behind the title I Blame Dennis Hopper?
Dennis Hopper seriously changed my life at a very young age because my dad saw Easy Rider and decided he wanted to be Dennis Hopper. He put a poster of Hopper in the movie in the living room and quit his job and built an actual commune in our backyard. I went from living a very comfortable suburban Connecticut life to being legitimately poor. I was with all these hippies, who hung around and even lived at our house. It was hard. I actually poked Dennis Hopper’s eyes out of the poster. I hated him when I was a kid for ruining my life. Crazily enough, I worked with him on a movie when I became an actress and I told him that. I said he probably ruined a lot of kids’ lives whose parents wanted to be like him. [Laughs.]
But later on I realized that the influence of that movie — to this day it makes me very emotional — led me to have the better life. It helped me become a more interesting person. I think I’m much more tolerant of people’s differences. It was all great for storytelling.
And yet you also had one foot in a very different life, growing up with a famous grandfather (Melvyn Douglas) …
The book is shaped by my feeling that so much of my life has been influenced by my strange, lucky position of living both “inside and outside” of movies. If my parents’ obsession with Easy Rider was one of the first ways my life was profoundly impacted by watching movies, then the times on set with my grandfather when I was a kid were the beginning of my experiences being on the inside of movies. The first time I was on set was when he was shooting Being There with Peter Sellers. I loved [Sellers] so much as the Pink Panther and suddenly I’m also watching him act with my grandfather. I remember the light coming down on them while the rest of us watched from the dark. That temple of art feeling that I experienced on that set has never left me.
You’re a huge advocate for women in film, so it’s interesting that throughout the book you identify primarily with male characters and actors.
I loved Audrey Hepburn and Ruby Keeler and Cyd Charisse but I don’t think I ever believed I could be them because I was very insecure about how I looked. Instead I was obsessed with Marlon Brando and, of course, Richard Dreyfuss — underdog characters. I totally related to [Dreyfuss] riding around in the back of that car in American Graffiti. I got a crewneck sweater and I dressed like him in Jaws. When I got in trouble in acting school for not knowing how to play something, I would just say, “I’m just gonna be Richard Dreyfuss.” [Laughs.] I still do it. He’s still my go-to.
You recently hosted TCM’s Trailblazing Women, a project highlighting the history of women’s contributions to filmmaking. In your own experience, what have you discovered about why women’s’ accomplishments in film are so often forgotten?
Movies reflect our culture, and our culture right now is very, very sexist. I think about the way that movies have changed my life — how powerful they can be in framing our aspirations and who we want to be. It strikes me that there isn’t a single movie on the AFI top 100 list directed by a woman. That’s crazy. If there’s not a single film directed by a woman, we’re clearly saying women do not make movies as well as men. For young filmmakers, that’s a really strong message. There are at least 10 films on that list that I would rethink, and plenty of films made by women that should be on there.
I think that women tend to be less bold about getting the recognition they deserve than men are. A lot of women are going out there and getting the movie made, assuming they’re gonna get credit — and this is going back to 1896 when a woman, Alice Guy-Blache, made the first narrative film and her boss took all the credit for it. What’s happening today is men are very happy to let women go out there and establish something that’s successful that makes money. But as soon as it does, they don’t want the woman at the helm. Cathryn Hardwicke, just one example, made Twilight and wasn’t asked back to do the sequel. That just wouldn’t have happened if she were a man.
I Blame Dennis Hopper is such a loving look at movies and filmmaking, and yet clearly there’s part of you that feels there’s a lot of blatant sexism in the business; you allude to it later in the book when you reflect on your experience behind the camera. Why did you choose to leave that angle out for the most part?
I have so many stories and I had to make choices. I love movies, and they’ve shaped my life so much. I wanted this book to reflect that first and foremost. But yeah, there is so much today that I think may be even worse for women than the hippy dippy ‘70s where we had female directors and, yes, we had sexism and it was hard for women to earn a place at the table. But once they earned it, they were in. Now it’s hard to even get in.
And there are things going on behind the scenes that nobody is willing to talk about. I worry about nudity with young actresses because I know when you’re starting out, you’re so desperate. Sometimes before you even audition, you have to agree to do nudity or they won’t even see you. In my day, there used to be those backstage auditions. And those things are happening at the higher levels, because that’s the way entertainment is going. It’s very revealing and it’s hardcore, but one could argue this is just a way to marginalize and sexualize women — to keep these stereotypes going.
I’m planning to write a second book that gets into the other parts of my experiences as an actress and filmmaker. It’ll definitely be a little darker. I want to tell those stories too.
I Blame Dennis Hopper is available for pre-order at illeanadouglas.com and available in bookstores on Nov. 3.