Interview: Illeana Douglas on Gender Equity, Trailblazing Women and Her Love of Movies

I’ve had the opportunity of meet Illeana Douglas at the Turner Classic Movie Film Festival (TCMFF) on a few occasions, but I’m sure many others can say the same. Illeana is so approachable that it’s easy to forget that her movie and TV resume is longer than any of our arms. Ms. Douglas is an actor, director, producer, author, advocate for independent film and lover of classic movies. She also happens to be the granddaughter of Hollywood legend Melvyn Douglas.

Aside from feeling at home talking and tweeting about movies with Illeana, I’ve also enjoyed her work as host of TCM’s Trailblazing Women series and every introduction she’s done at TCMFF. I hope she’ll be back for more this year as her love of movies is contagious. I recently asked Ms. Douglas to answer a few questions and she complied. See what she has to say about TCMFF, Trailblazing Women, the #MeToo movement and much more.

A – To begin, I want to thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions. Before we get to the movies and the TCMFF, I want to extend my congratulations to you for being chosen to co-host the 19th annual Women’s Image Awards tomorrow (Feb. 11). This year’s WIN Awards are using the theme, “Standing on Her Shoulders,” #SOHS designed to honor powerful female predecessors, which is terrific and brings me to the first question…which female Hollywood/movie predecessors have had the greatest influence on you and your career, and why?

ID – Mae West controlled her own destiny. She created an archetype of a free wheeling sexually liberated women, in the 1920’s and 1930’s! She made her first film at 40, discovered Cary Grant along the way. She wrote on 9 of the 13 films she acted in, yet she is not included when we talk about the pantheon of great auteur comedians? She should be included alongside Chaplin and Buster Keaton. I also think Mabel Normand is enormously influential as a comedian. 

Fantastic mentions. I agree.

A – The #SOHS theme brings to mind the Trailblazing Women series you host at TCM. Can you talk a bit about the importance of this series and why it’s particularly relevant today given the recent stories out of Hollywood concerning sexual abuse and gender pay equity?

ID – Gender equity is important because some of the great actresses of Hollywood – Mary Pickford, Hedy Lamarr, Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, Lena Horne, Josephine Baker – used their fame to promote social change that has benefitted all of us.

A – Will Trailblazing Women be back in 2018?

ID – I hope so! We have so many great women to get to, and I love interacting with the film fans. One of my favorite moments was when Jane Fonda said to me, “I didn’t know Myrna Loy was an activist!” I thought, well that’s cool. That’s why I enjoy doing the show.

Douglas and Stephanie Allain, producer of Dear White People and Hustle and Flow Photo: TCM

A – Can you talk a bit about the importance of the #MeToo movement and perhaps mention your own experiences as a woman in this industry. Your own career has been impacted due to saying or not saying certain things through the years. Can you talk a bit about that?

ID – I think it is an important time, and I mourn all the women – Marilyn Monroe, or Tippi Hedren, or even Shirley Temple who had to experience sexual trauma, women who were maligned or had their stories marginalized.

A – I certainly recognize the importance of bringing the abuse to light in hopes that the mindset changes in Hollywood and in all industries. Do you think that this will lead to women actually getting jobs as directors, writers, etc.? What are your thoughts about Hollywood becoming a truly meritocratic industry?

ID – I hope so. There is a real moment of change happening, and I hope it leads to more equality.

A – If you asked me to describe your book, I Blame Dennis Hopper, I would say that it is a delightful chronicle of why movies matter and how they connect each of us to our past and to each other. Of course, it’s told through your own stories, many of which I truly enjoyed – your experiences at drive-ins, your struggles to make it in the business and the one about Rudy Vallee, which is touching. Because I read the book I know how your love of movies began, but for those who have not read it – can you recall your earliest introduction to classic movies?

ID – My love of movies began with my grandfather. I wanted to live in a black and white world where Ruby Keeler danced. I knew it was magic. From the minute he brought me on set (of Hal Ashby’s Being There) I knew I’d have to somehow start making movies.

Illeana signing her book, “I Blame Dennis Hopper” at TCMFF 2017

A – What is your favorite movie? And – excluding your grandfather, Melvyn Douglas – who are your favorite classic actors, male and female?

ID – I love Chaplin’s Limelight. The ending is sublime. Life..death..art..It’s all there.

A – You mention in I Blame Dennis Hopper that your grandfather was just that, your grandfather, and a movie star. When did you realize he was a movie star?  

ID – I realized he was a movie star when we went to Zabar’s in New York and everyone wanted his autograph. Also, I could pick out whatever I wanted, and charge it. Only movie stars got to do that.  

A – As I have already mentioned, I watched Trailblazing Women, I’ve been enjoying your I Blame Dennis Hopper Podcast and have attended several TCMFF screenings for which you introduced the movies and interviewed guests. Not only are you an effective interviewer, but your love of film comes through at every turn. How did you get to be so good at this? Did you learn from a mentor? Or, does it come naturally, which it seems to? How do you prepare for your interviews? 

ID – I’ve had years of preparation by watching films. LOL. So there’s that. Sometimes I actually know and worked with the person, so I have an advantage. I watch films of the person I am interviewing, and I like to have a general theme for my questions. I like to find a theme in their work that maybe they have not discovered. You want them to feel comfortable and reveal some truths you have never heard before. I want the audience to feel, I was there the day he or she said this, and never forgot it. There is also the feeling that I want the person to feel the love that I feel as a film fan. I hope that comes across.

A – It sure does. One of my favorite pre-screening interviews at the TCMFF was The Bank Dick, when you spoke to W. C. Fields’ grandsons. What are some of your most memorable interviews in any venue?

ID – So hard! Of course Jerry Lewis. I interviewed him a few times, but that Nutty Professor screening was electric, and he was quite revealing. We were back stage going over some business that we were going to do on stage and, as I wrote in my book – it was one of the highlights of my career  – that Jerry Lewis trusted me to be his straight man!

A – Will you be at TCMFF 2018?

ID – Wouldn’t miss it!

A – The theme of this year’s festival is “Powerful Words: the Page Onscreen.” Based on this theme, what movies would you like to see screened this year?

ID – That’s tough – I’m usually a round the clocker.

A – The debate on what a “classic” movie is continues. Some people feel strongly that it is a film of a certain era, while others feel that newer movies can also be classic. What do you think makes a movie a classic? 

ID – I like a film to be at least 20 years old before it’s called a classic. Casablanca IS a classic.

A – No argument there. You mention the Kander and Ebb song, “Maybe This Time” from Cabaret in your book. It means a lot to you, it played a role in your career and I happen to love it too. Would you ever consider performing it in the key of Liza for your friends at TCMFF? Or any other venue?

ID – I would love that. I have toured with the book, and have done a lot of public readings.

 A – We’ve heard that TCM is without a permanent daytime Saturday host at the moment. If they decide to cast a permanent daytime Saturday host, I think it should be a woman. You have been a particular favorite among TCM viewers, Twitter tweeps, and TCMFF attendees for many years, and many – myself included – would like to see you on the air regularly. What do you think? 

ID – I’ve loved working with TCM. It would of course be an honor..and Ben is my pretend brother. I adore him.

Illeana with make-believe brother, TCM host, Ben Mankiewicz at TCMFF 2014

A – Movies are more important now than ever. I find myself wanting to escape the news more than I ever have in the past. What movies do you recommend to those wanting to escape, or make better sense of, the news of the day?

ID – The movies this year have been great escapes. I watch about 5-6 films a week. I guess that makes me an addict! I highly recommend The Florida Project, Maudie, and Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool as overlooked masterpieces this year! As I mentioned, Limelight – I can’t see enough Stanley Donen. His films, Two For the Road and Charade are just terrific. 

A – This question is from our mutual friend, Alan Hait who thinks that your role as the free-spirited cadaver on Six Feet Under made a lasting impression on him during a period of personal struggle in his life. What would you say is your favorite role to date and why?

ID – Without a doubt it would be Grace of My Heart (1996). I helped produce it, and I have a lasting friendship with Allison Anders who I admire so much. It needs a Criterion release though! Not enough folks have seen it.

A – Finally, which upcoming projects are you involved with that we should keep our eyes and ears open for?

ID – I wrote a love story that I will be directing. It’s a movie for movie lovers…what else?

I’m really looking forward to that! That wraps this up and the count-down to TCMFF 2018 continues. Thank you again, Illeana Douglas!

You can follow Illeana Douglas on Twitter here and visit Illeana Douglas.com to stay up to date with her projects. I recommend her I Blame Dennis Hopper podcast and her book, I Blame Dennis Hopper, which is informative, touching and delightful.

TCMFF 2018 is scheduled for April 26 – 29 in Hollywood. Hope to see you there.

7 thoughts

  1. Aurora, another great interview, which I really enjoyed reading. Illeana Douglas is top notch and wonderful in everything she does. It would be great if she would be offered a more permanent host position by TCM, because she is so knowledgeable and personable. That is, if she could find time, during her busy schedule. I really liked the pictures you used in the interview, especially the one with Jerry Lewis and Illeana.

    I liked that she thought Mae West and Mabel Normand should be included in the great pantheon of auteur comedians. Of course, those in the know have always known this. Aurora, Keep up the good work of helping make sure that Classic Movies and Classic Television continue to be alive and well.

    1. Thanks so much, Walter. I’m happy you liked this. I agree. It would be fantastic if Illeana had a permanent spot on TCM. Her enthusiasm for movies is exactly what I think a host needs to have.

  2. That was such a good interview Aurora. I was at the Humphrey Bogart Film Festival and Illeana interviewed Stephen Bogart, Jessica Rains and Monika Henreid (who all have famous actor fathers obviously). I only spoke briefly to her telling her how much I admired her grandfather, so it is quite interesting to read what you asked and her responses. Thanks!

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