Self-actualization is her. Not only has Illeana Douglas become one of the most recognized faces in film but she’s run the creative decathlon as writer, director and producer, recently becoming a movie host and best-selling author and collaborating with distributor Kino Lorber on a multi-disc series of female filmmakers from the beginning of the twentieth century, a vibrant tribute to the women who’ve helped open doors for people like Illeana as well as other women in film.
The grand-daughter of famed acting legend Melvyn Douglas (“Ninotchka,” “Hud”), Douglas grew up with a genuine appreciation of cinema. One of her earliest memories was when her grandfather brought her to the set of “Being There,” the film for which he won his second Oscar. She met Peter Sellers on the set, an experience that would prove transformative (she keeps photos of Sellers and her Melvyn Douglas on her desk). “I get spiritual and comedic advice from them,” Douglas stated. Whenever she has a question about something, she looks at their pictures and asks, “what would they do”?
Douglas would soon forge her own path to stardom. After performing stand-up comedy, working for a publicity manager and attending New York’s Neighborhood Playhouse, Douglas’s break came when she met Martin Scorsese: she did voice-over work on “The Last Temptation of Christ,” which led to her first big film role in “Goodfellas.” “It was a raucous set and everything you saw was how it looked on film. Marty loves film and the environment he creates makes everyone want to do their best for him.” Scorsese would go on directing Douglas in what is perhaps her most cringe-worthy performance as the beating victim of Robert DeNiro’s sadistic Max Cady in “Cape Fear.” The scene was intense and De Niro’s method acting style took its toll. “After a sixteen-hour day of having De Niro on top of me, he surprised me by having my hotel give me a massage.”
Of course, De Niro’s beating was nothing compared to what she would endure in “Alive.” The film was based on the true story of a rugby team whose plane crashes in the Andes, forcing its occupants to survive by cannibalism. Director Frank Marshall cast Douglas as the only female on a frigid mountain with over twenty men. “He came up to me at the premiere of ‘Cape Fear’ and said ‘you cry so well.’” Douglas described Marshall’s style as ‘adventurous.’ Filming the movie on a glacier in minus-thirty temperatures was a life-changing experience for Douglas who, like the characters in the film, decided she, too, would overcome other challenges. One of those included directing.
Douglas wrote and directed her first short film, “The Perfect Woman,” and that list would grow just as her interest in other women behind the camera. But she wasn’t leaving the acting profession and she soon landed a role in the Robert Redford-directed historical drama “Quiz Show.” It was a small part, but still an opportunity to work with Redford. “I spent more time talking to him about my grand-father then I did on the movie,” Douglas joked. Redford starred with Melvyn Douglas in “The Candidate.”
“To Die For” presented Douglas with a new kind of challenge, the balancing of a script written by traditionalist screenwriter Buck Henry and the avant-garde directing style of Gus Van Sant. “It was the most important thing that happened to me.” The black comedy, starring Nicole Kidman as a woman obsessed with fame, helped heighten Douglas’s interest in the more technical aspects of filmmaking, Van Sant’s approach to directing allowed room for improvisation and Douglas is also behind the use of the song Season of the Witch in the film’s closing credits, as Van Sant had heard her listening to the Donovan classic.
Douglas would go on to star in other films such as “Grace of My Heart,” with her “To Die For” co-star Matt Dillon, “Dummy” with Adrien Brody, for which she gave us a bit of her singing voice and more recently “She’s Funny That Way,” directed by Peter Bogdanovich. The actress counts “The Last Picture Show” as one of her favorites. Douglas would also appear in various TV projects and create, produce and write her web series Easy to Assemble.
Aside from her work in film, Douglas is to be recognized for her efforts in promoting and preserving film history. She’s been collaborating with Turner Classic Movies, taping intros of Melvyn Douglas films. This led her to host their Friday Night Spotlight series with the theme Second Looks, for which she programs films that she feels deserved more attention. Douglas also presented TCM’s month-long series Trailblazing Women which highlighted the films and accomplishments of early women filmmakers. This would lead to her next and latest project.
Douglas is currently working as executive producer with Kino Lorber on a monumental five-disc collection titled “Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers.” The set will focus on early female directors and the films they made between 1910 and 1929. The woman highlighted weren’t considered mainstream but are no less important and in fact, maybe more so due to their obscurity. For the first time the works of Alice Guy Blaché, Frances Marion and Mabel Normand will be recognized for their cultural significance to the film industry. “It’s astonishing what I learned from these early women,” Douglas mentioned to me. “They broke barriers with interracial casting and ran their own studios at a time when it wasn’t conventional.” As for her involvement in the project, being a female director herself Douglas said, “I think it’s up to women to preserve female films.”
The irony of Douglas admiring so many great female directors, both past and present, while having also worked with so many great male ones begged the question, “what’s the difference”? While acknowledging that they’re both equally qualified, Douglas told me, “on a female-directed film, there are more female crew members.”
Douglas’s recent memoir I Blame Dennis Hopper: And Other Stories from a Life Lived In and Out of the Movies (Deckle Edge, 2015) is getting its paperback release. She is also working on her own screenplay, “Love Is Funny,” which she will direct this Spring. No doubt working with the likes of Scorsese, Redford, Van Sant and Bogdanovich has prepared her better than any film school.
Rudy Cecera is Screen Comment’s film critic and film archives specialist. He has written about the early advent of cinema and film’s first women filmmakers. See these other Screen Comment articles: