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August 15, 2016 5 min read

 Portraits of TCM's Women Trailblazers interviews photographed on Thursday, August 20, 2015 in Los Angeles, CA. Photo by John Nowak/TCM

Actor, author and entertainment entrepreneur Ileana Douglas appeared in countless film and TV projects, including GOODFELLAS, GRACE OF MY HEART, TO DIE FOR, SEINFELD and SIX FEET UNDER.

Her memoir, I BLAME DENNIS HOPPER, examines the power of cinema in our lives and how the art form has personally influenced her own trajectory.  The reaction has been strong, triggering readers’ own emotional, intimate, and lifelong journeys with film.

Illeana’s life story sounds like a movie plot, but it actually reads more like a documentary: after her straight-laced, upper-middle-class, Connecticut-based parents screened the Dennis Hopper flick EASY RIDER in 1969, they ditched Squaresville for a hippie commune, complete with goats, flowers and granola.

Since she was young and so out of control of the situation, the bizarre circumstance seemed to take on the feel of a movie. In fact, that’s what people say when something odd happens, or when they feel overwhelmed: “it felt like I was in a movie.”

Cinema would continue to play a major role in her life; as well, she would play major roles in cinema. Her grandfather happened to be the acclaimed actor Melvyn Douglas, who took Illeana under his wing after her parents went hippie. Talk about learning from the best: Melvyn showed his granddaughter the finer things (cars, clothes, books, dining, and, of course, cinema). It was like she was the star of her own multiplex -- her new life morphed into yet another movie, while her parents remained on the commune, busy in their own film plot.

Melvyn Douglas co-starred in the classic 1979 film BEING THERE, starring Peter Sellers. For the role, Melvyn won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Illeana’s visits to that movie set steered her toward her own career as an actor, and helped hone her deep appreciation of film. Having the actual movie unfold before her was, again, actually like being in a movie itself.

Her love for her grandfather’s friends (who were also screen legends) – everyone from Myrna Loy to Roddy McDowell and Marlon Brando – did not exactly make her “star struck;” instead, she was chill: she held a true reverence for them and an understanding that goes beyond a normal fascination.

Her enthusiasm for film has never waned, nor has she ever become embittered by the business. She says that we’re all, in a sense, children of Dennis Hopper: rebellious, and searching for change.

Take MILDRED PIERCE, for instance. Illeana wonders if, during the 1940s, women found a role model and an inspiration in Joan Crawford’s struggling, ambitious onscreen character. Perhaps even just one woman said, “I’m going to start a restaurant, or open a business. If Mildred can do it, I can do it too.”In fact, she asks of Dennis Hopper and other movie icons: How many lives did you change?  We often neglect to acknowledge the power of one movie changing a life, forging a path. 

Coming of age in the 1970s, Illeana developed and proved her theory, watching inspirational/aspirational actresses like Faye Dunaway, Jane Fonda and Jill Clayburgh. These actresses played strong characters who survived and thrived in both their business and personal lives, yet were still vulnerable and real. Illeana wanted to portray women like these.

Case in point: Her successful YouTube series, EASY TO ASSEMBLE. In it, she plays a version of herself who decides to leave the entertainment business and get a job at a local IKEA branch store. As most entrepreneurs already know, your original plan never comes off as planned, as her retail work is constantly interrupted by celebrity friends, gossip hounds and assorted disbelieving customers. The series drew millions of viewers, was nominated for and won a number of advertising and creative awards, and welcomed a parade of notable guest stars, including Keanu Reeves, Jane Lynch and Jeff Goldblum.

As a director of the project, Illeana sensed the undercurrent of being the “boss lady (emphasis on lady),” which may have triggered everything from a general wholesale resentment to being challenged and debated on her every decision. From that experience, she concluded that women work harder – because they have to.

As far as the entertainment industry as a whole -- with movies in particular -- Illeana feels that equality between the sexes seems cemented in place, but only on the surface. There is still a nagging lack of opportunity for women. 

Where women fall apart, in what she’s experienced, is getting to that next level, and she doesn’t know any easy solutions to that one. She adds that women tend to be very entrepreneurial, with lots of ideas, but the answers are often elusive when it comes to securing backing or creating a business plan. Her hope is that more avenues of opportunity are created for women to make their ideas and dreams happen.She is aware that the easiest advice is always “don’t give up,” but entrepreneurs are forever going to be surrounded by naysayers telling them that it’s not going to work and it’s not going to happen. With women, she says, that toxicity is spewed even more so. Her advice: you simply have to find a way to do it -- write your story or paint your picture or start your business.

As host of Turner Classic Movies’ TRAILBLAZING WOMEN, Illeana notes that women are still not doing as well as men – women were making movies in 1896, but it’s men who write the history, and female directors are barely mentioned beyond Leni Riefenstahl.

In the show’s coming season, the focus is on actresses. Women once ruled the movies, but Illeana asks how they suddenly have become marginal characters (the wife, the girlfriend, the prostitute). We will ever manage to find our way back from this? Stay tuned, she advises optimistically.

Illeana observes that the act of going to a movie theater – although becoming less frequent in our lives – is still valid, and it remains the best possible way to experience a movie. There was a time when we all watched the same films -- not anymore. Today’s it’s more about content, and the storylines are not as powerful. Yet she feels that the love of film is never going to go away. When she was a girl, the world looked to the movies for everything: how to dress, how to act, how to be funny. Her whole life has been a movie – even as she appeared in movies herself.


Watch Easy To Assemble.


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