by Steve Desroches
Illeana Douglas, Martin Scorsese, and Marlon Brando are in a suite at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel and they’re all crying. Brando is wearing a blue velour sweat suit lying across the couch after having tossed most of the cushions on the floor, but that’s not why they’re crying. The tears started with Douglas, emotional over meeting one of her acting idols, which in turn made Brando cry and Scorsese, now running to get a box of tissues, is soon crying over how he’s too blame for Douglas losing her prized autograph book. Then, sitting there with used tissues littering the luxury hotel room, they order room service. The whole encounter elicits a sense of regret for Douglas in that she wishes she had had sex with Marlon Brando (despite the blue velour sweat suit), rather than just sharing room service and a good cry.
Douglas read that story to an enraptured audience in the Davis Space at WOMR Studios in a conversation with Boston Globe correspondent Loren King as part of the Provincetown International Film Festival. A favorite actor of passionate movie fans Douglas made her first trip to Provincetown to not only talk about her career thus far, but to promote her hilarious new book I Blame Dennis Hopper: And Other Stories From a Life Lived In and Out of the Movies, hailed as a love letter to the world of cinema.
“Thinking my life was a movie was inescapable,” says Douglas during the talk.
So what exactly did Dennis Hopper do to warrant this accusatory book title? It’s a complicated stranger than fiction story, one that itself sounds like a wild screenplay that happens to be inspired by a film itself. After seeing the 1969 film Easy Rider, the anti-establishment classic that shook up Hollywood and the nation, Douglas’ father felt so inspired by the rebel tale that he decided to leave behind their comfortable middle class life in coastal Connecticut to start a hippie commune called The Studio with his wife and kids. What followed was a countercultural childhood, without the romanticism captured in the movie starring Hopper and Peter Fonda.
In a world away from the patchouli and dirty bare feet of the hippie commune Douglas spent a lot of time with her paternal grandparents, two-time Academy Award winner Melvyn Douglas and former Democratic Congresswoman Helen Gahagan, showing her she didn’t have to live like her parents. She wanted to be in the movies rather than just live in what felt like a film. She saw her very first film, Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo & Juliet, at a drive in Vermont from inside her grandfather’s 1957 Chevy, and it was love at first frame. But if Easy Rider was the film that changed her father’s life, which film changed hers?
“Oh, being on the set of Being There changed my life,” says Douglas of the 1979 film for which her grandfather won his second Academy Award. “It showed me this world that galvanizes people together. And there was Peter Sellers, who I had a poster of on my wall at home and he is ten feet away from me. There was this understanding that there was this new world and I wanted to be a part of it.”
Sitting in the now nearly empty room after the official talk has ended, Douglas is as affable and funny, as she is thoughtful and passionate about her love of cinema. Smiling easily with that identifiable ripple that travels through her voice when she speaks, Douglas is a knowledgeable ambassador for film as art. While she’s created iconic roles in films like Goodfellas, Cape Fear, Grace of My Heart, Ghost World, and of course, To Die For, she is also known to film buffs for working on Turner Classic Movies’ Friday Night Spotlight. The series curates films for film lovers, bringing to light those films that perhaps have long ago faded from public consciousness.
When Douglas speaks about film she has the conviction of both a learned historian and a cinematic evangelist. She talks of the challenges of a changing industry, where technology and evolving corporate sensibilities can dull mainstream releases. And Hollywood culture has shifted so that increasingly, actors are more interested in celebrity, rather than the work, or even the size of their paycheck, and they have a prideful ignorance about films and actors from yesteryear who built the foundation of the art of cinema. The result she says is like a blight of blandness infecting many mainstream releases today.
“Every film seems to be on simmer,” says Douglas. “It’s hard to have an opinion about them.”
Both during and after her talk she compares the 1988 Hindi film directed by Mira Nair Salaam Bombay! and Danny Boyle’s 2008 Slumdog Millionaire. The prior, she says, is a superior film for its inherent values and artistry, yet the latter received all the accolades and awards. The resources exist for everyone to see films like Salaam Bombay!, but the culture needs to change. And she’s serious, too. She once broke up with someone on the platform of the 14th Street subway station waiting for the N train in Manhattan because her boyfriend called the film Harold and Maude “adolescent.” I Blame Dennis Hopper is Douglas’ attempt at continuing to try to shift American culture back toward films that are dynamic and rich in character and story, rather than just CGI explosions with mediocre storylines. Also, attending film festivals can be akin to a tent revival for those who are in love with cinema.
“It helps keep the culture alive for the film audience and the person working in film,” says Douglas of film festivals like Provincetown’s. “We’re making these films not for the studio executives; we’re making them because we have something to say.”
I Blame Dennis Hopper and Other Stories From a Life Lived In and Out of the Movies (2015, Flatiron Books) by Illeana Douglas is available at the Provincetown Bookshop, 246 Commercial St., and everywhere books are sold.