Illeana Douglas Talks About Blazing Her Own Trail for TCM's Trailblazing Women

TCM's popular Trailblazing Women series returns for a second season of leading ladies.
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It's hard for me to pinpoint the first film I saw actress Illeana Douglas in, but she's been one of the actresses I've always enjoyed watching in cinema. Whether starring as the overly perky and pretentious art teacher in Ghost World (who mimicked a ceramics teacher I once knew), Nicole Kidman's snarky sister-in-law in To Die For, or the struggling songwriter with the new sound - starring opposite my pre-teen crush Eric Stoltz - in the utterly wonderful Grace of My Heart (or appearing in my guilty pleasure show, Law and Order: SVU), Illeana Douglas has crafted a prolific career as one of Hollywood's best character actresses.

In recent years she's turned an eye towards the Hollywood of yesteryear, moving from TCM guest host to anchoring the network's popular look at women in cinema, Trailblazing Women. Now in its second year, airing every Tuesday and Thursday in October, TCM's Trailblazing Women charts the careers of several Hollywood actresses with an eye towards how they pushed back against the studio to become powerful in their own right. Douglas sat down to talk about Trailblazing Women, season two, her own career in the industry, and how far cinema still has to go.

What defines a trailblazing woman to you?

I feel that since the dawn of Hollywood actresses have used their fame to nurture causes, to contribute, and to promote social change. That's what I think of as a trailbalzer. They never took no for an answer, like Bette Davis. They said things like, "I owed it to my country," which is Myrna Loy who gave up her career to support the war effort. Marlene Dietrich spent more time on the front lines than any other Hollywood star. Carole Lombard died in the service of our country. It's more than seeing Carole Lombard in Twentieth Century, even though that's an amazing film, it's to think, "Wow! That to me is what a trailblazer is." That goes all the way through to Barbra Streisand, who was so talented in her own right that she could have simply rested on her laurels to be Barbra Streisand. But she has defined and taken a lot of hits for going out there and being a female director, being a feminist, supporting social causes. They're fearless. They've caused the narrative to change, and I think we're all benefiting from things that actresses contributed to this country. On the one hand it may seem funny. "Really? Shirley Temple." But it's like "yeah, Shirley Temple!"

Singlehandedly saved the Depression.

Exactly. In this context, with society moving so quickly, somebody like Shirley Temple is a hero in the way, much more so than a Charles Lindbergh. We have statues to all sorts of men in this country, but Shirley Temple was credited by the President for generating hope and optimism. She was a businessperson, handling licensing and hundreds and hundreds of merchandising deals, and became the U.S. Ambassador during the Prague Spring. She was the first actress to speak out about having a double mastectomy. If she just had a career as a child actress, that would be significant. What is so amazing about the series and getting a chance to do it [is] there's a complaceny we have, like "Yeah, she's an actress."

Bette Davis was notoriously cited as being difficult which is usually the kiss of death for actresses so it's great to see these actresses come out and point at that double standard through their filmwork.

I think so. You can't watch the show, and this is what TCM does so well, in an entertaining narrative. I'm having conversations with someone like Rita Moreno, who won an Academy Award for West Side Story and didn't work for 12 years, couldn't find a role. When we're discussing someone like Josephine Baker or Lena Horne, who was working with Eleanor Roosevelt to end anti-lynching laws in America, you can't then watch her in a film and not think about that. You can't watch Lee Grant in Shampoo and forget what courage it took for her; she was blacklisted. We're not even talking about people recognizing the personal sacrifices people made because they spoke out. They could have saved their careers. A lot of actors didn't speak out, didn't name names. Not Lee Grant. It's recognizing and embracing actresses and changing a narrative that we currently have about "Eh, she's an actress."

Somebody asked me if you considered yourself a trailblazing woman?

I made a decision at a certain point in the '90s that I wanted to work with women. I wanted to spend the rest of my career, if I could, telling stories with a female point of view. I was doing webseries way before it became popular to do so. In that sense, I will give myself a pat on the back for working with IKEA, creating a show and creating a successful online web series way before anyone was doing it. I took a lot of knocks, in the beginning, to see the future. I think that's what a trailblazer does; they don't take no for an answer. They see somehow that this is the future and this is a narrative that's good for everybody.

Where it's hard for women [is] they don't specifically get the credit I think they deserve. I said this last year, they blazed the trail and then the men say, "Thank you very much. Now if you can only step aside so we can make the big bucks." That's the thing that sticks in women's craw the most is you take the slings and arrows, and even when you make it through the adversity and make the movie and it;s successful it doesn't get a sequel, or a man does the same thing and that becomes a big success. Those are the things, I think, that by doing the show and showing these actresses as three dimensional people.

We're gonna have so many amazing discussions, but there's a discussion we had because the decision to add Marilyn Monroe into the equation was a really fascinating conversation. It's always fun doing the show because of all the women involved and the discussions we have which are very inspiring. Women have these diverse opinions, and so when discussing Marilyn Monroe and this idea that she created her own destiny and was destroyed by her own image becomes a really interesting narrative in terms of today. She was a producer on this movie The Prince and the Showgirl, yet I never knew she was a producer. I've seen the movie and it wasn't until I did the show that I said, "She was a producer?"

Yeah people are always surprised to hear she started a production company. Supposedly she read a book a day. I was talking to somebody about comparing Madeline Kahn to Marilyn and how those two actresses don't get a lot of respect because playing dumb is supposedly too simple for women.

Yes. [Marilyn's] narrative, which is what we talk about, was written by men: Norman Mailer, Billy Wilder, Arthur Miller, Tony Curtis, Laurence Olivier. Because she didn't live long enough she was unable to tell her own story. There are so many facets. On the same night we talk about Marilyn Monroe we talk about Mae West. Two of the actresses profiled - Shirley Temple and Mae West - saved Paramount. Men didn't save Paramount, women did. Mae West, she's equal to Charlie Chaplin in the sense that she writes, produces. As soon as she starts to become successful and powerful, she runs into problems with censorship. Her film career is cut short. And now in today's context we don't talk about Mae West. We have an image, even me as a film lover when you don't see the person you start to develop, "Yeah, she has a creaky, old-fashioned image." I'm watching these Mae West movies and thinking "She's incredible!"

You've played so many fantastic characters. How do you look at the female roles when you're looking at your own projects? 

The movies I grew up watching and loving, whether it's like the womens films or films my grandfather was in that I discovered, those are the ones that are closest to my heart. [Ones] where the story is the relationship between the male and female species, or the mother/daughter dynamic. Those are always the things that have fascinated me, so I've always looked for those things in movies.

Somewhere along the way, in the '90s, there was a backlash of women's roles. They started to be called "chick flicks" or were targeted specifically towards women, and that may have been a mistake because then it became as if there were two separate audiences. I almost feel that we've not recovered since whoever started marketing films to women and marketing films to men. We still have this crazy narrative where if a film like First Wives Club comes out and makes $200 million it's called a surprise hit. If a movie comes out like Bridesmaids, it's still a surprising hit. 

Who knew women could be funny?

Yeah! You can make a study that every time a film comes out that stars women and does well it's called a "surprise." Why do they call it a "surprise"? Is it because it has women or because we don't want anymore movies like that? I think that's the undercurrent an actress or artist has to think of in this society. When you're looking at a project, you're already thinking, "Oh, God, it's got all women in it. It's gonna be a tough sell." Why am I thinking that? Maybe that's not even true but that narrative, even I believe it because you read it so much. Maybe by doing this show that'll start to change, but as a writer and director myself, I can only tell stories from my point of view. We definitely went through, in the past ten years, some real dark ages. Hopefully we're coming out of them.

The reason I love doing this show is that the evidence and films speak for themselves. Those of us who love TCM and watch TCM, especially those of us who are women, we watch these films because they have women in them! And it's really enjoyable to watch Barbara Stanwyck or Veronica Lake. And guess what? They're in the whole movie. The movie is about them! I was watching Double Indemnity last night, and as an actress and writer it gets your juices salivating because you're like, "God, she's horrifying." But you're rooting for them. You hate them. It's everything an actress can use to the best of her abilities, working on all cylinders. What happens, and it's why we keep watching TCM, is it inspires us to make those kind of movies and sort of pretend [that] I'm not going to worry about the marketplace. It gives us hope that we can come back to that.

My longwinded point is that by showing all these films and these people we're going to start realizing what we're missing as a society, that to me is the tragedy. Not only are we not getting enough women in film, but it's not reflecting society. And if we can't talk about a female role - why she did or didn't do something - that's not good because how do we learn about ourselves?

I went to the movies as a kid and I remember being so inspired by Jane Fonda in Julia; it gave me that pretend feeling I could grow up and be a writer. You could see Barbra Streisand in a movie and say, "I'm going to be Barbra Streisand or Liza Minnelli." I've written in my book about how many women inspired me and the variety of roles they did. As they were exploring who they were, we were learning about ourselves. What I wonder is, who are our next role models? There was a cornucopia of women to choose from that I could be like if I wanted to. My mom was a single mom, and we saw An Unmarried Woman and it opened up a dialogue about being a single mom and what that was like. But if the woman is in two or three scenes, that's not good. They're not three dimensional; they're there as a plot point.

Is there an actress or director you'd love to get on a future Trailblazing Women segment?

I really admire Ava DuVernay and all the work she's doing. I'd love to speak to Geena Davis, Meryl Streep, Susan Sarandon (we've profiled Susan Sarandon). Talking to Jane Fonda was an incredible experience, Jane Alexander. These are people I watched in film. Barbra Streisand would be incredible. Somebody has to take up the mantle for them and I wonder who that is going to be? There has to be the next generation and actresses aren't getting a long enough chance to get a significant body of work so they can become the fabric of our society. Bette Midler was so much a part of my childhood; her sass and her musical comedy and she wasn't traditionally beautiful. She was in The Rose and it was an amazing movie. We think, "Well, if she can be in a movie, I can be in a movie." And now you think everytime an actress is in a movie you don't want to read the reviews. 

Someone wanted to ask what is it like for you to interact and introduce film at the TCM Classic Film Festival? They also want to know if you're privy to any information about next year's festival?

Sadly I have no insider information. I'm on pins and needles like everyone else. I have to say, and everyone feels this way, it's such a privilege. The highlight, of course, is to speak to people. This past year I got to speak to Carl Reiner, and Carl Reiner's first professional job in showbusiness was when my grandfather was the producer of Call Me Mister. He cast Carl in his show coming out of the army. To have that history with my grandfather and then get to interview someone like Carl Reiner, who has defined comedy, is such a privilege. I feel movies have been so instrumental in my life and our society that I consider it such a responsbility to ask the best questions I can because I know, from my point of view, that everyone in the audience feels so privileged to be there, to be in the company of a Gina Lollabrigida or Mel Brooks. The first year I was there I met Tony Curtis. I was like a kid! As our society has less and less real, honest-to-God movie stars, you have to feel that they sprinkle a little stardust on you. 

It's true! It's such a huge film festival but those moments with stars are just so intimate.

Yes, I agree. I think one of the highlights - I've had so many - wasn't even interviewing anyone. It was sitting in the Cinerama Dome watching It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World in 70mm and laughing my ass off with my friend. It was a packed audience just enjoying that film, watching it the way it was supposed to be. It was like eating a tub of ice cream. I'll have the memory for the rest of my life. For those of us that love movies, it is where you have those moments like "Yes!" 

Is there a specific night on Trailblazing Women or theme that everyone should make time for? (We both agree everyone should watch the whole series!)

I would say watch the series in its entirety, which is what people did last year, [because it] tells the narrative story. It's not just "Tonight's host is Rita Moreno." We tell a narrative that begins with Cari Beauchamp and it gives us a context, and then we just start loading the deck with "Let's talk about the war effort. Let's talk about philanthropy. Let's talk about Elizabeth Taylor giving a face to AIDS. Let's talk about activism." It becomes this enriching experience to watch the entire show.

That being said, speaking to Lee Grant, who worked with my grandfather, we were going to talk about the actresses that were blacklisted, specifically the actress Dorothy Comingore in the film Citizen Kane which I've seen twenty, thirty times. I never knew the narrative about what happened to Dorothy Comingore because of the blacklist. Her life was destroyed because she was in the film. And there's no other reason her life was destroyed other than being cast in Citizen Kane and Hearst not being happy about it. It feels as if her performance and her life really deserved more than that. She died in poverty and obscurity, and went mad. Her children were taken away from her. She was set up by the police and arrested on a false charge of prostitution. And this happened because she played a character in a movie. It was such a tragedy.

Lee Grant said to me, "As a survivor of the blacklist we have to tell these stories. These stories have to be told." And that, for me, rose above the entertainment value of the show, that was real. People's lives were ruined. People died. And we could be in that place again, which is what we talked about with the political climate of today. If you want to suddenly target someone, you can do it. It creates a scary discussion but very poignant talking to Lee Grant. That was an incredible night. 

Trailblazing Women airs every Tuesday and Thursday night in October starting at 8pm ET on TCM

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