Friday, November 24, 2017

Illeana Douglas, or “Don’t Cry for Me, Dennis Hopper”

So Charles Manson, who sent shivers up our spines back in 1969, is dead. Which hardly brings his victims back to life. And, around the world, bad things are happening to good people. Politics? Don’t get me started. But I'm still feeling the glow of Thanksgiving weekend, so who am I to dwell on the negative?

Instead, I’m giving thanks for a wonderful woman named Illeana Douglas. You may have caught her in movies like Goodfellas, Cape Fear, and To Die For. You may have seen her rare leading role in Allison Anders’ music industry indie, Grace of My Heart. If you love old movies, you’ve surely watched her grandfather, Melvyn Douglas, in the course of his great career. Illeana idolized her father’s father, and it was partly under his spell that she chose to spend her life on movie sets.

But her own father hit upon a far different life for himself. And movies were entirely to blame. It was with her father in mind that Illeana chose the title for her 2015 memoir: I Blame Dennis Hopper.  You see, back in 1969,  Illeana’s parents went to see Easy Rider, and nothing was ever the same thereafter: “After my father saw Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider, he started, well, acting like Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider.” This meant quitting his 9-to-5 job, growing a floppy mustache, and endlessly playing “Born to Be Wild.” It also meant abandoning the family’s nice Colonial house in suburban Connecticut in order to start his own commune, a place full of dope-smoking freeloaders who had grown Dennis Hopper mustaches of their own. And it meant an all-purpose stoner response to every situation:  “This is what it’s all about, man.”  Illeana’s account of the break-up of her parents’ marriage is both heart-breaking and hilarious. It ends with the author, on a movie-set, meeting the real Dennis Hopper and discovering he was probably not to blame, after all. Because the life-lessons she’d learned in the course of her eccentric upbringing were pretty cool indeed. 

Other chapters in I Blame Dennis Hopper reflect the fact that Illeana is the ultimate movie fan, someone who views the world in terms of the way that movies (and movie stars) have shaped her outlook. I’m not sure I agree with her theory that “all movie lovers have some sort of void or sadness in them that movies fill.” But she certainly makes a good case for the power that screen stars have over those of us who sit in the audience. Here’s her comment on Liza Minnelli: “We look up to movie stars. We believe in them, because they are larger than life, and it makes us believe in ourselves when no one else does.”

And here’s her down-and-dirty encapsulation of her own existence: “My life is like a movie. At first it was a Busby Berkeley musical with everybody happy and dancing, and then it was like a French film that I didn’t understand, but I looked really good, and now it’s like a seventies disaster movie where I’m screaming, but no one can hear me.” 

Speaking of screaming, that’s one of Illeana’s special talents. A blood-curdling screech brought her to the attention of Martin Scorsese, who used it to good advantage in The Last Temptation of Christ and became her main man for a number of years. I don’t know about her love life now, but I know she keeps busy as an actress, writer, producer, and director. And then there’s her podcast, on which I was lucky enough to be a guest. It’s called, inevitably, “I Blame Dennis Hopper.”


  1. This is especially funny to those (like me) who primarily know Dennis Hopper from his old-guy turns in movies like Speed.

  2. And Hoosiers, of course. Fun fact: he was also a world-class photographer.