I Blame Dennis Hopper: And Other Stories From a Life Lived In and Out of the Movies
Flatiron Books, 2015
When I picked up I Blame Dennis Hopper, my plan was to read it for fun and not write a review for once. But I couldn't do that. It's a hilarious book, impossible to put down. People need to know about it.
This is a must-read for classic movie fans. The Illeana Douglas you see on TCM and at TCM Film Festival is as movie mad as she appears to be. She's just like us, though Marlon Brando has probably never sent you roses. (And if he has, won't you please dish in the comments?)
I hope that Douglas does write a second volume, because she promised she'd tell a story about Elizabeth Taylor. You know you've written an amazing book when that's the kind of material you leave out. This woman is like a magnet for unusual experiences, and whether they're tragic, scary, triumphant or utterly confusing, she writes about all of it like it's a comedy. There aren't many books that can make you laugh out loud like this.
It isn't set up like a conventional memoir. Instead it reads like all the juicy parts of a typical autobiography have been torn out and slapped together. As a Tower Records employee once told me about the Brady Bunch CD: "it's all killer and no filler."
Douglas was both born into and drawn to a life centered around the movies. Her paternal grandpa was the celebrated studio-age star Melvyn Douglas and her father rejected their upper middle class life and became a commune-living hippy after he saw Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider (she had the chance to tell the actor he ruined her childhood when they costarred in a movie years later). Once the adolescent Illeana discovered the drive-in, she rejected teenage lust for all-night movie sessions. This led to a determination to act and a path to success that perfectly illustrates the crazy mix of talent, luck, work and nerve that are necessary to succeed in the movie industry.
Grandpa Douglas gave Illeana many early lessons in moviemaking, taking her to the set of Being There (1979), where she received an unusual, but brilliant piece of advice from Peter Sellars. She would also encounter legends like Lee Marvin and Jerry Lewis, and have a bizarre hours-long meeting with Brando and her then-boyfriend Martin Scorsese that led to that bouquet delivery. Roddy McDowall became a close friend and inspired her to document her crazy movie star life. Entire chapters are devoted to these remarkable men, and while Douglas is discreet with more personal details, her experiences with them are revealing and often very amusing and sweet too.
It's interesting how Douglas has remained simultaneously an awestruck fan and an insider for most of her career. She isn't shy to share that she's got a dynamic personality and that it has attracted successful people, but at the same time she remains humbled by their presence and even a bit starstruck. Still, there's a lot of nonchalance in the story of how she hooked Scorsese with her movie love, and amused all his famous friends. She knows that she is worthy of talented people.
I loved reading about the key films in Douglas' career. The on-set stories were some of the most amusing, and cringe-worthy, because you can tell that everyone was losing their minds. All aspiring moviemakers should read this, just to get an idea of how hard it can be to make a film.
Though I've loved Douglas' work throughout the years, I am most connected to her work in the 90s, when my own movie obsession was developing and diversifying. In those years I would watch everything. I was hungry for film.
For me that decade began with the horror of Robert DeNiro biting off Douglas' cheek in Cape Fear (1991), continued with her ice skating routine over Nicole Kidman's frozen body in To Die For (1995) and began to head a bit less violently towards the millennium as she acted belting out God Give Me Strength in Allison Anders' Grace of My Heart (1996). In fact, that song is now running in a loop through my head, just like it did back then, and I totally blame Illeana Douglas.