“Female Directors Shoot Better Sex Scenes”: Actress Illeana Douglas on Fighting Hollywood Sexism With TCM’s ‘Trailblazing Women’

After wrapping up their successful Summer of Darkness series, about film noir, TCM welcomes the fall by celebrating women in cinema. The Peabody Award-winning network’s Trailblazing Women series kicks off October 1 and will air every Tuesday and Thursday throughout the month. The program is part of an exciting multi-year initiative with Women in Film, Los Angeles to raise awareness and educate viewers about the contributions of women throughout cinema history — an industry dominated by men, who outnumber women 23 to 1 as directors.

Illeana Douglas, prolific actress, writer, director, and producer, will be hosting Trailblazing Women: Behind the Camera, Ahead of Their Time, with a focus on female directors. She’ll be joined by filmmaking luminaries such as Allison Anders, Julie Dash, and others to discuss indie classics, African-American independents, essential documentaries, and other important chapters in women’s cinema.

TCM’s Senior Vice President of Programming Charles Tabesh — who counts The Heartbreak Kid, Valley Girl, Crossing Delancey, and Harlan County U.S.A. as some of his favorite films featured on Trailblazing Women — tells me that he made some surprising discoveries while programming the series that speak to the dismal statistics about women in cinema. “I knew that women directors were rare coming from Hollywood,” he says, “but in doing the research for this, I literally could only find four women who directed for major studios from [the introduction of] sound through the ‘70s.”

As with any film series, there will be audiences who point to the omissions, but Tabesh explains that some of the programming is determined by what’s accessible for licensing: “A good example is Fast Times at Ridgemont High. We had to include Amy Heckerling, and I’m very happy to have Look Who’s Talking, but I would have preferred Fast Times. I just think it was more culturally iconic and important. I really wanted a Betty Thomas movie, but I wasn’t able to get one to license. Believe me, I’m very happy with the lineup, but we always try for what we can and sometimes have to make alternative choices.”

Photo credit: John Nowak Amy Heckerling
Photo credit: John Nowak
Amy Heckerling

Tabesh hopes that TCM’s lineup can highlight both the positives and the negatives about female directors’ experiences in and contributions to the industry: “Even though there are still relatively few women directors in Hollywood, there’s still a lot of great female filmmakers in film history,” he says. “I hope we’re also able to shine a spotlight on the fact that it’s still an incredibly small representation in terms of Hollywood, and obviously something Hollywood needs to work on and improve upon.”

Tabesh says that the network has “always tried to highlight women,” revealing that “[TCM] licensed a lot of Shirley Clarke movies and will be doing a series devoted to her relatively soon.” In fact, Trailblazing Women will be a three-year program. “We’re looking at directors this time, but next year it might be producers or women who had an influence on Hollywood behind the scenes,” he says.

Flavorwire talked in depth about women in film with Trailblazing Women host Illeana Douglas, to find out more about the questions she raises to fans throughout the series, her own experiences working in the industry, and the importance of mentorship.

Photo credit: John Nowak
Photo credit: John Nowak

Flavorwire: There’s a great history in your family of people who are outspoken activists and leaders in their field. Your grandmother Helen Gahagan Douglas was an active politician, as well as your grandfather, Melvyn Douglas. And you’ve done it all — writing, directing, producing. You’re known for playing bold, independent women. When I found out you were hosting this series, it made sense — and I was excited. Tell me more about the personal connection you feel to the Trailblazing Women series.

Illeana Douglas: I feel like I’ve been in the eye of the storm. For me, it started growing up, being a movie lover, and watching movies in the ’70s, where predominantly women were the leads in the movies — like Jane Fonda, Jill Clayburgh, and all these people. I was also seeing movies that were directed by women — Agnès Varda, Lina Wertmüller. There were male filmmakers, there were female filmmakers.

Then, as I got into making movies myself and the rise of the independent film movement, going to Sundance, and working with Allison Anders, there was this world where anything was possible. It seemed like we had arrived. And then you get into the ’90s. By this point, I worked with so many female directors. I worked with Allison Anders, Kathy Bates, Melanie Mayron, and Nancy Savoca. This was what I thought a career was. Then, as we get into the 2000s, that’s where something is changing. And now the window is closing, and it becomes, “Oh that’s a woman’s picture. That’s an action movie.” It could have something to do with how the movie business has changed, but somehow women were getting shut out, or they moved to television, or they weren’t able to make a second film. Those where all the problems.

Just in my own career, I was finding it challenging to find an acting role. So, I moved into writing and producing and directing. We’ve reached a point today where people are unconscious of it. When I walk on the set as an actress, there are no women on the crew. The only women you see are in hair, makeup, and wardrobe. That’s not good. That just creates a weird environment. That’s not even an environment that’s reflective of an office where you have men and women. I want to question people why specifically the movie business is so sexist. I don’t know the answer, but these are the some of the questions we have to raise.

There’s another question I raise a lot on the show and want to point out to people, because again we’re just a little bit unconscious about it. When we look at the numbers, they’re so devastating. It’s so hard to understand why, but I think that if we can create some new milestones… for instance on the AFI top 100 list, there are no films actually directed by a woman. No one’s ever actually pointed that out. It’s something I say all the time. If this is our culture, and movies are our culture, you can’t find one movie directed by a woman who deserves to be on the list?

I’m hoping, again, with the show that by inundating people with 60 fantastic films, all directed by women, it’s going to start to reinvigorate that women are great directors. Sleepless in Seattle is a great film, and it’s also directed by a woman. Is our society missing out on something by not having more Sleepless in Seattles? And I don’t know that, but that’s the question I wonder about, both as a movie fan and a director. I feel, personally, I am missing a point of view in terms of movies. Even some of the successful comedies we have that feature leading women, they’re all directed by men. Maybe that’s great. They’re successful. But it makes me a little uncomfortable where the point of view is skewing male.

outrage

It’s refreshing to hear you say that you felt the early days of filmmaking seemed more open to women, because normally I hear the opposite. The ’70s era of filmmaking seems so dominated by male filmmakers.

Well, if people are taking about it, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true [laughs].

One of the things I love about TCM is that it’s such a beacon if you love movies, the background of movies, and how things got made. So, what we’re going to see in the 60 films, is, “Oh wow, I didn’t know she directed that.” We’re going to rediscover Ida Lupino. What we always hear about Ida Lupino is she was an actress and director. OK, but I’ve never actually seen any of her films. One of the films we’re going to play is called Outrage. Some of my young friends who are filmmakers that I’ve worked with and kind of mentored, they’re shocked that there have been movies about rape. And I’m like, “Yeah, there are movies about rape going back to the 1920s.”

That’s why I’m so excited about this project. We’re opening the conversation, through quality films. Through quality films, you get a much better discussion than looking at numbers and all of us trying to figure things out like a Rubik’s Cube. I think by watching 60 films by women, you’re gonna go: “Huh? I wonder what Martha Coolidge is doing? Valley Girl is a really great movie. Maybe she would be right for this.” That’s what’s missing in the conversation. These women made great films, and they’re still out there. I’ll give you one really positive example, which we talk about. Lena Dunham was a really big fan of this film called Girlfriends, which we’re going to show. The director is Claudia Weill. And Lena just saw this movie. She said, “Oh my god, this is the greatest thing.” And on her HBO show Girls, she hired Claudia to direct one of the episodes. That’s how you make an impact. You don’t just love the person’s films and say, “Oh, isn’t that cute. Wonderful. Let’s make a movie like that.” Get that woman. She made that film, and it’s good. So, we’re going to highlight a bunch of positives like that, not just talk about the downside.

I thought your Second Looks series for TCM was great fun. I could see the “movie fan” within you come out. And part of the success of TCM’s repertory film series is that they open up an avenue for audiences and the host to connect and share enthusiasm for a group of films or subject. Will we get to connect with you on a more personal level during the Trailblazing Women series? What kind of journey are you taking us on?

Yeah, absolutely. I’m going to be doing some live tweeting. I have a great connection with my fans through TCM, like the [hashtag] #TCMParty. I love talking about movies. When you watch these films — I watched all 60 films in the series — I really did see a pattern here where something starts to fall apart. I pose all these questions. I pose a lot of questions I don’t know answers to. One of the questions I ask is: “Did women become complacent?” They say we’ve arrived. We’ve got Nora Ephron, Jane Campion, Penny Marshall, Nancy Meyers, and Gillian Armstrong. Women were making movies. There were women executives. Did we get complacent? And now, we’re right back where we were in the beginning of the 1930s saying, “Well, one woman director is enough.” With the fans and fan interaction — they’re so smart and great and love movies — they’re going to have a lot of great ideas.

But I pose to people that I think we’ve got to elevate these films to masterpieces, which they are, and start putting them on best-of lists. I think that’s what cracks the glass ceiling. Once you relegate a film to a masterpiece, alongside some of these films directed by men, we should not, as movie fans, stand for the idea that there’s no female-directed films on the best-of lists. That’s impossible. That can’t be. I pose the question in the Trailblazer show again and again: shouldn’t this movie be elevated to a masterpiece? I’ll be really curious to see what the fans say about that.

'Love and Anarchy'
‘Love and Anarchy’

Was there a woman featured in the series whose work got you excited about filmmaking all over again?

Yes and yes and yes [laughs]. Rewatching the films, I had never seen Love and Anarchy by Lina Wertmüller. I’m a tremendous fan of hers, and I saw her movies as a kid. But I had not seen Love and Anarchy. Re-watching her as an adult, I think she and Agnès Varda are my favorite filmmakers, so I elevated them to that. Their point of view was really inspiring to me to make movies.

As a personal story, the film Wanda and Barbara Loden’s career. She was an actress. She was obscured by her famous husband [Elia Kazan]. She made Wanda out of an expression of herself. She thought she was nothing. She made the movie, and it had some success. Yoko Ono was a proponent of it. But she never got any money to make a movie again. She died. The movie fell into obscurity. Elia Kazan claimed credit for it. That story stood out and is to me what I love about the phrase “trailblazers.”

But these women got pushed out of the way. Was the bravery of women like Loden and Ida Lupino for naught, or do we reinvigorate the fight? Because I feel like now is the moment where we have to reinvigorate this fight and say to both men and women watching, let’s blaze the trail again. That’s why I love the title so much. Let’s not say that trailblazers did this and oh isn’t that wonderful. Let’s reinvigorate. You can pick up the phone and hire Allison Anders, for example. She’s made a lot of great movies.

Illeana Douglas and Allison Anders. Credit: John Nowalk
Illeana Douglas and Allison Anders.
Credit: John Nowalk

Let’s talk about Allison Anders. You worked with her before, on Grace of My Heart — which felt very autobiographical because your character was an heiress who invents this working-class persona, reminiscent of your Hollywood side of the family and your Queens, NY roots. TCM is screening Border Radio, which is now being recognized as a significant contribution to independent cinema. Can you talk more about working with Allison and seeing her get this kind of recognition for her work?

She was the perfect person to talk about the ’80s. I have this book coming out, which you can check out on my website, called I Blame Dennis Hopper. There’s a whole chapter devoted to Allison called “A Sensitive Female Picture,” because I think that our story, although we were never able to make another movie together, but hopefully someday we will, our journey itself has been a really long female road trip movie. I saw her movie. I fell in love with Gas, Food Lodging. I saw her at Sundance. I convinced her to make a movie with me. We made our film. We stayed in touch. We watched our lives grow and change. And we both love movies. I think that’s an example of mentorship between women, partnership between women, and admiration between two women.

We talk on the show about Grace of My Heart. It was one of those movies that, again, the control of the film is owned by men. So, that was one of the films we couldn’t show on the air. A rights thing. But I think Allison’s contributions going back to Border Radio are significant. Mi vida loca, Grace of My Heart… she has a pretty significant body of work, and a love of music.

I’ve been lucky. I’ve worked with something like eight female directors. Men are being robbed of that experience. Give us a little credit. There are things that female directors do that are a little bit better or maybe more fun and interesting than men. It would be nice, again, to have that choice. I’ve been asked, “What’s it like to work with a male director versus a female director?” I would always say, “Well, the female directors shoot better sex scenes.” [laughs] You’re going to see a lot of sex scenes on the show and they’re all shot by women — and they’re really, really sexy. There’s usually a little bit more nudity, I’ve noticed, in a female-directed sex scene than a male-directed sex scene. I don’t want to get graphic, but there’s totally a difference in what the guy will focus on and what a woman will focus on. I point it out again and again. The women look stunning — and, like what I said about Allison, in her sex scenes you see the beauty from the inside, not just the outside. Maybe a film executive will say, “I have this movie coming up. I heard on TCM they were talking about women and sex scenes. Let’s get a woman for this.” That’s what’s troubling me. That discussion isn’t even happening anymore.

'The Piano'
‘The Piano’

The qualities a female director is going to bring to a project based on that person and her history are essential. Like Allison’s example, such as her love of music, or Jane Campion. Look at a movie like The Piano. If there’s a period film, why aren’t we asking Jane Campion to do it?

A lot of these women are like caribou [laughs]. All these directors of these great films, they usually move to television. It’s not necessarily a demotion. These are great TV shows that they’re making. But I don’t quite know that it’s Jane Campion behind the camera. Maybe that’s just my opinion. When you have a film, that’s your film. You wrote it, you cast it, you put the music in it, and it’s really the point of view that’s the expression of that female filmmaker. I find that I’m missing that. Are we cutting ourselves off by the kind of movies that we’re watching?

When there’s a lack of diversity of voices, it’s also just boring after a while.

Another thing I noticed, and this was true on the Trailblazing show, when you have a female director, sometimes [her career] kind of lags off… it just kind of lagged off, for me. The last female director I worked with was Cecilia Miniucchi. Her mentor was Lina Wertmüller. Lina was on the set, guiding and encouraging her. I do think mentorship is incredibly important. And I don’t think we’re doing enough of it — giving women chances and mentoring them on the set to make sure they don’t make mistakes and things like that. With that train of thought, about the lack of diversity, it’s a nicer environment on set when it’s a bit of men and women. They can have a good time. It can actually be fun. There’s more joking around. There’s absolutely more creativity. In every aspect of what you’re doing, it’s a better environment to have an equal point of view from men and women. When I’m on a set, and it’s all men, it’s just the way it is. You’re just going to get that opinion.

blamedennis

I Blame Dennis Hopper, your new book, comes out on November 3. It’s an interesting companion to the Trailblazing Women series, because you’re a storyteller leading us through your life via encounters with famous actors, etc. You said you spoke about including Allison in the book. Who are the other women you mention?

Elaine May is a hero of mine. She’s also a trailblazer. Roddy McDowall’s love of film history and the contributions of actresses, and how much I learned from him. To Die For, Nicole Kidman, again, what I consider to be her greatest performance. The book culminates talking about my own frustrations when I moved into writing, directing, and producing, and how with the onset of reality TV and this culture of models, it just becomes really… where do we fit in? I talk about in the book: “Does anyone care about my opinion?” You get so beaten down that you don’t want to try to make stories anymore. That’s no good either.

The writing of the book and working with TCM culminates with me beginning my own second stage in my career of writing and directing, and hopefully acting. I want to be the next Ruth Gordon. My sexy grandma roles are on the horizon [laughs]. I hope I can be a positive voice that celebrates women for their films.

Melanie Mayron is another person I talk about in the book, whose work I admire so much. I grew up, and I looked at Melanie Mayron in movies and I was like, “Well, if she’s in a movie, I can be in a movie.” She’s my neighbor. When I was doing Easy to Assemble, every year I would say to her, “Please will you direct the show?” And finally, one year, show business started to get tougher and tougher, I finally nabbed her. The doors were unfortunately shutting for female directors, and Melanie directed my web series. We had such an amazing time. It was such a great sharing, a sense of relief.

I talk about this in the book: women directors are much tougher than male directors. They’re much more uncompromising, and they’re very opinionated. There’s a lot more arguing on a woman’s picture than a man’s picture, but for all artistic reasons. I enjoy that. I’m hoping [that] the show, in coinciding with my book and talking so much about female directors, will make an impact. If more female directors are out there, more actresses will be working and be on the crew. Allison and I detail this quite a bit. I talk about the set we had on Grace of My Heart, and I’m like, “Will we ever have that again?” It was this nirvana. The perfect mix of men and women, kidding around, creativity, and making films.

What you said about mentorship really resonates. I think that people watching the TCM series will see you as a mentor of sorts.

In terms of mentorship, I really do practice it. I’m producing a web series, which is a comedy about bulimia called The Skinny. The writer-comedian is Jessie Kahnweiler. I worked on it for free, so it would come to fruition. It’s out there. When she sent it my way — I get sent a lot of things — I thought it would be interesting. Let’s talk about this. So, for other women who are more powerful than me, really make it part of your agenda to mentor.

The forum that TCM has given me, I’m not just host, I’m actually doing it. I support women filmmakers, and it’s really important to me. We’ve got to do something about this. It’s terrible. The only way we can do it is by mentorship, doing projects with women, and seeing them to fruition, seeing them get successful. I’m really proud of Trailblazing Women. We’ll start the conversation, for sure.