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Authors: Illeana Douglas

I Blame Dennis Hopper

BOOK: I Blame Dennis Hopper
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For my mom—the most cinematic woman I know.

 

To my four grandparents. My grandfather Melvyn Douglas told me, “When you find someone you can learn from, hold on to them.”

 

Prologue

Mike Nichols had just screened his masterpiece,
The Graduate,
in New York. Afterward, I was standing in line next to Glenn Gordon Caron, who had directed me in
Picture Perfect
, waiting to meet Mr. Nichols. I was holding one of his legendary comedy albums he had recorded with Elaine May, hoping to get him to sign it. Glenn whispered to me, “Only you could get away with that.” I held out my album to Mr. Nichols, and he pointed at me and said, “You … you know what I like about you? You manage to be both
in
the movie and
outside it,
commenting to us in the audience.” Then he signed my album: “With admiration, Mike Nichols.”

Among the pantheon of movie gods I have traveled in, Mike Nichols was Zeus. I was getting the nod from Zeus. Mike Nichols was not just insightfully describing my on-screen persona. He was also describing my life, which has often played like a movie with me both
in
the movie and
outside it
, commenting to the audience, “Well, I remember how it began, but I have no idea how it's going to end.” I pass this on not to impress you about me but to impress you about Mike Nichols. His words, and the advice he was about to give, had a profound influence on me.

He asked me, “Have you ever read De Tocqueville?” It sounded like a name that had come off the Nichols and May album I was holding,
Improvisations to Music
.

I shook my head and said no, I had not read De Tocqueville. I had never even heard of De Tocqueville.

“You should read it,” he said thoughtfully. He sounded like a doctor prescribing a vital prescription. “In fact…” And he started to rattle off other books I should read.

I quickly grabbed the pen he had used to sign my record and wrote down the books he suggested. Anything by Alexis de Tocqueville, especially
Democracy in America
.

Vladimir Nabokov:
Speak, Memory
. Augusten Burroughs:
Running With Scissors
and
Dry
.

“Thank you,” I said, not really sure what I was thanking him for but absolutely sure that I would be running to a bookstore the next day. You certainly don't disappoint the gods when they show you favor.

“Let me know what you think,” he said. “Write me after you've read them.”

“I will,” I said, still unsure of why he had taken the time with me.

I had come there hoping just to meet Mike Nichols, to get his autograph. I was a fan of
his
. A picture of him directing
Catch-22
, along with those of other movie gods, had graced my bedroom wall when I was a kid. I was
his
admirer and champion. His quotes were pinned up on my office walls, including “The only safe thing is to take a chance. Play safe and you are dead.”

And yet this god also seemed to be
my
admirer and champion. Why? What did he see in me that I could not yet see in myself? I never once told him that I had aspirations to write. I read the books he suggested, and he was astute—if not downright psychic—in having suggested them. Those books led me in the direction of this book, so thank you, Mike Nichols—thank you for giving me a through line to my life. In the pages that follow, I am both the narrator telling you about my experiences
in
the movies but also outside them; I'm a delighted fan sitting next to you on the couch exclaiming, “Aren't these people fascinating? Aren't movies the best?”

A word of warning. This is not a memoir with a wonderfully linear beginning, middle, and end. Sadly, it's not a tell-all, unless you consider being alone in a hotel room with Ethan Hawke and watching Paul Mazursky's movie
Blume in Love
a tell-all. It's also not a book about my career, which I hope explains the omissions of some of the films and television shows I've been in. That may sound surprisingly humble for an actor—don't worry, I make large, large costarring appearances—but I am always more comfortable talking about the actors and directors I have worked with and how their work has changed me.

Oh, this
is
a book about movies. How movies tell a story. In this case, mine. It's called
I Blame Dennis Hopper
because I think you will see from the first chapter that sometimes a movie or an actor can change your destiny. I believe that all of us have been changed by the experience of movies. Think of the first movie you saw. What effect did it have on you? Who took you to see it? These questions, and the answers you give, connect us in a vital and emotional way. You may not know some of the people I write about—such as Roddy McDowall and Rudy Vallée—yet their contributions are part of film history. These days, to look back at a classic movie is somehow considered to be old-fashioned. More and more we are asked to look forward without a glance back at the films and film stars that got us here.

The actor Rod Taylor recently died. He starred in such iconic films as Hitchcock's
The Birds
and George Pal's
The Time Machine
. I had an intense crush on Rod Taylor when I was a kid, and I thought I was the only one who was devastated when he died. But when I mentioned his passing to a friend, she said, “Well, a piece of my childhood just died.” She was sobbing. “
Time Machine
,” she cried, “and it wasn't even that good!”

“But it was good,” I said. “It was good because you remembered it.”

That's how movies change us: in ways we cannot even remember. Those images of movies stay in our brain; those fragments become shards in our memories. So when these gods die, it's as if a piece of our childhood dies with them. That's why it's important to be a living historian. To pass on stories of why these movies and movie gods matter. It's all a part of our collective memory, and we all have to take part in upholding it.

“Illeana, your life is like a movie.” I hear that all the time—so much so that I finally accepted it. My life
is
like a movie! But so is yours. The greatest compliment I can give myself or anyone reading this is to say, You are the star of your own movie. You are surrounded by an amazing set of characters with a story that only you can tell. Now, you may not think it's the healthiest thing in the world to live your life as if it were a movie, but somehow it has worked for me, with Dennis Hopper and many other movie gods to blame for every glorious moment.

 

CHAPTER ONE

I Blame Dennis Hopper

We were poor, but we were unhappy.

In 1969, my parents, like many others of their generation, saw the counterculture movie
Easy Rider.
It's a road movie about two alienated and rootless hippie bikers (Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda) traveling on their choppers through a broken America. It depicted the rise of the hippie culture, celebrated drug use and free love, and condemned the establishment. The tagline of the film was “A man went looking for America. And couldn't find it anywhere,” which is apparently how people felt in 1969 because it was the third-highest-grossing film of the year.
Easy Rider
was written by Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, and Terry Southern and was directed by Dennis Hopper. It became a cultural phenomenon, and many people who saw the film so identified with it that they sought to emulate the values of its two main characters, Captain America (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper).

Little did I know that my life was about to change forever because of a movie, but that is exactly what happened.

My father seemed convinced that when Dennis Hopper's character said “This is what it's all about, man!” he was speaking directly to my father and telling
him
to change his life. Years later I met Dennis Hopper. I told him this story, basically blaming him for everything that had ever happened to me, and he grinned sheepishly and said, “Sorry.”

You see, after my father saw Dennis Hopper in
Easy Rider
, he started, well, acting like Dennis Hopper in
Easy Rider
. He started to see “signs” as he drove home to suburbia in the endless rush hour traffic from a nine-to-five job. He heard the song “Nowhere Man” on the radio and said to my mother, “That's me, man! I'm a Nowhere Man!” He started saying “He knows what it's all about, man,” meaning Dennis Hopper. And spouting such Dennis Hopper–esque philosophy as “I go to work every day, and you know what it means, man? It's just more garbage cans, man! I mean we started out with one garbage can and then we had two garbage cans, and now we're up to three garbage cans, man!” One day he grabbed my brother's orange plastic Hot Wheels set and shouted, “We don't promote plastic in this house. Not anymore!”

I blame Dennis Hopper for not having any cool toys growing up.

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