From award-winning actress Illeana Douglas comes a memoir about learning to survive in Hollywood while staying true to her quirky vision of the world.
In 1969 Illeana Douglas' parents saw the film Easy Rider and were transformed. Taking Dennis Hopper's words, "That's what it's all about man" to heart, they abandoned their comfortable upper middle class life and gave Illeana a childhood filled with hippies, goats, free spirits, and free love. Illeana writes, "Since it was all out of my control, I began to think of my life as a movie, with a Dennis Hopper-like father at the center of it."
I Blame Dennis Hopper is a testament to the power of art and the tenacity of passion. It is a rollicking, funny, at times tender exploration of the way movies can change our lives. With crackling humor and a full heart, Douglas describes how a good Liza Minnelli impression helped her land her first gig and how Rudy Valley taught her the meaning of being a show biz trouper. From her first experience being on set with her grandfather and mentor-two-time Academy Award-winning actor Melvyn Douglas-to the moment she was discovered by Martin Scorsese for her blood-curdling scream and cast in her first film, to starring in movies alongside Robert DeNiro, Nicole Kidman, and Ethan Hawke, to becoming an award winning writer, director and producer in her own right, I Blame Dennis Hopper is an irresistible love letter to movies and filmmaking. Writing from the perspective of the ultimate show business fan, Douglas packs each page with hilarious anecdotes, bizarre coincidences, and fateful meetings that seem, well, right out of a plot of a movie.
I Blame Dennis Hopper is the story of one woman's experience in show business, but it is also a genuine reminder of why we all love the movies: for the glitz, the glamor, the sweat, passion, humor, and escape they offer us all.
About the Author
An award-winning actress, producer, writer and director, Illeana Douglas lives in Los Angeles. I Blame Dennis Hopper is her first book.
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I Blame Dennis Hopper
And Other Stories from a Life Lived In and Out of the Movies
By Illeana Douglas
Flatiron BooksCopyright © 2015 Illeana Douglas
All rights reserved.
I Blame Dennis Hopper
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.
I didn't know we were rich until we became poor, but we became poor because of Dennis Hopper. At one point in Easy Rider, the two bikers visit a commune. My father decided to start a commune.
"This is what it's all about, man!" he said to my mom the day he left his job. He came up the driveway beeping the horn on the Buick convertible, which was usually his sign for "Kids, I've got some good news! We're going to live off the land! Have a garden, and animals! Support ourselves!" My mother looked worried. We had just moved into a large Colonial house in a wealthy community in Connecticut. My parents were achieving what my mother had always dreamed of: an upper-middle-class life in the country with estates on both sides of us. That life, which for many is the American Dream, came to an end because of Dennis Hopper and Easy Rider.
My father grew a mustache. Just like Dennis Hopper's. He bought a gigantic poster of Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda riding their choppers and hung it in the middle of the living room. My father stared at the poster, that iconic image of two rebels, and I stared at my father. His mustache had filled in, and his sideburns and hair had grown longer. It was the first time I began to see a resemblance between my father and Dennis Hopper.
I blame Dennis Hopper for my never liking men with mustaches. Nope. Don't trust 'em.
The theme song to Easy Rider was "Born to Be Wild," by Steppenwolf. My father started playing the album incessantly. I don't remember any other songs on it. Were there any other songs on that album? For that matter, did Steppenwolf even have any other songs, ever? Some nights while my mother was trying to make dinner there would be fifty hippies in the other room, all looking like Dennis Hopper, alternately singing "Born to Be Wild" and shouting, "This is what it's all about, man!" When they got tired of singing and shouting they'd come in the kitchen and ask my mom, "Hey, is there any more spaghetti, man?"
I blame Dennis Hopper for making me hate the song "Born to be Wild" and for our always being out of pasta.
At first it was a challenge for my father even to find a hippie. You have to remember that in 1969 there was neither the Internet nor a hippie handbook to guide people led astray by Dennis Hopper. Eventually my father found one. His name was Tom. Tom the Hippie, I guess. I don't know if he had a last name. Tom was the first hippie I ever saw, and I was impressed — and what I mean by impressed is I was terrified of him. Tom had long hair, a mustache, aviator sunglasses, and a leather fringe jacket. He reeked of booze and smoke, rode a large chopper, and ended every sentence with man. Does that sound like Dennis Hopper to you? Well it should, because my father found a hippie who looked and acted exactly like Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider! To his credit, Tom the Hippie was an excellent hippie.
Now that my father had a friend — I'm not going to say that he had his Peter Fonda, because Tom the Hippie and my father were both Dennis Hopper — they started going to demonstrations and protests. Tom seemed to know the day and time of every peace rally in the area, and since neither of them worked, they went to a lot of them. They went to so many peace rallies and staged so many demonstrations that for a time I thought that that was my father's job. They took me with them once on one of their protests. I'm not sure what my father and Tom the Hippie were demonstrating when they went into a White Tower hamburger joint and started to chant "We're white, and we're in a tower. We're white, and we're in a tower." My father seemed to think this "message to the man" had great significance, but to me it signified only that we were called "dirty hippies" and asked to leave immediately and never come back.
I blame Dennis Hopper for my being afraid ever to set foot in a White Tower restaurant.
My mother seemed pretty accepting of Tom. I remember her admonishing him only once. She was in the kitchen cooking spaghetti, and Tom had dropped acid — something Dennis Hopper does a lot of in Easy Rider — and soon started tripping. He wandered into the kitchen and kept repeating to my mom, over and over again: "It's so beautiful, man; it's just so beautiful, man; so beautiful, man ..."
Anyway, after about fifteen minutes of his twirling around the kitchen and saying everything was beautiful, my mother said rather sternly, "I don't need to take drugs to see it's beautiful, Tom. It's nature."
He was quiet for a time, taking that in, and then he started in again: "Yeah, nature, man. Nature is beautiful, man. Beautiful nature, man ..."
Eventually Tom became less scary to me. I realized he wasn't going anywhere, so he became a kind of Crazy Uncle Tom the Hippie. He bought this old Dodge paneled van that didn't have any seats in the back, so he cut tree stumps to use as makeshift seats for us. My brother and I were sitting on our stumps, and Tom was driving along, smoking pot, with his Neil Young blasting, and as we rounded a corner, the stumps all tipped over and rolled to the back. The doors flew open, and my brother and I went rolling out of the van. The music was so loud that Tom drove another few hundred feet before he even noticed. I learned to balance on my stump, because riding with Tom was how I first learned about music. We would play Neil Young or the Beatles. Pretty soon a new hippie girlfriend named Annette came along for our rides.
Tom the Hippie had that same Dennis Hopper charm with the ladies. He had a string of girlfriends after Annette and even had an affair with a married housewife. This was definitely an opposites-attract kind of romance. She was wealthy and had hired Tom to do some construction on her house, to good and bad results, since he smoked pot every day before going to work. He often asked me to guard it for him, forgetting he had stashed it under her kitchen sink. The only time Tom got mad at me was when I flushed his precious "herb" down the toilet as a joke. I thought it was the kind of herbs my mom used in her cooking, and couldn't understand why Tom was so furious.
Meanwhile, my father started constructing something of his own. It was his very own commune, just a short walk from our own house at the bottom of the hill. He called it The Studio.
I blame Dennis Hopper for The Studio.
My father built it with his own two Dennis Hopper–strong hands. We didn't live in the commune, only my father did, but we could visit it or watch its progress or gradual demise any time we wanted. From the top of the hill you could look down at the pond and The Studio and see the large American flag hanging down the front.
The Studio itself was an impressive two stories, sitting atop an old barn foundation that had burned to the ground years ago. The sleeping quarters were upstairs, accessed by ladder. The main floor featured a wood stove. The indoor plumbing amounted to a well pump with a handle that cranked water from the nearby pond. If you were inclined to bathe, there was an old claw-foot tub outside. You just had to carry about a hundred buckets of water from the pond to fill it. The roof was corrugated plastic, and plywood was slapped onto the front. When the chicken coop went up, my father threw a party to celebrate and invited all the neighbors. My mother described it as if it were fun. "We drank champagne and danced inside the chicken coop!" It was the last time we ever saw a bottle of champagne in our house.
I remember that the first goat that arrived was named Samson. He came from a petting zoo and had been given away because he was unable to mate. And no wonder: Whenever you went near him he would butt you within an inch of your life. We learned to stay away from him. My mother loved Samson and used to say that he was "just troubled or misunderstood." Like everything else, it all seemed out of my control, so I learned to play along as though our lives had become this fun, circuslike movie with "Dennis Hopper" now at its center.
Such as the time I came home with my mom from grocery shopping to find that a "happening" was happening in the middle of our living room. There were hippies holding hands and singing "This Land Is Your Land." My mom made her way through the throng to the kitchen to unpack the food, pretending that the happening wasn't happening.
My father got some help at The Studio from local college students. They built a garden, although I'm not sure they were supposed to be studying the pot plants that soon sprang up in the front yard. It seemed as if those students never left. The Studio was soon filled with college kids smoking pot; goats; nicer goats; and chickens laying eggs in their coops. Hippies spent the days making pottery. It was idyllic. They were going to change the world with those clay bowls, right?
And let me tell you, those hippies were like rabbits. They kept multiplying. Tom the Hippie had brought Annette, who brought Jane, who brought Michael, who brought Sasha. Every third person seemed to be called Sasha, whether a boy or a girl. Naturally, there was a lot of free love. But here's the thing about free love: It's expensive! As The Studio grew, so did the speed with which we slipped from being rich and privileged and comfortable to being poor and on food stamps. For my parents, this was a life choice. But I was becoming aware that my life choice was to still be rich and privileged.
My mom baked me a beautiful little girl's birthday cake covered with sunflowers. She made the mistake of bringing it down to The Studio, thinking that we could share the celebration with the hippies. Before I could even blow out the candles, a hippie on a motorcycle grabbed a handful of cake. Suddenly, all the hippies were grabbing cake, stuffing a child's birthday cake into their mouths, not even aware of their actions. More and more after that it seemed that my mom stayed up at the house.
I remember the day my mother first said we were poor. We were standing on the hill above The Studio. My mother was literally and metaphorically looking down at my father, who was frolicking with all the hippie girls. They all had these cool ponchos, and I really wanted a poncho of my own, but my mom said, "We can't afford it. We're poor now."
It was the first time I had ever heard her use that expression, and it didn't sound good.
"What?" I said. "I don't understand."
"We're poor now. We're poor." She repeated it over and over again, as if it were a news bulletin, and then she pulled her coat around her and slowly walked back to the house. I ran and found my older brother. He was busy watching the hippie girls who had started to undress to go skinny-dipping in the pond. Their ponchos and jeans hung on the branches of a nearby tree as if it were a dirty hippie Christmas tree.
I said, "Mom says we're poor!"
My brother looked up from the naked girls swimming and said, "No shit, Sherlock." As the child of Dennis Hopper, I was expected simply to accept our new hippie lifestyle with delight. Didn't I get to wear headbands and celebrate Earth Day? Roll little joints with my little fingers — separating the seeds in the lid of a shoebox to the delight of all the other hippies? My brother went back to watching the naked girls swimming. Their laughter echoed up the hill as I saw them splash around in the pond. I walked back to the house, and in my own act of rebellion, I poked holes in my father's Easy Rider poster. Right through Dennis Hopper's eyes.
Back when we were rich and socially accepted my mother had belonged to the garden club. Once a month all the ladies would meet at our house. They drank tea, ate little cakes, and talked about floral arrangements. When they saw my mother's new hippie lifestyle, they looked down their noses at it, so she quit their club. "They were a bunch of snobs anyway," she said at the time, but years later she confessed that she quit because she was embarrassed to have people see how we were living. We were living with Dennis Hopper and his merry band of hippies from Easy Rider! Who wouldn't have been embarrassed?
Here's how much damage one movie can cause: One day my father unscrewed every chandelier in the house and sold each of them at auction. He needed money to support The Studio. It was the early '70s, and he was living there permanently now.
My mother said, "I look up at the ceiling where my lights used to be and all I see are wires." The rain dripped through the wires into a bucket she had put on the dining room table.
Just as Easy Rider changed my father, our new economic circumstances changed my mother. She became an Italian Catholic drill sergeant. She took to standing outside the bathroom door while I took a bath or shower. "Time!" she'd yell if I'd run the water too long. I'd barely fill the tub before I'd hear, "That's too long! We can't afford hot water. We're poor now!" That became my mother's favorite expression. The thermostat stayed at 58, and we wore sweaters and hats to bed; in a letter I sent to my grandmother, I actually asked for a sleeping bag. My mother instructed me to save tin foil as if we were in World War II, carefully folding it out and putting it back in the drawer until it had been used so many times that it disintegrated in your hands. I wanted to try out for my school band, but a clarinet was "too expensive," so my mother got me a plastic recorder instead. You try learning "Eleanor Rigby" on a plastic recorder. You feel poor!
She traded our beloved Buick convertible for a used Volkswagen bug. The Buick — the last vestige of our old middle-class life — was gone. It was official: We were hippies. Poor, grimy, Volkswagen-bug hippies! One time I had a party to go to, and the VW — aka the poormobile — couldn't make it up the snowy hill, so I had to skip the party.
I blame Dennis Hopper for making me miss that party.
My mother started taking classes at night and got a teaching job to support us. I used to watch her drive down the driveway in the morning on the way to school, gray smoke billowing out of the poormobile. We got a tip from one of the hippies about free bread, so on Wednesdays we would drive to the Stop & Shop to get the day-old bread that was given away in a large brown bag. Sometimes there were doughnuts. I hid in the car when she got them, but they tasted pretty good back home. I think I became a vegetarian only because I didn't see very much meat as a child: "It's too expensive. We can't afford it! We're poor now! Have a doughnut!" What's funny is that my mother got food stamps, but her food choices always got her into trouble. My mother didn't understand why chicken wasn't on the government-approved list but Hamburger Helper was. She'd say, "I can buy Hamburger Helper, but I can't buy a fresh chicken? I can buy fish sticks but I can't buy a piece of fish?" Food stamps were for poor people. I'm sure they were happy with whatever they got, but it seemed to me that we had chosen to be poor. It was a difficult concept to understand, let alone explain to a beleaguered, underpaid sixteen-year-old cashier.
Excerpted from I Blame Dennis Hopper by Illeana Douglas. Copyright © 2015 Illeana Douglas. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books.
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Table of Contents
1. I Blame Dennis Hopper,
2. They Came from Within: Love and Romance at the Drive-In,
4. In the Key of Liza,
5. Chance Encounters,
6. Me Doing Dreyfuss Doing Tracy,
7. Screaming for Marty,
8. What's It Like to Work with Robert De Niro?,
9. Happy Just to Be Alive,
10. Uncle Roddy,
11. A Director To Die For,
12. A Woman's Picture,
13. You're a Tuning Fork,
14. The Roulette Wheel of Insanity,
15. Easy to Assemble,
About the Author,