Illeana Loves Ida
Illeana Douglas, the host of TCM’s Trailblazing Women, says that Ida Lupino’s career as a director in 1950s Hollywood illustrates how history repeats itself
You may remember Illeana Douglas as the out-to-lunch art teacher in Ghost World, heaping praise on a student’s “tampon in a teacup.” Or you may know her from many of her incredible supporting roles in Martin Scorsese’s films, such as Cape Fear, Goodfellas, and New York Stories. In addition to directing, writing, and producing her own work, the iconic character actress has also written a terrific memoir about her experiences in the industry, titled I Blame Dennis Hopper. But the role she takes most seriously is advocating for women in film.
Douglas is the host of the Turner Classic Movies program Trailblazing Women, which chronicles the history of women in film from the medium's inception to our current moment. Only by studying our history can we understand where we’re going, which is why TIFF’s current retrospective on Ida Lupino is a crucial case study.
Starting out as a young ingenue in early 1930s dramas like Her First Affaire and Money for Speed, Lupino (who was born in England to vaudeville performer parents) quickly crafted a persona as a take-no-prisoners dame with a squishy, vulnerable core; at one point she was dubbed “the English Jean Harlow.” But by the time she appeared in the 1948 film Road House (a script she actively sought out and developed from a short story), Lupino’s future in the business looked uncertain, which inspired her to actively take her career into her own hands. Though she had no other predecessors in the sound era apart from Dorothy Arzner, Lupino founded her own production company with her then-husband Collier Young and started directing. The five films she directed show an incredibly ambitious filmmaker tackling controversial social issues (among them sexual assault, adoption, bigamy, and polio) with empathy and unerring skill.
Illeana Douglas, who has tweeted that the AFI should include Lupino’s film The Hitch-Hiker in their “100 Years… 100 Movies” list (which is notably missing any films directed by women), is a stone-cold Lupino stan. We talked via telephone about how to place Lupino's work in the current canon, why she may have felt the need to downplay her directing accomplishments, and why watching a Lupino film in 2017 helps us understand where women in film are going.
Illeana Douglas introduces Ida Lupino's film Outrage on the TCM program, Trailblazing Women.
What was the first Lupino film that you remember watching?
I knew her first as an actress, working with Humphrey Bogart in High Sierra. The first films of hers I watched were The Hitch-Hiker and then Outrage, which is my personal favourite. For an A-list actress like Ida Lupino to make a movie about rape shows amazing courage. It's not a story where, in the midst of the story, the girl gets raped. It's a movie about rape, the culture of rape, about people who are ashamed. There's a scene where the young girl comes home, and suddenly, the house is different. Her clothes are ripped, her eyes look dead as she walks into her bedroom... You know things are never going to be the same. Since Ida Lupino is behind the camera, this was her vision. It’s incredibly powerful.
Then I saw Not Wanted, which is about an unwed mother and someone who gives their baby up for adoption. Lupino’s movies are not the underbelly of film noir — they’re their own category. They remind me of Italian neorealism. She's filming on location; the women in her films are not glamorous. Going back to Outrage, when the girl runs away, she ends up working on this orange grove. It was only [Mala Powers’] second movie credit, but Lupino got a very natural performance. Her movies were very real.
She had an incredible amount of empathy for all of her characters. In The Bigamist, which she also acts in, the sensitivity and understanding she has with her actors is really pronounced.
I'm fascinated by her movies! Are they an extension of her film career? Are they an extension of the issues she was interested in? I don't think she was discovered by Hollywood. It was more like a fun oddity: "Oh, and then this woman did some movies!" Only later did I realize that her work was part of the lexicon of film noir, California noir, and neorealism.
In her film The Hitch-Hiker, there’s a very modern approach to the violence that’s not even in keeping with the early start of her career as a contract player at Warner Brothers. Before that, I always thought of Ida Lupino as a film noir dame! (Laughs)
What makes Ida Lupino’s expression of violence more modern?
Again, it’s that scene in Outrage where the girl walks in the room and her clothes are torn. Normally, when you see a rape depicted in a movie — I hate to say this — but it's depicted almost as an action sequence. The next thing you see is the girl at the hospital, tearfully breaking down. Somebody is caring for her and telling her she's going to be okay.
In Outrage, Lupino depicts someone who clearly walked home alone after being raped. Lupino states in that moment, "This is what happens to women, and your life is never going to be the same again. Your family is never going to be the same again, your father is never going to think of you as his little girl again, and you're never going to be able to be married." It's pretty brutal, and yet, I think women may recognize there are some elements of truth.
The other incredibly modern thing is that the young girl very slowly broaches a relationship with a man that's not a sexual relationship. They meet on different terms, and through their friendship, she will be okay, but it’s a long road. I just find that to be a much more modern, truthful depiction of how one act of violence affects an entire family. Lupino’s young woman is depicted as a person who completely loses her innocence. I think it would be great to look at all of her work again, because the thing I find fascinating about her career is how she downplayed her own directing.
In what ways did she downplay her directing career?
The men she was associated with, Collier Young and Howard Duff, were really men's men. I don't think society considered it very attractive to be a director… so when she was directing, she always wore a little skirt. Her whole thing was to be very feminine, because she thought that men preferred it that way — they would be more cooperative if they perceived her as the weaker sex. Later on, when she moved into directing for television, she asked that everybody on set call her "Mom." I guess it was because you don't say “no” to your mom?
Have any of the female directors you've worked with asked you to call them “Mom”?
(Laughs) No! I can't even imagine. Dorothy Arzner had the opposite thing: she was very masculine. She was the only woman in the Director’s Guild of America until Ida Lupino came along. It’s interesting that even with Ida Lupino, it's not like anyone else around her had any aspirations to become a director until Elaine May.
I also wonder if her move into directing had more to do with the frustration of being an actress. Maybe she saw her career flatlining, playing second fiddle to Olivia de Havilland. There's a movie we showed last year, which is called Devotion. It's absolutely horrible. Originally, Ida Lupino's part in the film was much better, but Olivia de Havilland had more power than she did, so they recut the picture, changed the ending, and didn't tell Ida Lupino. That could be the thing to make you think, "I need to do something else."
It’s crazy to consider that 20-year gap between Ida Lupino and Elaine May. Only now are we starting to see the most visibility of female filmmakers we’ve ever had.
At the time, it’s not like A-list talent wanted to be in her movies, so maybe it was a step down to work with a female director. I'm curious if there was ever any kind of backlash, because she really doesn't go back to do any acting until much later in her career.
Do you think as the canon changes, and as film criticism and film history embrace female figures in Hollywood in a different way, that Ida Lupino will end up being received on the level of someone like John Huston?
That's always the question. It’s interesting that you say that, because that’s the thing we talk about on Trailblazing Women. The tragedy of women filmmakers is that they're not able to amass a body of work that will sustain them to put them in the pantheon of great directors. You can see glimpses of genius, but you can't see a fully realized trajectory of where they're going. The director of Mean Streets gets to go on to make Goodfellas. Men are given these opportunities for the budgets to become bigger, to really come into their own, and figure out, “What is it that I want to say?”
With women, because they're trying so hard just to get something on the screen, I don't know if they're always thinking about what they want their work to say. When we evaluate Lupino’s work, I think it’s important to think, "Gee, was she the first female auteur? Was Lupino the first American who was doing neorealism?" You can use film language that's accessible, and maybe that’s how she gets into the history books.
That's fascinating. We're also doing a retrospective of Kathryn Bigelow, who has said that the last thing she wants to emphasize in her work is her gender.
Again, this is something I said on the show. In the ’90s, we reach the top of the mountain for female directors where you've got Nora Ephron, Martha Coolidge, Penny Marshall, Barbra Streisand, and Allison Anders. Somewhere around the release of Thelma & Louise, there becomes this anti-woman sentiment, like, "Oh, it's just a chick flick.” Then there’s another severe drop-off.
I think it had to become an important issue over the past few years to make a point of actually getting women hired. That’s why women had to downplay their gender — because there’s a consensus, which I feel is still prevalent, that a female director is not as good as a male director. I pose it as a question: why is it in the film business that if you put a gun to to someone’s head and say, “Is a man a better director than a woman?” people will automatically say “Yes”? They will give you a bunch of reasons why that isn't necessarily true, most of which have to do with a level of comfort of giving a man $20 million versus giving a woman $20 million. It's like an old Sid Caesar routine: "She's gonna squander it all on buying hats and having champagne parties, and I'm not going to end up with a movie!" I don't know what it is about the movie business, because it's not the most complicated thing to make a movie; I think brain surgery requires much more skill. But every time someone decides to do it, there’s this attitude of, “Oooh, okay, we're really gonna let this woman direct this thing."
Well, you've been on a lot of movie sets, with so many different kinds of directors at all different levels of their careers, so where do you think these biases come from? Is it a level of discomfort with female authority in general?
Again, it's a mystery. The only thing I can use as an example was when people thought only male chefs were good. You just weren't hearing about the women until Alice Waters broke through. Even though we’ve seen example after example after example of female directors making great films, they’re still not given a chance to do another movie. Nobody seems to amass a big enough body of work, and they end up floundering around.
People always use this as an example: a first-time male director can go to Sundance, make a movie, and is suddenly handed the reins of a huge film. There's this idea that men think women only want to make movies about women's issues, which isn't true.
On the show, we cited example after example of women who did great movies that did really well, then could not get their second movie off the ground. And if that second movie doesn't do as well, you tumble even further. You look at Jane Campion and her early films, which then lead up to The Piano, which is a masterpiece. Then you compare her to Ang Lee, who had a similar trajectory of small, successful, beautiful films and then Brokeback Mountain. Ang Lee will be sustained by that film for the rest of his life. People will say, "Well, he made Brokeback Mountain." Jane Campion made The Piano!
Even when they give women the chance to make a big blockbuster film, like Sam Taylor-Johnson directing 50 Shades of Grey, or Catherine Hardwicke making the first Twilight movie, those women don't get to direct the sequel. Even if they get the platform and the opportunity, they still have to build themselves back up again.
Something like that can really stall your career. You have a really successful film, think you're gonna be rewarded, and then you're not. One of the lessons we learned, after talking to female directors the first year, was that women always need to have two or three projects going. You need to have your small, personal movie ready to go.
As great as the success of Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman is — and it's great that it did well — it’s still a titillating story. Whether it's The First Wives Club or Bridesmaids, the headline of the review is still the same: "Surprise Box Office Hit!" There's nothing that's surprising about it, except that it's the same cliché we keep coming back to.
What do you think shifts when there's a female writer or director at the helm? I feel like anytime I see something I haven't seen before, or a perspective I’m not usually privileged to, it's always exciting. But does the idea of a “female gaze” really exist?
Honestly, women are so diverse. When I shot Grace of My Heart with Allison Anders, we had two important scenes. One was an abortion scene Allison felt very strongly about, and one was a scene about my water breaking. There were various creative arguments about how to shoot it: what's truthful, what's tasteful, what's not, what's funny. I remember Allison wanting to shoot a scene, which ended up being brilliant and really funny, of how hard it was to put a diaphragm in.
But how many movies have we seen with car chases directed by men? Wouldn't it be awesome to see a female perspective on that? The female gaze for me is not something cliché like “We're going to have a lot of male nudity" — although I do think women shoot better sex scenes then men, and to the top of the list goes Lina Wertmüller and Jane Campion.
Women have to be careful not to go, "Well, I'm just gonna direct this movie with no female personality. I'm just gonna do what any great director would do." Because if female directors shy away from the very things they care about, that could be dangerous. For me, the female gaze works best when a little bit of the woman's own personal life bleeds into the film, which is something Ida Lupino was possibly doing, too, except way undercover.
The trailer for Grace of My Heart, directed by Allison Anders and starring Illeana Douglas.
How does watching Ida Lupino's films in 2017 help us to understand where female directors are going?
I think it's vital because the history repeats itself. The same mistakes that were made then, we're in danger of making now. Men were very, very good at keeping a history of all of their accomplishments. Therefore, when you open any film book, all you read about is Cecil B. DeMille and D.W. Griffith, and you do not read about Mabel Normand and Frances Marion.
Our job now is getting women back in the history books. It’s about making people aware that it's not such a big bugaboo, simply by saying, "Oh yeah, Alice Guy-Blaché was doing this 100 years ago, and Ida Lupino, too — ain’t no big thing.” She was a woman who started her own production company. They made eight films in a row, and she directed five of them. Hopefully, the next time people watch her films, they’ll wonder what could have been if someone had said, "Great, John Huston's not available. Do you wanna come in and shoot this?"