Cape Fear (1991)
Poor Lori Davis. After she’s stood up by a married co-worker (Nick Nolte) she may or may not be having sex with, Lori goes to a bar, gets a little sloshed, and tries to pick up the first guy she sees. As fate would have it, that guy is Max Cady (Robert De Niro), a mad man who has one hell of a night in store for Lori. Eventually, the two end up at Lori’s place where he horrifically and systematically brutalizes her.
Douglas was dating director Marin Scorsese when Cape Fear was being made, and she’s admitted that she didn’t want to be thought of as the director’s entitled girlfriend. So she said this attack scene (and her teary confession that follows), was her chance to earn her keep. Well, job goddamn well done, as this attack on Lori is one of the most unsettling things Scorsese has ever captured. Douglas brought it, and it’s afforded her a steady career ever since.
To Die For (1995)
There’s a great moment in Gus Van Sant’s To Die For when we see Janice Maretto figure Suzanne Stone out. Up until this point, Janice has only been slightly weary of Suzanne (Nicole Kidman), who seems too good to be true for Janice’s blue-collar brother, Larry (Matt Dillion). During a dinner party, Janice proudly mentions how she’s just booked a small part in an ice staking show. This infuriates Suzanne, who immediately begins to sulk until her husband informs everyone that Suzanne just got hired at a TV station. Suzanne and Janice lock eyes, with Suzanne giving a deceptive little smirk, and Janice realizing that, “Yeah, bitch, I got you pegged.”
Once you’ve seen To Die For, it’s impossible to forget Illeana Douglas’ contribution to it. Her honest humor in the interviews, her no-bullshit tone in her confrontations with Suzanne, and, of course, that beautiful closing image of Janice skating on a frozen lake, without a care in the world.
Stir of Echoes (1999)
I kind of love David Koepp’s Stir of Echoes. Essentially, the film is about a young boy who can communicate with dead people, and the father figure who helps him solve a particularly unsettling crime. It’s a creepy little film with solid performances, smart scares, and a twist ending. It also had the grave misfortune of being released exactly one month after The Sixth Sense. Although timing wasn’t on its side, there’s still a great deal to appreciate about Echoes. One major difference between the two films is that Stir of Echoes isn’t afraid to have a sense of humor. Its main comic relief comes in the form of Lisa Weil, an out there spiritualist who hypnotizes her brother-in-law (Kevin Bacon) on a dare, which irrevocably alters his perception of reality. In the film’s lightest moment, the Bacon character bum-rushes Lisa in her crappy apartment, and demands that she close whatever door she opened in him. Douglas, through shocked laughter, admits to being stoned out of her mind, but promises to do what she can.
Stir of Echoes isn’t nearly as polished as The Sixth Sense, but the manner in which it embraces humor certainly shouldn’t be overlooked.
Douglas’ humor is typically concealed in more serious projects. Her work in Stir of Echoes, for example, is clearly comic relief, while her sharp wit in To Die For is a blend of sarcasm and naiveté. The short-lived raunchy sitcom, Action, however, is perhaps the best example of Douglas’ out-and-out comedy skills. Action was slightly ahead of its time – think Entourage but much sillier and much more Hollywood insider. The show was about a Hollywood producer named Peter Dragon (Jay Mohr, never better) who tries to create a hit film after his last blockbuster tanked. In an effort to mix things up, he hires child star-turned-prostitute, Wendy Ward, as his Vice President of Production. Only in Hollywood, right?
Wendy Ward is an obvious rip on the hooker with a heart of gold cliché, and Douglas plays into it perfectly. Her timing is spot-on and her chemistry with Mohr never ceases to delight. It’s a shame Action didn’t stick around longer (although all 13 episodes are easily available on YouTube). I would’ve loved to see what crazy shit Wendy got into in subsequent seasons.
Ghost World (2001)
Who better to fill the shoes of a spikey-haired, eccentric high school art teacher than Illeana Douglas? Roberta Allsworth seeks socially empowered art; art with subtext and purpose. So when one of her misguided students, Enid (Thora Birch), brings in an old, horribly racist poster of a caricatured black man, Roberta can’t stop singing its praises. It’s a great bit of demented fun to watch Roberta hail the artwork in class, defend it later at a gallery showing, and finally watch her denounce it to Enid’s face. It’s a small, but expertly realized role. One that fits so well into writer/director Terry Zwigoff’s warped little world.
The Best of the Best
Grace of My Heart (1996)
Grace of My Heart is a nifty indie about a young woman’s contribution to the record music scene in ‘60s New York. After failing as a pre-fab singer, Denise Waverly finds success writing and producing songs for other people. She meets accomplished record producers, mentors talented musicians, and juggles relationships with men who are intimidated by her drive. All told, it’s a fun film, like a more serious, slightly drug-infused version of that That Thing You Do! (which was released one month after Grace of My Heart, inexplicably taking its fire).
But the highlight of Grace of My Heart is easily Douglas’ starring turn as Denise. The movie spans roughly 10 years, a natural evolution that forces Douglas to tap into damn near every emotion at her disposal. Whether she’s negotiating a contract, arguing with her boozing husband, or suffering a nervous breakdown, there isn’t a single moment of this film where Douglas isn’t in full command of Denise. I hadn’t seen Grace of My Heart before researching this post, but having watched it, I feel like I understand Douglas’ talent better than I did before. I honestly had no idea she was capable of going as far as she does in this film. Shame on me for ever thinking otherwise.
New York Stories (1989)
Household Saints (1993)
Search and Destroy (1995)
Wedding Bell Blues (1996)
Picture Perfect (1997)
Happy, Texas (1999)
The Next Best Thing (2000)
The Drew Carey Show (2001)
Six Feet Under (2001; 2005)
Missing Brendan (2003)
Factory Girl (2006)
Ugly Betty (2007)
Osso Bucco (2008)
Life Is Hot in Cracktown (2009)
Easy to Assemble (2009-2011)
It’s Dark Here (2013)