Thursday, August 28, 2014

In Character: Illeana Douglas

You don’t forget Illeana Douglas once you’ve seen her. With that distinct face and playfully nasal voice, Douglas has a natural eccentricity that makes her continuously fun to watch. But Douglas is capable of far more than simply playing the comic relief. Born into cinematic royalty (her grandfather was two-time Oscar winner Melvyn Douglas), Illeana Douglas has long since proved that her talent extends far beyond Hollywood nepotism. She’s a performer all her own, one that I always enjoy watching.

Five Essential Roles
Cape Fear (1991)
Lori Davis
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)
Janice Maretto
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)
Lisa Weil
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.

Action (1999-2000)
Wendy Ward
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)
Roberta Allsworth
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)
Denise Waverly
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.

Other Notable Roles
in Goodfellas
New York Stories (1989)
Goodfellas (1990)
Alive (1993)
Household Saints (1993)
Grief (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)
Dummy (2002)
Missing Brendan (2003)
Factory Girl (2006)
Ugly Betty (2007)
Osso Bucco (2008)
Life Is Hot in Cracktown (2009)
Easy to Assemble (2009-2011)
Entourage (2010-2011)
It’s Dark Here (2013)


  1. Illeana Douglas is one of the greats as I loved her in To Die For and that ending which was a total kick in the pants as she was also great in Ghost World as this wacky art teacher which is one of the things about the film that I love.

    1. That ending in To Die For is priceless. Skating without a care. Van Sant can really nail that comedic morbid tone so well.

  2. I really need to rewatch To Die For. The whole movie is like such an epic showdown between icy Kidman and down-to-earth Douglas. Such terrific performances there. I also need to rewatch Ghost World - it was a little too quirky for me the first time around mostly because of Thora Birch's absurd character but there's a lot of wisdom - and amazing supporting performances - in this movie.

    1. I fully agree with what you said about both movies. To Die For contains arguably the earliest great Kidman performance, and Ghost World, while very good, is a tad too absurd. Still, love that you think Douglas is great in both of them.

  3. Illeana Douglas is truly one of the most underrated actresses working today. I love what you said about her performance in Grace of My Heart, because I felt the exact same thing after I watched it.

    "I'm from Miami. Ya ever been there? It's okay, but it's like ya died and woke up in Jew heaven."

    1. She actually improvised that line! Isn't that crazy? It's one of the biggest laughs of the movie, and she completely made it up.

      Love that you've seen Grace of My Heart. I was so happy to discover that film. She was really quite splendid in it.

  4. I haven't seen Grace of My Heart. When I saw the topic for the post the first thing that popped into my head was To Die For and the ice skating scene at the end. That was also the first film I saw Kidman in where I felt she could really act. (She had been good in Dead Calm, but it felt like that was a one-off for a while when she started working in Hollywood films.)

    1. Yep, I fully agree that it was Kidman's first really great performance. And I also agree about her one-off work in Dead Calm. Dead Calm is pretty great though... Billy Zane, and all.

  5. Oh, I love her performances in To Die For and Ghost World. It looks like I need to watch Grace of My Heart.

    1. It's a really solid film man. Surprised me, because I hadn't even heard of it!

  6. Oh man. Loooooooove what you write about her in To Die For. I admit guilt for too often just focusing on Nicole in that one and ignoring Illeana. But you're right. You're so right.

    1. Thanks man. Everyone is so damn good in that movie. It's just a solid film. They all nail the tone so well.

  7. When this appeared on my "Blogger" reading list, I thought you did a profile on Sophia Loren. Of the pics on here Ghost World is definitely the one that sticks in my mind the most. I laughed every time she was on screen. She was so honest and phony at the same time (didn't we all have at least one teacher who was like that) - saying how revolutionary we should be before buckling down and telling us to just follow the rules. I definitely need to see Grace of My Heart though. I've heard that it's partly based on the life of Carol King which only excites me more to see it!

    1. I love that Ghost World performance because yes, we've ALL had a teacher like her at some point. And Douglas played her so damn well. Hilarious.

      And yep, Grace of My Heart is partly based on Carol King, so if you're a fan of hers, I definitely think you'd enjoy the film!