Actresses Paved the Way: “Trailblazing Women” on TCM

A trailblazer herself: actress Illeana Douglas. Photo: TCM.

Illeana Douglas is the host of “Trailblazing Women,” a three-year initiative on TV, produced by TCM in partnership with the nonprofit advocacy organization Women in Film, to highlight actresses and others working in the film industry. The series begins Oct. 4 (on TCM, naturally) and runs every Tuesday and Thursday throughout the month.

I spoke with Douglas about the series — and about how gender-parity issues are and aren’t changing in Hollywood.

trailblazing women
Photo: TCM

How did you get started with the “Trailblazing Women” project?

The long answer is it’s probably my entire 25-year career as being a woman in show business. I began working with TCM a few years ago doing introductions and shows and interviews. We started bandying about an idea to do a show about actresses. We were talking about the social and historical contributions of actresses. My grandmother was an actress who became a politician.

That led to a broader discussion to do a three-year series which would be all encompassing: the first year on directors, the second year on actresses, and the third year we’re still deciding on what women we’ll profile. Basically, it was to profile women in the film industry in a cinematic way, not just read horrible statistics.

What I love about the series is we’re giving context, and it makes us all want to give a second look at, say, the career of Hedy Lamarr or Shirley Temple. We’re moving so fast that we’re forgetting these accomplishments of these great women. They were role models for actresses who came up, people like Jane Fonda, Bette Midler, Jane Alexander, Lee Grant — who are my role models. It shows an interesting tradition.

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On one part it’s raising awareness: “Wow, I didn’t know Marlene Dietrich sold more war bonds than any other actor in Hollywood” or “I didn’t remember Shirley Temple was the only female ambassador abroad.” It also gives actresses working now, and coming up, it gives us a sense of confidence, of the history that we’ve come from. I feel like these actresses’ accomplishments are being marginalized, like we discussed last year with female directors. If we don’t have any more role models, if actresses are becoming an endangered species, who is going to be our next role model?

I totally understand that question; it’s one I ask a lot. To go back to what you said, that you were having this conversation with TCM and they said it was “a good idea and you run with it.” It seems like a lot of women today are finding opportunities in that same fashion. They have an idea or they want to direct and nobody’s hiring them to direct so they go do it themselves or they start their own production company.

Women are natural storytellers, naturally creative: If they’re not able to direct a film, then they go and teach or they do something to keep themselves busy. There are not too many actresses who would say “OK, fantastic, I’ve got a great career now let me just sit back on my laurels.” They say “I’ve had this success, let me now become a producer or use it for philanthropic causes.” I think there’s a huge amount of baggage and backlash and negativity against actresses currently. I don’t know how we’re going to overcome that. An actress directing is like “oh boy” — you know, everybody gets their knives out; that’s just too much for everybody.

Right, like “how dare you be competent in more than one area”?

Just like we shared with directors, the much-maligned actress has really taken a hit, so this is showing historically how many actresses have contributed to the fabric of America. And I think that by putting them up on a pedestal it becomes harder to have this current climate where we’re maligning actresses or saying they can’t really work past 30. I think it bends those issues by showing history.

You get a sense of pride of sitting with Bette Midler and having her talk about how Mae West influenced her career. Now, Mae West is not someone who anyone is talking about and yet in the historical context of film, she was right up there with Charlie Chaplin. So my hope is that cinematically, by showing these movies in an entertaining way, you say “Wow, I want to learn more about Mae West, she was really a trailblazer, and you know what? I want to look at Bette Midler, too.” I feel like it gets us excited about being an actress in the same way we got people excited about “you know we need a female director for this.”

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Is there a conversation about what’s next — what we want to see in the next generation, or two generations from now?

Well, for me, there was a time in movies when women were not marginalized. They were who the movie was about. In the great era of women’s films, we went to the movies because we wanted to be like them, they were the star of the movies. Then somewhere along the way — I always think it began in the ‘90s — women stopped being seen as three-dimensional characters and they started to get marginalized. Now they are the angry wife, or the understanding wife, or the horrible girlfriend, or the supportive girlfriend. But they’re on the sidelines; they’re not who the film is about.

That reminds me of the Bechdel-Wallace test: about two named women who are having a conversation with each other about something other than a man.

Yeah, in secondary roles they’re marginalized or they’re the ones most likely to get their scenes cut. They’re on the sidelines. And what I’m finding is that there’s a growing disconnect between real life and movie life. Meaning, we’re having all these discussions about women in film and the narrative is “Oh, it’s dramatically changing.” And yet the top movies of 2016 are Captain America and Star Trek and Batman. So is it really changed? Or has it changed in the media? Is the narrative changing but then it’s just the same thing in the movies and we quietly go back to where we were before.

Movies should reflect who we are.

For some reason I think women themselves became complacent. I feel like it started to happen in the ’90s, referring to movies as chick-flicks and that a movie was specifically geared towards a female audience. A movie that came out in the ’40s or ’50s that starred Bette Davis or Joan Crawford, it wouldn’t be only women who would go see those movies. But somewhere we started referring to movies, like Thelma and Louise, as female empowerment or chick-flicks and it seems there was a backlash about that.

But when you’re going to watch movies — like we’re going to see, say The China Syndrome, which stars Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas — it’s not a women’s film: it’s a movie about society. I think we have to get back to that. It doesn’t feel like we are, in terms of actresses.

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One of the stories circulating recently is about the women in Obama’s administration had an agreement among themselves that whenever one of them raised a point or voiced a suggestion one of the other women would immediately vocalize it and give attribution to the woman. That doesn’t necessarily happen when there are limited numbers of women around the table. Have you seen in film — particularly at higher levels: producing, directing, or the star-power actresses who can command who gets hired — do we see more women hired?

Yes, that’s always the case. I worked with a lot of female directors and when you’re on a set with a female director, it just goes along with the territory that there’s going to be a lot more women on the crew. I’ve been on movies that are all-male, where I’m the only woman in the cast and you get predominantly a male crew. It’s very challenging when you find yourself in a meeting and you’re the only woman; it becomes very hard to speak up because of the baggage. Am I going to be called “difficult”? Am I going to be called demanding? So you’re not being your genuine self — like if you’re working with a female director, and a lot of women.

I think there’s a casual acceptance of sexism of women in the film industry. Hopefully the power of this show will give people confidence to break through that by seeing all these examples. You know, Bette Davis went around to all the Hollywood studios and started the Hollywood Canteen for servicemen. That was her: she wasn’t afraid that she was going to lose her job or be called difficult. We admire her for doing that.

Another one is Jane Alexander. Clinton named her as head of the [National Endowment for the Arts] and part of the reason he put her in charge was it was a very challenging time for the arts and he thought her qualities as a person and actress and the characters she’d chosen and outspoken activist — those qualities would serve her well to head the NEA. I can’t imagine that happening today. I can’t imagine that the President of the United States would look to Hollywood and say, “You know, looking at Geena Davis, and she has all these amazing qualities in her roles, and her activism, and what a woman.”

I wish!

You’re laughing, I’m laughing. But we say “that’d be a pretty good idea.” Or Meryl Streep and many others: these amazing qualities they have from their film roles, and choices, from their philanthropic efforts, from their points of view. I wonder why we stopped using actresses in those kinds of roles. It happens to a certain extent, yes: we have an actress involved in the UN, that’s very traditional.

trailblazing women
Photo: Women in Film.

This series shows actresses are more than a pretty face, to use a cliché. If you remind people Jane Alexander ran the NEA, it will spark a discussion, in the same way last year sparked a discussion about giving women a chance to direct. We’ve presented a narrative here where for all these years these women were in public service. It’s a really fun way to talk about history.

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I grew up in the environment of women’s lib, where there was this celebration of women and going to see movies. There was just this incredible variety of women out there, like Sissy Spacek, Marsha Mason, Jill Clayburgh, Teri Garr, Madeline Kahn, Cicely Tyson. Even in the James Bond movies the women were involved in the storyline. That’s the big thing for me: are they involved in the story line or are they in three scenes where they’re not really a part of the plot?

Hopefully by showing these movies we’ll have conversations about films not reflecting society. Movies should reflect who we are, what our relationships are, how women feel about everything, their jobs, their relationships with their kids. They shouldn’t just be “I have to do this story because it’s a sellable story.” We’re reducing women to these stereotypes and yet there are women in society who are doing amazing things. If movies reflect society, could this just be the time we are in? I hope not.

We’re going to look at all these films and women and I think it’s going to shake people up. What TCM does so well is tell a historical narrative that gets people excited about the films and then want to go back and investigate. They’re going to look at these movies and say “These are incredible films. I want to see more films like this. I want to see more actresses like this.”