There are so many things I could say about Illeana Douglas. She’s an actress who’s graced us with some remarkable performances (go watch To Die For if you haven’t already); she’s Hollywood royalty with amazing stories about her grandfather, Melvyn Douglas (all of which you can read in her wonderful autobiography); she’s a courageous woman who’s lent her voice to the #MeToo movement and she’s a regular friend to TCM. This month you can see her and Carol Burnett talk about the history of comedic women in their on-going series, Funny Ladies on TCM this month. Illeana took time to answer a few brief questions for me, sharing her thoughts on comedy and the great Carol Burnett herself.
Preston Sturges reminded us about the power of humor in Sullivan’s Travels. Why do you think it’s important for audiences to see the power of funny women?
The more we laugh together in these troubled times the better off we will all be. Humor unites us and makes us feel we are not alone. From a historical point of view it’s important for audiences to remember that women – funny women – were entertaining us back to the beginnings of cinema. Names like Mabel Normand, considered the female Chaplin at Mack Sennett, should be celebrated as a genuine auteur who wrote and directed her own films and even owned her own studio! Vaudeville and stage star Mae West created a sly onscreen persona [and] also wrote all of her material, and singlehandedly saved Paramount from bankruptcy; these early screen comediennes careers did not fulfill their early promise, or their names and contributions have been left out of the film history books. Then you have someone like Carole Lombard, who literally died in service to her country going around the country selling war bonds. “Funny Ladies” is meant to remind us of the diversity of these onscreen comediennes, and how their indelible personalities have influenced the modern romantic comedy heroines.
You’re exploring comediennes of various decades, but were there unique subgenres or distinctions in comedic performances you noticed while talking about these films? In looking at the lineup I love the elegant, upper-class comedy of ‘30s films versus the more war-torn, scrappy actresses of the ‘40s.
I look back on the great comedies of the ’30s and ’40s and you see that the humor often comes out of the situation. One of my favorite films is The More The Merrier (1943). Jean Arthur is forced to share her apartment with Joel McCrea in wartime Washington. It has nothing to do with a male point of view vs. the woman’s point of view. The situation is just silly and it makes us laugh, yet we embrace the romantic possibilities of them living together. What happened? As the role of women in society changed, in crept this odd phrase or feeling [that] “Women aren’t funny.” We stopped seeing women top lining comedies. Every comedy on TV suddenly had a man’s name in the title. Well, anyone who tuned to watch my cohost – the mega talented Carol Burnett (named for Carole Lombard) on The Carol Burnett Show didn’t expect to watch a female-led gender based comedy! Everything she did appealed to a broad audience. It’s a reminder of when families sat together to watch a comedy and it didn’t matter that she was a woman. She could do it all. She influenced me more than any comedienne growing up, and to see her talk about the film comediennes she admired and her insights is a real treat.
You’ve done your fair share of comedic roles in your career. It’s a generic question, but is it harder to be funny than dramatic?
It’s so much easier to be funny! My brain is wired to be funny. I remember doing the film Meyer Lansky and I was working with Richard Dreyfuss, and it was very serious film. The director, John McNaughton kept reminding me that my cadence in the scenes was coming off funny. I said, “I can’t help it. I’m in a scene with Richard Dreyfuss! My funny bone reflexes just kick in.”
What was it like doing these introductions alongside Carol Burnett?
It’s a dream come true. I have idolized Carol Burnett my whole career. I remember reading her book when I was in acting school and it was just so hopeful and inspiring. When you are talking with her, you can’t help but feel good. She’s a lady who’s had her share of heartache. She’s a treasure, a national treasure. I hope we can do it again.
There are so many amazing movies on-tap, what are the ones you recommend people definitely make time for (though we know they should be watching all of them!)? Is there a rare gem airing people won’t want to pass up?
If you haven’t seen Theordora Goes Wild (1936) it’s one of my grandfather’s favorites. I love that film. Elaine May pops up in Enter Laughing (1967), a pretty uneven film but I adore her. For sheer guilty pleasure it has to be Goldie Hawn in Protocol (1984). But if you do [watch], make sure to tag it #TCMParty because I want to be in on the jokes.
TCM’s Funny Ladies slate airs every Thursday this month. A limited amount of on-demand titles can be streamed via the Watch TCM app. Thanks to Illeana Douglas and TCM!
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.