For the past two years, Illeana Douglas has hosted a number of the amazing, inspiring women who are consistently throwing sledgehammers towards Hollywood’s glass ceiling at TCM’s Trailblazing Women movie event. Last year, successful female directors like Allison Anders (Grace of My Heart, Sex and The City) and Amy Heckerling (Clueless, Fast Times at Ridgemont High) joined her to screen and discuss the work of female directors who preceded and inspired them, including Alice Guy-Blache, Dorothy Arzner, Agnes Varda and Lina Wertmuller.
This year, Douglas has invited iconic women like Jane Fonda, Bette Midler and Rita Moreno to join her to discuss actresses who’ve used their fame to make the world a better place by battling ageism, racism, sexism, inequality, and even contributing to the war effort during World War II.
Tell me about TCM’s Trailblazing Women movie event!
Well, this is the second year of a three year initiative of women in film. Last year we celebrated female directors, and this year the focus is actresses that have made a difference. We’re going to go back to Mary Pickford and all the way to current actresses today, like Susan Sarandon. What Turner Classic Movies does so well is tell a story with movies and giving context, so it’s a little bit of a history lesson, but it’s done in an incredibly entertaining and compelling way. And, guess what? I have these amazing co-hosts, like Jane Fonda and Bette Midler and Rita Moreno and Lee Grant, and they’re going to be curating the films with me, so you’re also going to be getting their opinions on films. I think I would tune in just to watch Bette Midler talk about Mae West and Marilyn Monroe because I was spellbound.
That’s what I think is so exciting about this series: Not only are we going to get to watch the movies with historical context, but we get, like last year, great female directors talking about other great female directors. This year, you have great actresses talking about their feelings about other great actresses and that, for me, is probably one of the highlights of the show.
Why was it important for you personally to get involved with this programming event?
Well, I am an actress! [Laughs] And, I do think actresses are little bit of an endangered species. I’ve been involved with this show since the beginning. I am a writer, director, I’m also an actress and producer, so it’s something that I really believe in. I also have a great love of film and film actresses so having the opportunity to talk about why, this year specifically, actresses are so important in our society because actresses have used their fame to contribute to and promote social change.
Shirley Temple was the first ambassador to Prague and Jane Alexander had an amazing career but also headed the National Endowment of the Arts and fought head-to-head with Newt Gingrich. These are very important facts that need to be reexamined: Why are actresses being marginalized when historically we’re going to show going back to Mary Pickford that actresses use their fame to promote social change. What would we have done without Elizabeth Taylor? Elizabeth Taylor gave a very public face to the age cause – an actor didn’t do that, that was an actress. We have to remove, I think, this stereotype that we currently have that actresses are bubbleheads or we can make fun of them. It troubles me because, again, going back to history, Presidents have used actresses to promote social change and use their celebrity because they know people trust them to promote social goodness.
We’re going to be looking at 40 actresses that not only had amazing careers but without them – there are going to be things you’re going to realize watching the show that you never realized before. It was a wonderful moment for an activist like Jane Fonda to realize that Myrna Loy was an activist her entire life and gave up her career to work with the Red Cross during the war and she was head of UNESCO, which found discrimination in housing. These are things that contributed to the fabric of society and I think it’s going to be eye-opening to discover some of these facts. Doris Day [was] the very first celebrity to start talking about animal adoption. It was her. We can watch Doris Day movies and also have this context. Without Doris Day – she was the first person who was talking about spaying and neutering pets and I think these are amazing contribution to society and are now things that are commonplace. Hattie McDaniel was involved in stopping desegregation in part of California and I don’t think anyone really knows that, so those are the things we’re going to be talking about. Bette Davis helped found the Hollywood Canteen, which was a place for servicemen to go. Or, Hedy Lamarr pretty famously invented what we now know as the modern cell phone. Nobody took her seriously. She did a lot of work for the war at first but she did invent this signal thing that messed up people’s signals for submarine bombing. It’s pretty sophisticated technology.
Speaking of actresses using their voice for social change, what are your thoughts on these actresses, like Jennifer Lawrence and Robin Wright and Patricia Arquette, who have come out in a pretty big way regarding the gender pay gap as well as the conversation of the lack of roles of women in Hollywood?
I think it’s fantastic, but again, we have to remove –- which is what I think this show is going to do –- the stigma that that is somehow unusual. It’s not unusual!
As I was saying before about Hedy Lamarr, she invented a military communication system, which later was the basis of cellphone technology, so why should we be surprised that Jennifer Lawrence is using her fame to promote social causes? That’s what people do. Marlene Dietrich spent more time in the trenches than she did in the Hollywood townscape. She did more for the war efforts, including trying to hatch a plan to kill Adolf Hitler because he was an admirer of hers. Carole Lombard died in service of her country selling war bonds. When you look as the massive evidence that these are actresses that did all of these things –- Helen Warren was fighting anti-lynching laws; Josephine Baker stopped desegregation in Las Vegas hotels. These are things that have to be put in the history books because then when an actress speaks out, like Susan Sarandon or Robin Wright, you won’t think it’s such an oddity. Actresses have always used their faces to promote social change, this was the norm. Grace Kelly, Barbara Streisand, Audrey Hepburn –- Audrey Hepburn was the face of UNICEF. When you think about it, in my lifetime, Audrey Hepburn went through the war and had fondness for children and all her life she worked [to raise awareness about] starvation and taking care of children. That was her goal, and secondary to being a great actress, she was an ambassador. What I’m asking as a fellow actress and as a member of society is to say: If we marginalize actresses and make fun of them and say, ‘Oh, what did they do to their face?’ you know, it reduces all of our ability to benefit by them. The whole reason they are wanting to become famous is to use their fame to promote good, and you can see that in the show. All of these actresses have the profile. It’s astonishing what people have forgotten about, but we’re going to remind people. Some were buried with full military honors at Arlington Cemetery. I think when you get that sense of pride in actresses, maybe that stigma will be a little more removed.
Who do you think the responsibility falls on to create better awareness and eliminate the surprise of actresses wanting to use their fame for the greater good?
I mean, I’m an entertainer and I think this is the best way to do it, though entertainment and through telling stories in a way that is not only a history lesson. You have somebody like Lee Grant who was a victim of the blacklist and we’re approaching a time where people are forgetting what the blacklist was and what it did to people and we could be in the era, again where people are singled out and stopped from working and accused of being anti-American, so when somebody like Lee Grant, who is 90 years old, is speaking about other actresses who were blacklisted and had their lives ruined simply for being an actor in a movie. One of the movies we’re going to show the actress was deported after she made the movie. Some of these topics are on entertaining films but what happened to them was very, very serious and I think it gives people the opportunity to look up in the history books and look at films in a different way and to say ‘Wow, this is interesting. Their point of view is interesting.’ Who is going to be the next Jane Fonda? Who is going to be the next Elizabeth Taylor? If not for Elizabeth Taylor, who was going to come out and speak publicly about age? If we’re stopping actresses’ careers when they’re 30 and maligning them in these ways and not making movies about them, who are going to be the ambassadors to change this? Shirley Temple did a pretty good job as the ambassador to Czechoslovakia and we haven’t had another ambassador like that since, and that’s too bad because she did a wonderful job. Part of the reason she did a wonderful job was because, unlike current politicians, people knew her so they knew who she was and knew what she stood for and she had a whole body of work and identity. We know who Jane Fonda is, we know who Jane Alexander is because of their body of work and it helps makes them great ambassadors for the country. If we eliminate actresses in our society, who will be the people that replace them? That’s the question I ask as an actresses myself. Actresses use their names for change in society, so when you’re sitting with people who have done that, like Bette Midler and Jane Fonda and Rita Moreno, I hope it makes people react and re-evaluate.
Don’t miss TCM’s Trailblazing Women movie event every Tuesday and Thursday at 8pm ET during the month of October.