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I Blame Dennis Hopper And Other Stories From a Life Lived In and Out of the Movies by Illeana Douglas (Flatiron Books, $29.99)

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By Andreas Kessaris for Curtians Up!

“’Illeana, your life is like a movie.’  I hear that all the time – so much so that I finally accepted it.  My life is like a movie!  But so is yours.  The greatest compliment I can give myself or anyone reading this is to say, You are the star of your own movie.  You are surrounded by an amazing set of characters with a story that only you can tell.”

-Illeana Douglas (from I Blame Dennis Hopper)

A few years ago I read a book called Fired!  Tales of the Canned, Canceled, Downsized, & Dismissed, edited by an actress named Annabelle Gurwitch.  As one would extrapolate from the title, it is a compilation, written mostly by celebrities, about their various disastrous employment experiences.  My favorite piece in it was Poor Judgement by Illeana Douglas; a brief but humorous essay about how she got fired three times in one day that astutely encapsulates what it feels like to abruptly get the axe and have everyone abandon you (something I know all too much about).  The only real fault I had with it was that she repeated “poor judgement” so often that by the time she used it as the story’s punchline, it had lost its impact.  Still I enjoyed the tale enough that I was anxious to read her first book, I Blame Dennis Hopper And Other Stories From a Life Lived In and Out of the Movies.

Illeana Douglas is a veteran character actress as well as a screenwriter, producer and director.  Her grandfather was Academy Award-winning actor Melvyn Douglas and her grandmother was elected to the U.S. Congress.  Douglas also had a ten-year relationship with legendary filmmaker Martin Scorsese.   She has been in the sphere of show business most of her life.  I expected the book to be interesting.  Thankfully, I was not disappointed.

I Blame Dennis Hopper is not a name-dropping, dirt-dishing, trashy tell-all (Douglas mentions her time with Scorsese rather matter-of-factishly…it is quite refreshing to see someone who isn’t trying to exploit another’s greater fame for their own gain), but rather a series of vignettes of her experiences in and around the entertainment industry.  She even has some fun anecdotes about the late director David Greene, with whom I have also worked (as an extra, of course).

Each chapter begins with a personal photo containing a witty caption; a sort of preview of the chapter to come.  Quite effective.  Her observations are sharp and the text is never dull.  Most of her memories, even the painful ones, have a potent combination of raw honesty and sentimentality we can all identify with and her fascinating inside stories paint celebrities as humans with the same triumphs and pitfalls we all have, which is the best thing about I Blame Dennis Hopper:  You don’t have to be a follower of Hollywood movies to connect with it; as a chronicle the effort stands up well on its own.

However Douglas still has room to improve as an author.  Case in point:  The first story (from which the book draws its title).  She repeats “I blame Dennis Hopper” way too many times, and like the aforementioned Poor Judgement, after a while the line loses its effectiveness.  The chapter feels more like it was intended to be a spoken-word monologue (we discover later in the book it originally was in fact so).  This happens with several of the stories. The author should know that what is effective live does not always translate directly to the written page without some adaptation; there is a difference between a raconteur and a wordsmith.  And she should stop using exclamation points so liberally.

On page 179 Douglas briefly alludes to her intentions to write a “next book.”  I hope this happens.  I am looking forward to seeing her evolve as a writer and reach the next level.

Twitter:  @AKessaris

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