For actress/author Illeana Douglas, her affection for the state of Connecticut has always run deep in a way that goes far beyond her being raised by her mom in the Old Saybrook area. Her affinity for the Nutmeg State was nurtured by the films shot here and served as enough of an inspiration for her to pen the recently released coffee table book Connecticut In the Movies: From Dream House to Dark Suburbia.
Rigorously researched and jam-packed with photos, this 340-page tome is a combination social history and travelogue that goes from the Silent Film era of D.W. Griffith to more recent fare like the 2017 biopic Marshall and 2018 dramedy The Land of Steady Habits. Evolving from an essay Douglas was working on about Connecticut films starting with the 1990 Robert De Niro/Jane Fonda romantic drama Stanley & Iris, the germ of this idea quickly evolved into becoming a far more involved project.
“I’d grown up here and always found it to be an interesting place,” Douglas explained. “It was beautiful, but contradictory in terms of class system, etc. that was still basically in place. I spent a lot of time in New York with my relatives. I’d go down to New York and come back to Connecticut and it always felt like it was a unique place where I never really found my footing. There is a great diversity and spectrum in terms of how people work. When COVID-19 began, I started working on sort of an extended essay. I was going to pick five or six films from Connecticut and show the variety of films. But as I started to get into the second film that I worked on, which was Stanley and Iris, that’s when I began to feel that maybe there was a book there because I was so taken by the idea that Waterbury was this completely forgotten town and that it had been so much a part of the landscape of the state.”
The book took two years to pull together with Douglas moving back to Connecticut and having to balance serious home renovations with organizing this project.
“I moved in the middle of the book, which was completely crazy,” she recalled. “But in some ways, it was my escape. I could give out directions in the morning and then go to my office and dig in. Maybe that’s why I spent a lot of time doing research. I knew it was going to be a coffee table book. The hardest part was laying out all the photographs with the subtitles and making it readable. Obviously, I’d prefer that everybody would read it from the very beginning, because it really is a road trip. But on the other hand, you can pick up any chapter. I had to make sure there was a particular chapter for everyone. I was also sorting the films and figuring out which ones go into true crime—just so you don’t open the book and have a bunch of movies that are about suburbia and dark suburbia.”
For Douglas, what makes a movie earn that Connecticut badge of honor goes beyond it being either shot in or about the state itself and instead plays into what the area metaphorically represents.
“Unlike some of these other films about places like New York, Boston or Los Angeles, Connecticut not only serves as a location, but it’s an unseen character,” Douglas said. “In Parrish, Connecticut is the unseen character. In Mystic Pizza, it is the unseen character. In Mystic Pizza, it’s an examination of the class system. Here’s a girl that’s not wealthy going to Yale, but she’s going on scholarship, but she’s got to work two jobs in order to go to Yale. So you sort of see a different side—more of the underbelly of the culture. I think that movies that are shot in Connecticut, the culture sort of seeps into the film. On the one hand you have these very transformational comedies [like It Happened to Jane], where you show country living values and that makes it a Connecticut film. But then on the other hand, you have a film like Revolutionary Road and The Ice Storm and that’s Connecticut too. And that’s what I was always fascinated by—the dichotomy that it was both transformational, but also very, very dark. And I don’t see that so much with other cities specifically.”
The following winds up being a cross-section of movies Douglas considers to be quintessential Connecticut films.
Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948); Christmas in Connecticut (1945)
“They are about an ideal way of living—superior living in a country house. They did more for branding Connecticut than any other.
Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)
“This film shows the dark side of Connecticut. It’s about the restrictive covenants that were put in place.”
“It’s a travelogue of the state. It’s truly a Connecticut film. It’s written by a Connecticut author who wrote a bunch of other interesting books. Her name is Mildred Savage. This was a kind of potboiler. And then Delmer Daves wrote the script while he stayed here, so he kind of fell in love with Connecticut. From talking to Connie Stevens, they had a really fun time while they were shooting it.”
“Also about the dark side of Connecticut and crime that’s happening in [the state].”
The Swimmer (1968)
“This is also about the deconstruction of suburbia—about being trapped in this world and being a pariah amongst your peers because of these misplaced values about wanting a house.”
Illeana Douglas will be appearing on December 28 at Cinema Arts Centre, 423 Park Ave., Huntington to celebrate the release of her new book, Connecticut In the Movies: From Dream House to Dark Suburbia followed by a screening of one of the movies featured in the book, 1968’s The Swimmer. For more information, visit www.cinemartscentre.org or call 631-423-7610.