The last few months of 2017 have found me craving escape, and I’ve been rewatching Columbo episodes to help me unwind before bed. A couple of weeks ago, I curled up with Ransom for a Dead Man from 1971, which stars Lee Grant as a highly accomplished attorney with a boring old husband and a boring young stepdaughter. Grant’s character shoots the husband and spends the rest of the 90 minutes securing her inheritance, while coolly treating the suspicious stepdaughter like she’s the one who’s nuts. The woman is so steely that her idea of relaxing is flying a plane over a nice big set of mountains. I love it, as I always love Lee Grant.
As an actress, Grant uses everything: her voice, even the smallest gestures, her listening and concentration, her extraordinary feline beauty, and most of all her humor. She brings a sense of life’s madness even to her most dramatic roles. Of course, like many another talent, Lee Grant had to find her own way to cope with Hollywood’s dearth of good parts for older women. Unwilling to compromise on the kinds of projects she wanted, she shifted to directing, amassing another impressive filmography.
Artist, blacklist survivor, liberal activist, and trailblazing feminist: Lee Grant has always been an idol to me. So the chance to interview her for the Los Angeles Times, ahead of the TCM Film Festival’s three-film tribute (Detective Story, In the Heat of the Night, The Landlord) this past April, was easily a highlight of my life, let alone 2017.
When I walked into her roller-rink-sized apartment in Manhattan, accepted a cup of tea and settled in, Grant mentioned her New York childhood and the apartment where she grew up, lovingly described in her 2015 memoir, I Said Yes to Everything.
“Which you haven’t read,” she added.
“Oh, but I did read it. All of it,” I bragged, ready to be teacher’s pet.
“Great,” was the deadpan response. “We don’t have to do the interview.”
Needless to say, my admiration for Grant turned into outright love at that moment.
The result of our conversation ran in the LA Times and can be read here. But she had so much to say that was worthwhile, especially to a film fan, that I wanted to include other parts that were left out for reasons of space.
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Farran Nehme: I want to start with Detective Story [play 1949, film 1951]. You were such a distinctive actress right out of the box. You used a voice that was not your own. You had a lot of very specific actions for this very nervous person who can’t believe she’s been arrested.
Lee Grant: The voice I picked up when I was at the Neighborhood Playhouse, in language and speech class. When I went into the Neighborhood Playhouse, I had a little-bitty voice way up here because my mother and my aunt thought that rich ladies [shifts to high] spoke all the way up here, like they saw in the movies. [back to normal voice] And so I went into school, and they took a recording, and I heard myself for the first time. I heard [up high] this voice coming up way up here. [back to normal] And so they taught me to speak from the chest. And one of the assignments I had was to listen to other people’s voices. So I was on a bus, and I heard these girls talking, in the seat in back of me. Like, “Vere else? Vere else should I go?” The r was v. “Vat do you think ve should do?”
And so I was transfixed by the new language, and I brought it into class. And then after I graduated, when I got this call to go up for [the Broadway production of] Detective Story, they offered me the female, the ingenue lead [played by Cathy O'Donnell in the movie]. And as I wrote, I couldn’t say the words. He [the detective] asks, “What color are his eyes?” and... [the ingenue] says “brown and green, flecked with gold.” And I said, "Can I play the old lady?" Because at that time the shoplifter was described as 40. And I was 23 or 24 at the time. So I got the old lady part. And that’s the kind of part I always wanted.
FN: Even though it was smaller.
LG: Well, you know, those big parts are not the most interesting parts. And those big parts...you know, every other woman’s part in that was fucking boring. It kind of set my agenda for life. Because the big parts were not only thankless, but they depended on you to fill the theater and bring in the box office. So you not only had a boring part, but everything depends on you. And that was so not fun for me as an actor. And so I pretty much, except for playing leads in television, I pretty much always stuck to the most interesting part I could play.
FN: So then, of course, after winning at Cannes and being nominated for the Oscar, you were sucked into the maelstrom of the blacklist.
LG: The year that I was nominated for the Oscar, 1952, was the year that I couldn’t work in TV or film anymore. For 12 years. From age 24 to 36.
FN: Key years for an actress.
LG: Well! Hel-LO! Especially in Hollywood. Your career is over at 36. I was terrified when I [went back to] Hollywood that my age would be known, because I was being cast in parts that were 10 years younger. And that the FBI would find out that I was working. You know, that whole 12 years of hiding and fear.
FN: You came back fully as forceful a movie actress as you’d been before.
LG: First in Electra. [That would be the 1964 New York Shakespeare Festival production of Sophocles' Electra, directed by Joseph Papp and performed at the opening of the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park.] I say it because the whole focus was on me. I wasn’t doing a character part… And so the rage that I had that was stored up in me for 12 years was given the kind of— I mean, this is Greek tragedy, and it was me in rags and barefoot on the stage in Central Park, where all of the things that were suppressed were let loose. It was the Greek catharsis… I was working for him [Papp] regularly, and I was with him the next summer when I got the call to do [the TV series] Peyton Place… I could have stayed and done that kind of work forever. Or gone to LA and changed my life and gone on to money.
FN: Was that part of it? Money?
LG: Oh, totally. I had none, and I had a little girl to support. It was just me and Dinah [Manoff, Grant’s elder daughter].
FN: So you accepted the part in Peyton Place, as the blacklist was ending. But you did do a few movies before that. You did a movie called Middle of the Night .
LG: Yes. That was during the blacklist.
FN: And you did another film in the middle of the blacklist that I'm intrigued with, directed by Cornell Wilde, called Storm Fear . [Grant laughs heartily] I haven’t seen it but I want to track it down. It looks like an interesting part for you.
LG: Oh, it’s terrible. That was the movie in which Dinah was conceived. Because it would give us money enough to have a child. [At the time, Grant was married to writer Arnold Manoff, who was also blacklisted.] So all those jobs were connected to what was possible.
FN: So at least Storm Fear brought you Dinah.
LG: Bungalow 3 at the Chateau Marmont.
FN: I couldn’t find that movie in your memoirs and I thought, she doesn’t like it.
LG: It was a disaster.
FN: Middle of the Night  though, is a lovely movie.
LG: Fredric March, was oh, he was so beautiful in that, and so was Kim Novak. It was the only picture in which I felt she was absolutely present, that there was that shyness in her, that I’m not really this big tall glamour girl, I’m really a shy typist, yearning for a father. I just thought, such a lovely film. And the director [Delbert Mann], whose name escapes me, as a lot of names do, this was during the blacklist. He gave me a part in a movie. Small part, but it was a part in a movie, during the blacklist. And so I’m just so grateful for those guys who put themselves in jeopardy to hire me.
FN: In the Heat of the Night  was such an important film for you personally and also in general. A landmark. And another example of a small but telling role. Your character is the first one who gives us the sense of the murder victim as a human being, with your shock and grief when Sidney Poitier tells you the news. And you say, “Is it hot in here”?
LG: I think a lot of that was improvised. I don’t know if that was a line in the script. But Norman [Jewison] gives so much freedom to his actors. I met with him and [the film's editor] Hal Ashby once, and I knew that part. I had a sense that they knew about me, that they knew about the blacklist, they were very political people. We never discussed it. And when they spoke to me I just went into that place, of the loss. Just talking back and forth, I went into that woman. And I don’t think we shot more than two or three days. I got there and Sidney and Rod embraced me: “Come and have dinner.” I went to bed, I got up, I was the woman.
And then we improvised that scene. And I remember Haskell Wexler following me with the camera. And Sidney and I had this dance. This kind of Strindberg dance. And then it was over. But that sense of that bubble, of allowing an actor to go into that place that unfortunately I knew only too well, and to see where it took us both, was something that very few directors would do. You know, “It’s the line, it’s the line, it’s the line.” This was not. I didn’t know what would happen. And Sidney didn’t know what would happen. And so it’s that exploration.
FN: You’re also in one of the most famous scenes, when you’re standing there during the investigation, and Rod Steiger asks, “Well what do you they call you up there in Philadelphia, boy?” and Poitier responds, “They call me Mr. Tibbs.” And after, you are the one who interrupts and says “What kind of people are you? I’ve lost my husband!” But when the camera is not on you, I still can feel you watching and listening. Were you there, when those lines were filmed?
LG: Of course. Method actor. And so was Sidney, and so was Rod. We’re serious, and we’re there to support each other.
FN: I don’t think it would play the same way if we couldn’t feel you there.
LG: No. Nor would he be able to play it the way he did, if he didn’t have my support, my character there.
FN: So that was a triumph.
LG: It was more than a triumph. That film was life-changing. Nobody saw a Mr. Tibbs before, like Sidney. Sidney broke ground for black actors, for romantic leads, forever. Sidney did that. I did a documentary on Sidney when I was doing docs for HBO and American Masters. And I saw where that strength in himself and that vitality and the humor came from. Cat Island [Poitier’s childhood home in the Bahamas]. He came from a place of freedom, where the people in charge were black. It wasn’t white on black, it was black. And he brought that to the United States and he brought that to film. He brought that sense of dignity and rage at inequity. It was a natural thing for Sidney.
[The next exchange concerns Portnoy’s Complaint (1972), directed by Ernest Lehman. Grant had a bad time with Lehmann, whose talent she admired, but whom she called in her memoirs “an angry, small man with his neck pushed forward,” a description so good I apply it to a different person nearly every time I turn on the news. During the last week of filming, Grant’s character, Sophie Portnoy, had a hospital scene where the woman in the other bed was played by an Actors’ Studio alumna who had one line. Lehman hated the actress’ line delivery no matter how she delivered it, screaming at the woman for an hour while Grant tried to wait it out so she could play a key scene with Richard Benjamin as her son. Finally, as the shattered actress began weeping, Grant could take it no longer, and yelled at her director: “Stop it, stop it! You’re torturing her to death, you little shit.” Grant raged on at Lehman, “Get out of here!... Go to the camera trailer and direct from there. Dick and I will do the scene without her line.” Lehman went. They finished the scene. Grant noted that a line can always be fixed in postproduction, and Lehman was “playing Erich von Stroheim.” When she saw Portnoy’s Complaint in the theater, one time only, Grant said it “made me shrink back in horror. It was not a good representation of Jewish family life.”]
FN: You had that rage too. The story on Portnoy’s Complaint, when you were working with Ernest Lehmann. I felt that story revealed something really fundamental about your personality, when the actress was being bullied. Would you agree that’s part of your character?
LG: Absolutely. I cannot bear endangering and bullying. I can’t bear it.
FN: There can’t be many actresses that have thrown a director off his own set.
LG: [pause, then a chuckle] No, as a matter of fact, I don’t think that there have been.
FN: So you met Hal Ashby when you doing In the Heat of the Night, and the other movie at the TCM film festival is The Landlord . How was that as a filmmaking experience?
LG: Well, they had Jessica Tandy for the part. Older than me. And I knew that part so well. It was so much a part of the personalities of my mother and my aunt. The wonderful, ridiculous part of them. Not that they weren’t great and loving people, but there was a ridiculous part that they and this woman had. So I fought very hard [for the part]. And I saw it recently, and I loved it. I loved myself, I loved Pearl [Bailey, who’s superb]. And of course Hal had been the one who picked out my hairstyle and the clothes for In the Heat of the Night. And so we became friends, and this was his first movie. So that was a continuation of the relationship. Norman produced it, and Hal was directing it. And Hal had this unique take on everything, all of his movies had a unique, totally undone, fresh way of looking on things.
FN: And how did that extend to working with the actors? Because you worked with him not only on this, but five years later on Shampoo, which won you an Oscar.
LG: Hal’s credo was, “Surprise me.” and that was for all his actors. And what could be more talent-provoking than to say to someone, “Surprise me?” It was just delicious.
FN: There’s a lot of surprising moments in that scene with Pearl Bailey. At one point you’re stretched out on the floor….
FN: The wonderful way you say, when she asks if you’ve had lunch, [whispers] “I don’t have lunch.”
LG: I love it myself. And I think, “where did that come from?”
FN: Did either your mother or your aunt skip lunch?
LG: It wasn’t the skipping lunch. It was the [trills] “daaaarling.” It was that whole rich-lady-when-they-weren’t-rich. You know, rich lady, a persona, that they took on, that I was dying to explore.
FN: You talked about being afraid of having your age disclosed at certain points in your career. And yet some of your best parts—The Landlord, Detective Story— you’re playing someone older, and in fact you sought that out. Is there any kind of contradiction there?
LG: It’s the part. It’s the part. And the making myself younger and asking [the] Mayor to change my driver’s license to five years younger [Note: I Said Yes to Everything details how she did exactly that] that had nothing to do with the part, that had to do with the hiring. And when actors say, “How old are you?” “Oh, I’m 46.” [clucks in disapproval] “Ohhhh. I thought you were like in your 30s.” That’s hireability. That’s an actor protecting their hireability. That’s exactly what it’s based on. It’s not ego. It’s not. It’s that there is a date—what’s it called on the milk?
FN: The sell-by date.
LG: The sell-by date! There’s a sell-by date in Hollywood. And all of us women are acutely conscious of that sell-by date. I worked with the most beautiful actresses that were in Hollywood, who knocked it out of the park at the box office. Then one, two years later, the dailies come up and the heads of the studio are saying, “Eh, she looks old, she looks fat.” … And so juggling your liveability, your milk date, is a very important thing for an actor who’s supporting a child in Hollywood. And also one who was deprived of work for just as many years as I worked in Hollywood. There were 12 years I was out of work, then there were 12 golden years. And I walked away from it because I knew that my date had come up after the Oscar. I knew that I would not get the kind of parts in the [same] kind of movies. They were not being made anymore.
FN: Like Shampoo.
LG: Like Shampoo.
FN: Where you played a beautiful woman who’s getting it on with Warren Beatty. And you still felt that was it?
LG: It was an extraordinary film. That was of its time. The 70s was the time for directors. And Coppola, Spielberg, all those were new directors then. And they were making the kind of film that isn’t usual anymore. They were breaking entirely new ground. And… it was coming to an end.
FN: When we move to your documentary work in the 1980s, I was staggered by the breadth of subject and how ahead of your time you always were. What Sex Am I, about transgender issues. Battered. Down and Out in America … As a documentary filmmaker, clearly you’ve been drawn to political topics.
LG: The blacklist was my education. I didn’t know anything. I was not interested in school. Really my education came from Tolstoy and Chekhov and reading. So those 12 years were my education. I learned, close to home, at home, what politics was all about. And what life was all about.
FN: And what was politics all about, when you looked back?
LG: Well, it was not that far from what we have now. It was McCarthy. And it was anybody. … I mean, I spoke at a man’s memorial. An actor’s memorial [Grant is referring to Joe Bromberg; she gave a eulogy at his memorial service in 1951. Bromberg, a longtime character actor from stage and film, had been named as a Communist by the notorious Red Channels magazine and called to testify in June 1951 before the House Un-American Activities Committee, where he took the Fifth. He died of a heart attack in London less than six months later, age 47.] I was 24. And I said [Bromberg] was afraid of going in front of the Un-American Activities Committee because he had a heart problem. And two days later, I was on a list which didn’t allow me to work in films or television anymore. You didn’t have to do much. [I was] faced with an ethical problem after that. Do I want to work in film or television, and go to the guy who does Red Channels, and say ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it, the Un-American Activities Committee is really fun?’ The choice was clear.
FN: For you it was.
LG: It was. And also, I was in love with those people. The blacklisted people in California were a new breed. I never knew anybody like that. Ring Lardner, Zero Mostel, Sol Kaplan. And we were all living in 444 Central Park West. They were like professors to me. They were the education I never had. And I got very deeply involved with that outraged part of me, that you see. And the unfairness. As a kid, I could see what was fair and what wasn’t fair. That’s like in my DNA. And this unfairness was so palpable. For actors not being allowed to act, because they showed up at a meeting or they signed their name to something? And they’re not allowed to act? It was just enraging to me. That was my motor. And it was a very good one. It was a very good one.
And it was the motor for all those years when I kept quiet in Hollywood. Because I was so scared they’d stop me from working, that when I got out [of the acting business], I could finally say the things that I kept my mouth shut about when I was working.
FN: When you were working as an actress, you did not go out of your way to be political.
LG: No. I was scared of it… When you live long enough, from 24 to 36, under one condition, and then suddenly the music starts and you’re on this sunny island with the sand and the colony and the friends, it’s like, "Wait a minute! Where am I? Is this true, or isn’t it?"
FN: You once said that in your documentaries, “I can cover what the media distorts or doesn’t cover at all.”
LG: It’s my voice. It’s a voice I wasn’t allowed to use it for a long time. Documentaries are a way of exposing the thing that needs to be talked about. I was lucky enough to get three of them on television….
I’ll tell you what I’m working on now. I’ve made a five-minute video on "The Battering of Hillary Clinton." The battering and destruction of Hillary Clinton. This is a new place for me. I don’t know how to do any of those smartphones. I worked with a young student so he could put together things that I want to have seen. And I am going to do everything I can to get it out in and go, what’s the word?
LG: To go viral.
FN: So the treatment of Hillary Clinton hit you hard.
LG: Very, very hard. That’s a battered woman. How dare they.
(You can see "Battered: The Assault on Hillary Clinton" here, on Youtube.)