TCM Festival: Lee Grant on Surviving Both the Blacklist and Aging

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Lee Grant

The Oscar winner for 'Shampoo' says: "I was 36 when I got off the blacklist — and lied about my age."

Lee Grant has spoken openly over the decades about the challenges of getting older as an actress, something she first experienced as an obstacle back in the mid-1960s, when she was making a comeback after many years of being blacklisted. But during her multiple appearances at the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood over the weekend, Grant was celebrated in the happy home of reverse ageism, a fest where being 90 is a virtual guarantor of being belle of the ball. 

“Who was that woman? Not me, I’ll tell you that,” said Grant, settling into a chair alongside Leonard Maltin at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, following a video tribute that included clips from Detective Story, The Landlord and In the Heat of the Night — all of which unspooled at this year’s TCM fest — as well as her Oscar-winning performance in Shampoo. The clips from a number of social justice-oriented films she directed after shifting her focus to the other side of the camera? Definitely her, even if she didn’t appear onscreen in them.

Grant got her first Oscar nomination for her first film, 1951’s Detective Story, playing a small role she’d originated on Broadway. “I was such a New Yorker, I hardly knew what the Oscars were,” she said. “Then I got the Oscar nomination and … I was out of features! I was 24 when I was blacklisted. I was 36 when I got off the blacklist — and lied about my age, and lied about my age in Hollywood, because you had to be 24 to work. The ramifications of starting over when Hollywood stars are kind of on the descent were huge. ‘What’s gonna happen to me? Somebody’s going to find out I’m 36!’ Changing ages. [Sam] Yorty was the mayor of L.A. at the time. He took five years off my driver’s license. I had dinner with him,” said the actress, drawing laughter as she rolled her eyes at the idea of trading a date for an odometer reversal. “But I was frantic.”

The social activism bent in the second half of Grant’s career, after she became a director, was purposeful. But, she admitted, any mishaps she suffered in the early years for her supposed political affiliations were purely accidental.

“I was such a Jewish princess,” Grant said. “My whole life was leading up to marrying a rich man and living on 48th Street [in New York]. So I couldn’t have been more surprised. That’s one reason why I picked I Said Yes to Everything as the title of [her memoir]. Because it’s like Candide. You slip into another life when a handsome communist older man says, ‘Come live with me,’ ‘Oh yeah, sure’ — and so you don’t work in film for 12 years. ‘Oh, I didn’t know that was going to happen!’” Maltin tried to put a positive spin on saying yes: “The words that come to my mind are being open to things and being curious — those are the qualities I think you’re describing. But Grant didn’t let herself off the hook so easily." “It’s also such naiveté,” she said. “The best actors just stay in the moment and whatever happens in the scene is a genuine surprise. You really do not know what’s going to happen next. But living that out in life is very dangerous, because it throws you into a place where you don’t know if you’re going to survive.”

Talking with film noir historian Eddie Muller before a Detective Story screening Sunday at the Chinese, Grant described a moment when she wanted to play older, and that worked out rather well for her. Auditioning for the original Broadway production of Detective Story in the late 1940s, Grant was asked to come in to play the ingénue role, but she asked if she could play “the old lady” instead — meaning the less prominent shoplifter character for which she ultimately got her Oscar nomination. The script described the shoplifter as 40-ish. “I was 22, and 40 was old. To be 40 again!” said the actress.

Right as she was getting her first awards accolades, Grant spoke at a memorial service for a character actor alongside whom she’d acted in one of her husband’s plays, casually mentioning that he’d feared he would fall ill because of his stress at being called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. A week later, another actor congratulated her on being added to the blacklist. “What you have to understand is, you didn’t have to do much to get blacklisted,” Grant told Muller. “But what you had to do in order to work again was to name other people that you knew who were on the liberal side, rather than the kind of fascist side ... so that was my education. I got by in high school and then I went right to the neighborhood playhouse, so I only knew acting. So those 12 years when they kept me on the blacklist, before my career started again when I went on [the TV version of] Peyton Place, the education that I got through the people who I made friends with who were also blacklisted was a turning point. It made me who I am today, and I’m a documentarian because that’s what I care about now.”

Among those friends: now 99-year-old Marsha Hunt, who was in the audience for Sunday’s Q&A. “Being blacklisted until I was 36 certainly put a curve in my screen and television career,” Grant related, the result of what she described as completely inadvertent circumstances. “But Miss Marsha Hunt up there never married a communist, as I did, [but was blacklisted] because she was a liberal lady … and after she was a ‘40s megastar, she never got back to having a career. So that’s one of the reasons I salute her, because she’s a true woman of courage.”

Grant made the transition to directing because she saw the writing on the wall, ironically, right as she was winning her sole acting Oscar for 1975's Shampoo — that writing being about her own place as an older actor and a coming decline in filmmaking morays in general.

“I think I was 48 or 49 when I did Shampoo,” she said, “and as I was walking up to get the Oscar, I realized somehow that those ‘70s films were the end of an era. ... After all those years of being out of the business, suddenly it was ‘I want to work with you,’ ‘No, let me’ — so much love and acceptance. But I just felt that this was not going to happen anymore — that it was the end of this kind of romance. And I went to the American Film Institute, when they had a women’s directors’ workshop, and I just fell in love with it. I did a film, Tell Me a Riddle, the next year. In making documentaries, having kept quiet for so long because I was so afraid I wouldn’t work again, having a chance to put my opinions out there meant a lot to me.”

That’s happening with her latest mini-project, a YouTube short she co-directed about the misogyny directed at Hillary Clinton. Maltin pointed out that with her latest “rabble-rousing” in viral media, “because of Detective Story, you have one foot in the tail end of classic Hollywood, with William Wyler and Kirk Douglas, and you have one foot in new media. That’s an incredible journey.”

Amid the high-mindedness of these career bookends, though, there was time to briefly recall some less storied moments in the middle. Grant’s transition to directing overlapped with a brief period of taking less creditable roles in would-be Hollywood blockbusters like The Swarm (1978) — a movie Grant repeatedly referred to just as “The bees are coming!” — and Airport ’77. Maltin got Grant to tell the story of being shamed by grand dame Olivia de Havilland on the latter.

“When the plane goes down to the bottom of the sea, I had it in my contract that a double would jump into the water that’s filling the plane,” she explained. “So I sat on the side knowing that somebody else would be jumping in. And the director said, ‘Okay, who wants to be the first to do this?’ And Olivia said, ‘I will, I will!’ That little old adventurer. And she plunged into the water, and said, ‘Shall we do it again?’ I was so ashamed. When the director said, ‘Okay, who’s next?’ I said, ‘I’ll go.’ He said, ‘You don’t have —‘ I said, ‘Yes I do!’ I didn’t want anyone, particularly Olivia, to hear I wasn’t going to jump in the water.” Although it wasn’t spoken by Maltin or Grant, there was a metaphor for her career and life choices in that almost accidentally compelled, eventually willing full-plunge.

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