How Oscar-Winning Actress Lee Grant Beat Hollywood's Blacklist (Q&A)

Lee Grant Book Cover - P 2014
Courtesy Penguin Group

Lee Grant Book Cover - P 2014

The Oscar winner chats with Pret-a-Reporter about her new memoir in which she recounts how she transformed from Hollywood outcast into screen queen, plus how Warren Beatty almost made her quit the movie that won her Oscar gold.

Lee Grant has written a tell-all titled I Said Yes to Everything in which she ironically makes clear that in her long, full life the Oscar-winning octogenarian has been a doormat to no one. From dodging anti-Semitic slurs as a child to refusing to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee, which led to 12 years on the blacklist, Grant spent the past four years culling together memories that could double as the history of Hollywood itself.

When Warren Beatty overstepped his bounds on the set of Shampoo (which he co-wrote, produced and starred in) by offering Grant direction on her character, she threatened to walk off the set. It's a good thing she didn't — the film proved a huge success and earned Grant her only Oscar win, bestowing her with the distinction of being the only person to find more success after blacklisting.

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Through all the career highs and lows, Grant also struggled with an oppressive marriage to Communist screenwriter Arnold Manoff, onset flirtations with the hottest stars of New Hollywood, plastic surgery, a sleeping-pill addiction and the psychological damages of the McCarthy era. After deciding to start life over in Malibu with a young man named Joey Feury, who eventually became her husband and producing partner, Grant went on to make a name for herself as a documentary director and, most recently, graduate professor at NYU.

Grant fought through a bout of laryngitis to talk with Pret-a-Reporter about all this and more.

The defining moment of your career, and in many ways your life, was your being blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee after speaking out against them at actor Joe Bromberg's funeral. You write, "I wasn't sure whether I was a member of the Communist Party or not." Does it anger you now that all that suffering you went through was for being affiliated with something you didn't even necessarily believe in?

It was a very confusing time. My feeling of unfairness was from the committee to my husband and to the people I knew. They couldn't earn a living, and I was swept into that pool. But my sympathies were with them. So I became very angry at the people who blacklisted us and became good at fighting them. But the time it really hit me was when they said, "You're on the list," after the Bromberg thing. I almost fainted. But I really liked the people who were blacklisted! And I really wanted to be with them.

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You write, "I have a lot of people to apologize to in my life. I wish I had done it when I had the chance."

I have a kind of superiority/grande dame/it's my way or the highway kind of thing. I don't know where it comes from. I've hurt people's feelings, and when I wrote the book, I became aware that I had people to apologize to.

You lost 12 years of work because of the blacklist. But even after you came back, the psychological repercussions were long-lasting. You developed an inability to remember people's names, right? And you even had some trouble remembering lines?

Well, first the names came from being in front of the committee. When I came out of the committee hearing, I couldn't introduce one friend to another. And that stayed with me my whole life. When I go to a party, even in my own house, when I go to introduce people, I say, "You know each other." There's a block. My fear of naming somebody who would then not be able to earn a living was such a psychological blow. I mean, I didn't realize it at the time, and you go on. But I have that problem. And people are very hurt. I went up to somebody who I knew very well and I said, "Listen, I know you. I've known you for years, but I can't say your name." And this guy was very, very hurt. So I just found a way socially to get by with it. But the lines didn't go until I did Prisoner on Second Avenue. That was the first time I went up. And I don't know if it was from the blacklist or if it was from sleeping pills.

Right, because you say you haven't slept without sleeping pills in many, many decades.

I have taken them every night since I was 18. Never missed a night.

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You were very aware of how much an actress had to trade on her youth and beauty, and coming off the blacklist, you feared you had lost some of that. You had your first facelift at 31. Do you think you would have had such meteoric success after the blacklist if not for the facelift, which effectively earned you some of those 12 years back?

I do. I think that, psychologically, I was really damaged. I was offered a play, and I hadn't worked in two years. My husband at that time said, "If you take the play, our marriage is finished." I was in the country with a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter and two stepsons, and I felt I was being blacklisted again, only this time by the person I had married! I think that mentally I was really at a dead end. I was trapped. And I looked it. I didn't look like a kid anymore. I didn't know how I was going to make it. It was a very desperate time, and I needed it to really reassure myself because what I saw in the mirror was such a victim.

Was it shocking when you saw yourself afterward?

It was so reassuring, because when you're living in such a stressful relationship, and that's what it was, and you're not loved and you're not wanted, and you're told that if you take a job that you're finished … I was living in a very dark place. And that broke me out of it. It was absolutely the best thing I could have done for myself. The lines that went down went up. The mouth that was sad was smiley. It was a smiley face.

Did you feel more smiley inside?

Right away. We rehearsed in San Francisco. I left New York, and it was like starting a new life. It was a new me.

And California worked out pretty well for you!

It was magical. It was like, "Am I dreaming, or what?" Malibu at that time, and California, too, you couldn't dream it, it was so great. And going from pitch-black to pastel sunshine was like, "Wow! Where am I? And a pool, too!"

You won Best Supporting Actress for Shampoo in 1975, but you actually tried to quit that movie because you refused to take directions from your co-star Warren Beatty.

Yes, he was not the director. Hal Ashby was the director.

Were you really going to leave the film?

Oh, absolutely! That's what I mean when I said that I was kind of — I wasn't grande dame-y, but the acting was so important to me that to step over that line and have my "hairdresser" telling me what I think was … my experiences working with Norman Jewison, with Hal, with Heat of the Night, with all the movies that I made, it was so amazing. And all Hal ever said to me was "surprise me." It was the first time it had ever happened to me that a fellow actor sat down and said, "You're thinking this, you're thinking that," that there was no alternative.

But then he listened to you and backed off.

Oh, of course. The next day.

You also have great affection for him, right?

I love him. I love Warren. And I think he's the bravest moviemaker. I mean he got Reds done, and at a certain point when we were trying to get Shampoo together, the studio dropped it, and he himself went to a group of "these that and those" guys and was talking them into financing the film. He was like a great poker player. Besides being brilliant and talented and, of course at that time in his life, so irresistible, completely irresistible.

I want to make sure that I wasn't failing to read between the lines. Was it just a friendly flirtation between you and Warren?

It was just a friendly flirtation, yeah.

There was one night where something almost happened between you two, but you were thwarted by Dolly Parton showing up at the same party, right?

There was that definite temptation on my part on that night, yes. And Dolly kind of saved my virginal, wifely conduct.

You won an Oscar for Shampoo 24 years after your first Oscar nomination and 12 years after getting off the blacklist. That is quite a comeback. You acknowledge that no other blacklisted artist became more successful after getting off the list. Was this partly because you were simply so young when they blacklisted you?

Yes. There weren't many kids like me marrying into the Party. I probably was the only one. Most of the people who were put on the blacklist were politically savvy or liberal before it happened. I just didn't have any political sense. All that I cared about was acting. I didn't have any political sense of anything. All these great writers and directors started to be hit in the '40s out in Hollywood, and when they came to New York, many of them had already been in front of the committee. That period had begun without people in New York realizing it. So when I left Detective Story and took Arnie's play, I entered into a group who was very political and had been blacklisted and called in front of the committee. Although, interestingly enough, Arnie never was. They called me to name him, but they never called him.

And he thought that you did name him.

Yeah. I don't want to go into it.

Then you moved into directing after you felt you had aged out of a lot of roles. One project you directed was a film starring Bruce Willis in the late '90s. Part of the way through filming, Willis pulled the plug largely because he didn't like his chemistry with co-star Maura Tierney, and the film was never finished.

It was such a disaster, and my husband Joey was so devastated because he was coming back to the block, and it was just — I didn't think he could ever get over it. And I certainly never wanted to direct again.

It seemed like a big break for both of you — you as a feature director and Joey as a producer — and it all just imploded because Bruce Willis was essentially bored?

Yeah, that was the general point, and also that he lost faith in me. If an actor loses faith in a director and he's in the position that Bruce was, which is that his career was on the line, that's a decision that I understand. I didn't like it, but I understand when you lose faith in a director. That's what happened.

Have you spoken to Bruce Willis since then?


When you were teaching at NYU, did you find that your students knew about you and your history?

No, not about the blacklist. As a matter of fact, I wrote about someone saying, "Oh, I wish I could get on the blacklist!" in class, and I turned to him and said, "What list are you talking about?" And he said, "Oh there's this list for the best scripts that producers want." And I said, "It's called the blacklist?" And The Blacklist is one of the most popular shows on television. The perversion of words and history is so bizarre. It's so strange.

There's a whole new generation that is just totally disconnected from that.

The blacklist is in, honey!