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Lee Grant: A-List To
Blacklist And Back Again

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Lee Grant in The Landlord. Image by Photofest.
The Star Of Legendary Hollywood Films Was Also A Director And A Victim Of The Hollywood Blacklist Pushed By Communist Fears During The Red Scare

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By Tom Johnson
A Special For Modern Times Magazine

April 10, 2017 — Actress/Director/Target of the HUAC Black List, Oscar winner Lee Grant, 89, is more than anything, a survivor. That’s the appellation that TCM factotum Leonard Maltin used to describe Grant during a question-and-answer session yesterday at the 8th annual Turner Classic Movies (TCM) Classic Film Festival in Hollywood.

“Defending people I see who are being turned away or picked on, is something very strong in me,” she said. “When I was nine years old, I walked up to Broadway from our apartment on Riverside Drive and saw a woman being stalked by a man who was going to kill her. The crowd just stood around and didn’t do anything. A bus stopped, the door opened but when she tried to go in, the door closed. I ran and got a cop but by the time we got back, they were gone. But it stayed with me. I knew that woman was in trouble. It was a reflex that stayed with me and informed the documentaries I directed, as if to say, ‘People, look what’s going on right in front of you.’ I was the Scarlett O’Hara of 148th Street.”

Grant began her career opposite Kirk Douglas in Detective Story, directed by William Wyler for which she received a 1951 Best Supporting Actress nomination (she won the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival for her performance). Grant had originated the role of the young shoplifter on Broadway in the play by Sidney Kingsley but lost out on the Oscar to Kim Hunter who won for her role (which she also originated on Broadway) in A Streetcar Named Desire.

“William Wyler enjoyed us – he enjoyed actors,” Grant said. “When Joe Wiseman would go crazy that William Bendix wasn’t doing lines with him that were exactly as written, Wyler just sat back in his director’s chair and laughed smoking his pipe. The only direction Wyler gave me about my performance was to take it down, it’s not the theater.”

As soon as her film career began to gain traction, Grant found herself in the gunsights of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). At the time, Grant was married to playwright Arnold Manoff who, Grant said, was a member of the Communist Party. By refusing to testify against her husband, Grant, at age 24, was blacklisted for 12 years and unable to work in either films or television.

“A handsome man who happens to be a communist says, ‘Why don’t you come live with me.’ And you say ‘yes,’ and suddenly you don’t work for 12 years,” Grant said. “You say, ‘Well, gee, I didn’t know that was going to happen.’ And here I am before you people today, still saying, yes.” Grant’s memoir now in paperback is entitled: I Said Yes to Everything.

Grant said those dark years took their toll on blacklisted actors, writers and directors and many of them died before their time. “John Garfield was blacklisted and died at 38,” she said. “And this was the story with all of those actors and actresses. They were suddenly lost. Dorothy Comingore who played Orson Welles’ wife in Citizen Kane, went out of her mind; just faded away. I was 24 when I was blacklisted and 36 when I got off the blacklist and lied about my age. Mayor Sam Yorty was mayor of Los Angeles at the time and took five years off my driver’s license. I had dinner with him; you know … it was frantic.”

Back on an actorly track after the blacklist, one of the movies that Grant did to “pay the rent” was Airport ‘77 that starred her with Olivia De Havilland.

Classic Film and the TCM Film Festival
The 2017 Turner Classic Movies Film Festival honored the Brooks Boys, Lee Grant Debbie Reynolds and many others. Classic film expert Tom Johnson was there and joined John and Karen on this podcast for a lively discussion.
— April 14, 2017
Read more - Three Guys Named Brooks
The Star Of Legendary Hollywood Films Was Also A Director And A Victim Of The Hollywood Blacklist Pushed By Communist Fears During The Red Scare.

“I had it in my contract that a double would jump into the water for me when the water was filling the downed plane which was in a gigantic tub,” Grant said. “When the time came for the water scene, the director asked who wanted to be the first to jump in, and Olivia piped up: ‘I will!’ And she plunged into the tank and then asked if she should do it again. I was so ashamed. The director said, ‘Who’s next?’ And I told him I’d go. He said I didn’t have to, but I HAD TO. I didn’t want Olivia to hear that I wasn’t going to jump into the water.”

In her peripatetic career, Grant also spent considerable time behind the camera putting actors through their paces, a vantage point for which she drew on her own skill set as an actor.

“The directors I had worked with – Norman Jewison, Hal Ashby, William Wyler and the others – they would say to the actors: ‘Surprise me. I picked you for this part because I want you to explore and find things that nobody else could think of.’ And that’s the way I felt about directing Lila Kedrova and Melvyn Douglas in Tell Me a Riddle, Grant said.

“Melvyn when I met him, he had done dozens of films, had worked with Greta Garbo, he told me he’d never done and accent before and asked me if I thought he’d be OK,” she continued. “I loved him so; because it was that actor’s insecurity that all of us have. And of course he was brilliant in it. As a director you’ve got to make your actors want to jump off the roof, take risks and know that they’ll be safe.”

“The best actors stay in the moment,” Grant said, “and whatever happens in the scene, they go with it.” That encomium certainly describes the trajectory of Grant’s own life. Winning an Oscar nomination in her debut film; being blacklisted for more than a decade during her prime years; working her way back into films (culminating with a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for “Shampoo” in 1975); then turning her talents to directing award-winning films and documentaries, Grant’s career has always defied easy categorization.

And she’s as right as rain with it.

Tom Johnson has been an entertainment journalist for more than 30 years and co-authored the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV with David Fantle. He is also a former senior editor for Netflix.
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