‘Name names? Never, never, never!’ Lee Grant on her decades of defiance

The Guardian
The Guardian

Lee Grant, child of the Depression, survivor of the anti-communist blacklist, director, Oscar winner and – incredibly – 95 and looking nothing of the sort, is standing in her Manhattan kitchen. It is the size of a medieval castle’s, with copper pots hanging from the ceiling, a catering-size fridge and what appear to be three ovens. “They’re all used,” says Grant, triumphantly, a tone she has earned. For 12 years during the McCarthy-era witch-hunt of the 1950s, Grant was banned from working in Hollywood, re-emerging in the 60s to become not only a wildly successful actor, but one of the US’s finest documentary makers of the late 20th century. Over the course of our conversation, the phrase she uses most often is “I was lucky”.

If you have seen Grant on screen, it was most likely in one of her two best-known roles, from very different, seminal films. In 1967, she appeared as Mrs Colbert, the grieving widow, in the classic Sidney Poitier movie In the Heat of the Night . Eight years later, she played opposite Warren Beatty in the cult favourite Shampoo , for which she won an Oscar. Grant is a terrific actor, with a Zelig-like performance history that begins as a child dancer at the New York Ballet under George Balanchine (“My only memory of him is of my mother flirting with him; I was a fat little girl, that’s how I got in”), on through a scholarship at New York’s Neighbourhood Playhouse School of Theater under Martha Graham , and, after her acting career was unfrozen at the age of 33 – “old for Hollywood!” – includes a heady decade living in Malibu knocking around in Joan Didion ’s circle. “It was like entering The Truman Show. I get to live here? On the beach? With my eight-year-old daughter? Are you sure?! It was so delicious. And then I met Joey.”
Sidney Poitier and Lee Grant star in In the Heat of the Night. Photograph: John Springer Collection/Corbis/Getty Images

Grant sits at her kitchen table, her second husband, Joe Feury, working in the vast living room next door. Together, they ran a successful production company specialising in documentary film, a genre in which Grant says she would never have been successful had she not survived those 12 years on the blacklist – or met Feury. (“Joey thought I could do anything,” she writes in her memoir, I Said Yes to Everything . “And I could.”) Grant grew up 50 blocks north of where we are sitting in Washington Heights, the only child of successful immigrants to New York. Her mother’s family were from Odessa, in present-day Ukraine, her father’s from Poland. Her father ran the YMHA, the Hebrew youth hostel in the Bronx, and her devoted mother and aunt Fremo ran a nursery school from the brownstone where they lived.

It was a charmed childhood. “Fremo!” Grant’s mother would exclaim, pointing at four-year-old Grant, or Lyova Rosenthal as she was, then. “Look how she walks! How she talks! Sing something! Did you see that, did you hear that? Genius!” Grant bursts into laughter, remembering the scene. “I knew it was crazy; it was so theatrical. And delicious. They were very delicious, and funny.” And although it wasn’t a political household, they were political times, not only as the Depression raged across the US, but closer to home. Walking down Convent Avenue in the early 30s, says Grant, “the little girls who were on the steps of the Catholic school would shout: ‘You killed our Lord!’” She found this both surprising and comic. “I don’t think I felt sad about it; it was more like: ‘That’s strange. Me? I killed your Lord?’”

I was certainly not going to give names in order to work in film or television

Grant was innately confrontational, “something I was born with, no question about it”. The first time she recalls standing up for something in public, she was a teenager, walking along a stretch of Broadway near her house when she witnessed a man attacking a woman. The woman tried, desperately, to board a bus, but when the bus driver clocked the commotion, he shut the doors and drove on. Others in the street ignored it. Only Grant reacted. “I ran for a cop.” She ran three blocks, and the couple were gone by the time they returned. “Oh,” said the cop, “they’re probably in a bar now. It’s just a normal thing, don’t worry.” She did worry. “They didn’t have the kind of sensibility that I had. And then I married a blacklisted writer. And there was no hesitation. I certainly was not going to give names in order to work in film or television.”

There wasn’t a second when …?

“NOT EVEN A SECOND!” she booms. “Never, never, never!” Decades later, when she started to make searing documentaries about homeless Americans, victims of domestic violence and women in prison, she says, “I’d been there. I’d been on the other side almost all my life.”
With Warren Beatty in Shampoo, for which Grant picked up an Oscar in 1976. Photograph: Columbia/Allstar

The man she married was called Arnold Manoff, and it cost her the first 12 years of her career. In 1951, straight out of acting school, Grant won a role in a Hollywood movie, Detective Story, with Kirk Douglas, and was promptly nominated for a best supporting Oscar. She was 23 years old and a huge future awaited. But by the time the film came out, Manoff, a communist writer, had been blacklisted – and so, by association, had Grant.

A different person would have been furiously bitter. Grant was furious all right: “I was filled with rage and frustration at the blacklisters, who I was living among.” But she wasn’t bitter. She was ignited by a sense of injustice and common cause. In the beginning, she says, “we all stuck together and I really loved those people. And respected them. And they educated me. I had no education, I never went to college. I went right into acting. I felt lucky.”

Soon, however, the situation curdled. Manoff was a bully and a hypocrite. “I was living with a man who had nothing but contempt for me,” says Grant. He tried to make her read Marx and Engels. “But I couldn’t get it,” she says. “I didn’t know what it meant.” She found a box of old letters she wrote to him, recently (he died in 1965), and was horrified. “They’re all supplications: ‘I can’t learn Marx, I’m sorry but I can’t.’” Looking back, she understands that he married her mainly to have someone to look after this two children from his first marriage. He belittled and controlled her. When, after the birth of their daughter, Dinah, Grant had an opportunity to appear in a play in upstate New York, her husband said he’d leave her if she took the job. Without hesitation, she took it. “I knew I had to go. Life was over. He didn’t like me at all. He was attracted to me in the beginning, and then it was over. I was the maid, I really was.”

The funny thing is, I say, you ended up making a more political body of work than any of the men lecturing you to read Marx before putting on the dinner.

“Lecturing the women around them, yes,” she hoots, then looks infinitely fierce. “Those fuckers.”
Grant and her second husband Joe Feury attend the Oscars in 1976. Photograph: Frank Edwards/Getty Images

The takeaway from those years was that Grant learned how to fight. She and some of her friends took on the fanatically pro-McCarthy clique that ran the TV union, and slowly, methodically lobbied members to vote them out and replace them with moderates. Eventually, she was permitted to return to Hollywood – three years after everyone else, “because they still thought I’d name my husband”. (She didn’t.) By then she was ancient by the standards of the era. She booked a very good facelift, lied about her age for the next four decades and started another phase of her career. After moving to Malibu and working a stint on the hit soap Peyton Place, offers started to flood in, particularly from liberal and leftwing film-makers, who “were stumbling over each other to give me work. Me first, me first! And they were artists, and brilliant.” She met Joe, 12 years her junior, and the opposite of her domineering first husband: “This really cute boy, and so dear, and so in love. A working-class Italian non-intellectual. It was like the biggest nourishment I could’ve had.”

The greatest shift came, however, when Grant started to make documentaries. Before preparing for this interview, I had never seen any of them, but they are available on Amazon and I urge you to watch. They are staggeringly good. The first, made at the suggestion of Grant’s friend Mary Beth Yarrow, was about the Willmar Eight , a group of female bank tellers in a tiny town in Minnesota, who went on strike in 1977 after years of being paid a fraction of what their male colleagues earned. It is a deeply moving and shocking film – “A hell of a little piece that was really a calling card,” says Grant – and more were to follow, all for HBO. In 1986, Grant’s documentary Down and Out in America , in which she investigates the homeless and impoverished underbelly of Ronald Reagan’s America, won the Oscar for best documentary.

[If I was shooting now] I’d be fighting with HBO to go to Ukraine. Or I’d be looking at Elon Musk, or at January 6th

What is striking about all her films is just how much she gets out of her subjects, who speak with an unselfconsciousness you no longer see on TV. Grant says much of this was down to her brilliant producers finding the right case studies. But her direction, and questioning, was a large part of it, too. In her 1989 film Battered , about domestic violence, she coaxes extraordinary testimony out of victims and perpetrators. One particular man, convicted of beating his wife, tells Grant how he can pick the one woman out of a hundred who is a soft target for abuse. “That’s the guy who stayed in my mind, too, that devil,” she says. “And he was attractive. Scary attractive. That was my first marriage! That guy who said I can come into a room and pick them out – that was me.”

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Grant went on to make films about her old friend Sidney Poitier, and about Kirk Douglas and his family, and to strike a huge development deal with the US cable channel Lifetime. If she was shooting now, where would she look? “I would be fighting with HBO to let me go to Ukraine.” She thinks: “Or I’d be looking at Elon Musk, or at January 6th.”

As it is, she says, “I’m old. I don’t look that old; I don’t feel that old, probably because I have a young husband – but …” In her memoir, she writes, “death makes me furious, which is a pity because I’m really up there myself”. But having survived all those waves of oppression in her youth, she isn’t done yet. “I feel there’s some way that I can still somehow do something. I don’t know what.” Experience makes her confident: something always turns up. “Life is like that. You slip to another place, go into another world, and you’re curious, and you take sides. And it’s a kind of miracle.”

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