“Obsession is the most important thing in an actor or a director or a writer’s life, you know. You have to be obsessed and if you lose that obsession, you know, what are you going to do.”
-Lee Grant, in conversation with Robert Osbourne, 2014.
There is both inscrutability and vulnerability in the face of Lee Grant. An indecipherable cool that draws the audience to her instantly, seeking clarity. She is aloof, her aesthetic a perfect embodiment of the sixties. She is an actor whose career has spanned decades of cultural and societal shift. Hers is the story of a career that almost never happened. But it is also the story of a career revived. Lee Grant could have just disappeared, the powers that be and the standards of the day would have been more comfortable with that eventuality, but she, drawing on a deep well of resilience, persisted and had the most fruitful part of her career after surviving the Hollywood blacklist.
Grant, an actor in the theatre, was not particularly familiar with or interested in the inner workings of Hollywood. She was a New Yorker, entrenched in the ground-breaking work of the Actor’s Studio, Stanislavski, and the Method. For those who are not familiar, the Method was a new type of acting, gaining prominence in mid-century America, where an actor was encouraged to draw on the emotions and events of his or her own life in order to create a compelling portrait, a backstory for the character that was to inform all of their movements. Grant had no interest in pursuing a career in Hollywood, but when she was asked to reprise a role she had originated on Broadway, she went. In Detective Story (1951) Grant played a shoplifter and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. But Grant was entering a world that was in the midst of upheaval, one that was marred by fear and apprehension. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) had been investigating Hollywood for fear that writers, directors, actors, and producers were inserting subversive, communistic messages into the movies. If the committee found a person uncooperative or deemed them “un-American” in their affiliations or ties, they were put on a blacklist and their career was effectively over. The result was an atmosphere of accusation and fear in which careers and lives were lost, and people often turned on one another to save themselves. After a colleague of Grant’s died of a heart attack, it was her contention that his death was the result of the stress of the blacklist and HUAC. She said as much in a eulogy at his funeral. Mere days later, she found her name in Red Channels, a pamphlet that listed alleged subversives. She refused to name names, the only way to appease HUAC at the time. At age 24, she was blacklisted. Luckily for Lee and for many actors, Broadway and the theatre refused to participate in the blacklist. Although she was now unwelcome in Hollywood, she was still able to perform sporadically in the theatre. However, her husband, who she married around this time, now expected her to stay home and take care of his children from another marriage. This, of course, along with the blacklist, stifled her career. She didn’t work regularly for 12 years. Acting, the place that she had thought of as a home, as a source of comfort, was gone. In her memoir, Grant describes her early days of acting as such. It “was to become my religion. A holy, safe place, a process that took place inside of me and that was to be protected at all costs. Nothing ever was allowed to get between me and the process I had given myself, to create in my own way… My truth. I had at last found my holy grail” (56). But just as quickly as she had found it, it seemed to be gone.
When Lee Grant got off the blacklist in 1964, she was 36 years old. It is on the subject of aging and beauty that Grant is incredibly frank. Lee, knowing the beauty and age standards that existed then in Hollywood, and still persist today, refused to accept that her age would hinder her career. She was finally free of the limitations of the blacklist and a dysfunctional marriage but, unfortunately, she was about to find herself in another kind of prison, one made of exacting and unrelenting beauty standards. Knowing that, by Hollywood standards, she had already passed her prime, she had a facelift, a rare procedure at the time, and speaks of being in a constant state of anxiety that her age would be found out or that her face would betray her, that her beauty would fade. In her memoir, Grant is as aware of the impossible standards as she is of her own involvement in them, and her powerlessness before them. “Nobody on TV or watching TV cared about your quality as an actress or your talent. Talent was my secret weapon. But to survive in Hollywood, I had to physically fit the town’s requirements for a young woman. I had to be pretty, and I had to be cute and funny on set” (207). She submitted to the beauty standards, she had to, but in her examination of them and their effect on her life, she denounces them wholeheartedly. She speaks about her obsession with her lighting, how her face was framed in a shot, and how these concerns often put her in a state of constant conflict with others on set as she attempted to achieve a perfection that, for her, was necessary to survival. All of these things, she knew, could make or break her. She would have to be a vision of perfection, always. There was no room for error. In her films of this era, In the Heat of the Night (1967), Valley of the Dolls (1967), and Shampoo (1975), she is incandescent, she is captivating. It is hard to believe that she was someone who struggled with the unrealistic expectations of Hollywood, that she was forced to mold herself into a more acceptable and youthful form of femininity. It all appears so effortless. But she did. Grant is aware that, in Hollywood, her acting career and her worth as an actor was tied solely to her appearance, rather than her skill. She used this, she benefited from it, but it ultimately restricted and subjected her to a whole new round of anxiety and fear.
When Grant won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her work in Shampoo, she saw it as a bookend. On the one end of her career was Detective Story, on the other, Shampoo. Now that she had proven herself, she could look to new horizons. She had survived. She is the only actor put on the blacklist that managed, once the list had been retired, to build on and surpass her former fame. She had found success after the blacklist. She had proven to everyone that she was worthy. She was done. After her Oscar win, Grant began making documentary films. She chronicled the plight of the homeless and the effect of Reaganomics in Down and Out in America. These were now the stories that she told. And once again, winning awards and acclaim, she was successful.
Lee Grant is the indelible image of cool reserve, an image so related to and of the sixties. She is a woman whose career, as with the careers of so many women, was contingent on her beauty, on her appeal, and not on her talent. But she did have talent. She had so much talent. She had talent and enterprise. Grant was able to continuously reinvent herself. She was not content to disappear. She would survive the blacklist, she would survive a dysfunctional marriage, she would survive the demanding and unrealistic beauty standards of a fickle industry, and she would once again reinvent herself as a director. She is not only the image of reserve, she is the image of survival.
Grant, Lee. I Said Yes to Everything: A Memoir. New York, Blue Rider Press, 2014. Kindle.
Osborne, Robert. “A Conversation With Lee Grant.” Turner Classic Movies. 2014. Video, 37:02. http://www.tcm.com/mediaroom/video/1033419/Conversation-With-Lee-Grant-A-TCM-Original-2014.html.