Tonight on TCM, Lee Grant Recalls Life on Hollywood’s Blacklist: ‘They Thought I Would Turn In Someone I Loved’
As someone who lived through one attack on democracy in the United States, Oscar-winning actress Lee Grant says she experienced déjà vu awakening to learn the results of the 2016 presidential election. In 1952, just as she had earned a supporting actress Oscar nomination for the film noir classic “Detective Story” starring opposite Kirk Douglas, Grant was placed on the now-infamous Hollywood Blacklist. Led by U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy, Grant had been called to turn in her husband, screenwriter Arnold Manoff before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. She refused.
She didn’t work again until 1964 until a letter arrived on U.S. government letterhead informing Grant she was once again a “good citizen.”
“Waking up the morning after the 2016 presidential election was absolute déjà vu,” recalls Grant, now 92, in the Turner Classic Movies green room before shooting her segments of “The Hollywood Blacklist,” a two-night conversation with host Ben Mankiewicz airing Monday and Tuesday beginning at 8 p.m. “That’s what’s so disturbing about this. There are still some of us who remember what this felt like the last time. We’re living a disturbed life again. From the 1960s on, we were safe. Now, we’re thrown in an absolute cataclysm, a world run by an old television star yelling his ‘You’re fired’ catch phrase. It’s absolutely disturbing.”
On set with Mankiewicz to introduce the 1960 film “Exodus” written by former blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, Grant arguably provides one of the most riveting interviews ever broadcast on TCM as she discusses the impact of getting caught up in McCarthy’s communist witch hunt.
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“I wasn’t political,” Grant tells Mankiewicz on camera. “They never called my husband. They only called me to turn him in. I became so enraged. They thought I wanted to work so much that I’d turn in someone I loved. The difference between Communism and Democracy just depends on who’s running the show. We certainly weren’t a democracy during the Un-American Activities period.”
While Grant brings fascinating insights to tonight and Tuesday night’s interview segments, it should be noted that Mankiewicz, who has clearly done his research, is masterful at drawing her out for poignant details and coaxing anecdotes from Grant’s treasure trove of Hollywood stories.
For example, Grant recalls once again working opposite Kirk Douglas in the 1970 western “There Was a Crooked Man” for Mankiewicz’s great uncle, director Joseph Mankiewicz. Describing her onscreen reunion with actor, Grant tells Mankiewicz, “I had such a crush on Kirk Douglas! One of the big reasons I did ‘There Was A Crooked Man’ was getting to go to bed with Kirk Douglas! He was naked except for a pair of red underwear.”
Alas, the love scene wasn’t as intimate as Grant had hoped. “It was carefully choreographed,” she recalls laughing. “It was all the mechanics of arms and legs intertwined. After the director yelled cut, Kirk got up and said, ‘Nice to see you!’”
Despite being sidelined during her prime working years as an actress, Grant isn’t bitter, pointing out that her work as a character actress wasn’t suited for the light fare of beach movies popular at the box office in the 1950s and early 1960s. “I was blacklisted from the time I was 24 to the time I was 36,” she recounts in the TCM green room. Those are your peak years in front of the camera. My life was very complicated in those 12 years. And when I came off the list, I had to try and start again where I left off as a 24 year old because Hollywood wasn’t hiring 36 year olds. I had to remake myself in their image while keeping myself intact. That became a whole new fight for me.”
It was a fight Grant would ultimately win, finally scoring the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her unforgettable role as the mink coat draped, oversexed socialite Felicia Karpf opposite playboy hairdresser Warren Beatty in director Hal Ashby’s 1975 social satire “Shampoo.”
In her speech, Grant artfully and graciously acknowledged everything she’d been through: “I want to thank the artistic community for sustaining me in my wins and losses and when I was sitting on the curb. Oscar and I had a fight 20 years ago. But he’s changed. I know I haven’t.”
When her speech is read back to her, Grant appears impressed by the words. “I honestly don’t remember what I said!” she concedes laughing. “I was in such complete shock. I was so used to losing and being pushed out of the way by the photographers who were trying to get a photo of the winner.”
But Grant has a clear recollection of what she was thinking as she strode toward the podium inside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion that night, however.
Says Grant wistfully: “I knew my career as an actor would change. I wouldn’t get these parts again. I had reached the age where Hollywood begins to humiliate beautiful women. I wasn’t going to do it. Walking up there, I could almost feel myself accepting that change. It was, ‘Hello, goodbye.’ So I turned to directing. I left before they could kick me out, before they could humiliate me, before they could talk about my wrinkles.”
Top photo: Lee Grant and Ben Mankiewicz on set at TCM in Atlanta between takes of shooting segments for “The Hollywood Blacklist.”
“After The Blacklist: Comebacks,” the final two installments of Turner Classic Movie’s month-long examination of “The Hollywood Blacklist” co-hosted by Lee Grant airs tonight and Tuesday night beginning at 8 on TCM.
Richard L. Eldredge is the founder and editor in chief of Eldredge ATL. As a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Atlanta magazine, he has covered Atlanta since 1990.