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    Activist, Actress, and Filmmaker Lee Grant Remains Outspoken and Daring, Even in Her 90s

    By Jan Wahl–

    I recently spoke with actress, activist, and filmmaker Lee Grant for the San Francisco Bay Times; she won the Academy Award as the horny, frustrated Beverly Hills wife in Shampoo. She told me that the set of this Warren Beatty/Goldie Hawn/Julie Christy film was so sexually charged that she called her gay best friend and begged him to “come over here and do me!” She shared, “So, of course, he said to me that we don’t connect this way, darling. But I was desperate! My character in Shampoo was in my head. And since I’m a method actress … !”

    As that moment indicates, Grant is fabulous to know. She is so gutsy and funny while still being smart and willing to take chances.  She has earned her reputation and accolades since she is in her nineties now. She was sharp and feisty with me from her longtime home that once belonged to Harry Belafonte. It is on the Upper West Side of her beloved Manhattan.

    “I loved living in Malibu for years also,” she said. “Ryan O’Neal was a neighbor. Everyone went to the supermarket in bathing suits. Joy Behar is my neighbor here in New York. We go to Zabar’s. I go to the East Side to visit my doctors, but everything I hold dear is on the West Side. I do look for some bushes here to hide behind in case Trump ever shows up. I am a fierce guerrilla fighter against him; it’s my mission. Also, Putin. My mother was from the Ukraine. The evil Putin and Trump: the same person.”

    As a young actress, Grant received an Academy Award nomination for her first film role, The Detective Story. This graduate of the Actor’s Studio was thrilled. A few days later, she was told that she could not work in radio, television, or movies anymore.  That was because the [Senator Joe] McCarthy committee had put her on The No Hire List for her outspoken support of left-wing causes and critical comments made at a friend’s funeral. 

    “The idiot committee got confused between me having a talent agent and being an agent of the communists,” Grant said. “So, I didn’t get work in the industry for seventeen years. I went to Broadway, took anything I could. I moved with my daughter Dinah [now happy and living near Seattle] to Malibu, and then back to Hollywood when they would hire me and received wonderful opportunities.”

    “The offers never stopped coming,” she continued. “I was working on good projects like In the Heat of the Night. Sidney Poitier was so wonderful, using his background in every line reading as we actors do. He would always pull on his own experience. I was also in awe of the talent displayed by Marlon Brando at the Actor’s Studio when I was there. He took remarkable chances and we are the luckier for it.”

    She added, “I loved working with Faye Dunaway on Voyage of the Damned. I could feel her heart beating when she was acting, so true and profound. It is so sad what happened when she made Mommy Dearest. The same for the biggest star ever, Bette Davis, when she made What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Look at the journey they were both forced to make to work as leading ladies. This is bulls–t. I love the British way of letting women age into great roles. Old actresses should work! This business is cruel”

    “I decided years ago to take a wider stance and direct,” she said. “I could control my own projects and destiny. With directing, I could take my life in my own hands. I love documentaries and did many, including 1985’s What Sex Am I?  That was a documentary about transgender people in the 1980s. I won an Oscar again for Down and Out in America, a deep dive into the disenfranchised in our country. I have done wonderful films and have been very lucky.”

    Grant keeps coming back to the idea of luck. I would call it talent, courage, and perseverance. Her memoir is aptly titled I Said Yes to Everything.

    She told me about her favorite actresses growing up, such as Vivien Leigh and Margaret Sullivan, and her great love of plays and playwrights. Her favorite role was in the 1971 television movie The Neon Ceiling, a drama with Gig Young. 

    She never stops having opinions on everything going on. When we spoke, Will Smith had just done his “apology.” I mentioned that I thought it was terrible that he didn’t sit down for an interview with Oprah or a newsperson so that we could help the next generation understand the flash fury of this behavior. The way he did this, he owned the narrative in a self-centered way. Lee agreed, but was her usual colorful, honest self. “Let’s face it,” she said. “This guy dug a grave for himself. I cannot think of a stupider thing to do. And it was a weak slap. I’ve seen better. At his highest moment, he stabbed himself in the throat. Crazy.” 

    Sometimes I get so lucky with a new friend. How honored I am to have spoken with her. Please watch some of her films, including Tell Me a Riddle and the documentary A Father … A Son: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood that provides an inside look at the Hollywood dynasty of Kirk Douglas and his son Michael. Thank you, Lee Grant!

    Jan Wahl is a Hollywood historian, film critic on various broadcast outlets, and has her own YouTube channel series, “Jan Wahl Showbiz.” She has two Emmys and many awards for her longtime work on behalf of film buffs and the LGBTQ community. Contact her at www.janwahl.com

    Published on August 11, 2022