I’m Like History Passing By: An Interview With Lee Grant

Lee Grant
AFI

On a recent cold, rainy afternoon in Manhattan, I stepped off the elevator in front of Lee Grant’s apartment to see the 92-year-old standing in her doorway with arms thrown open, eager to welcome me into her “Russian Easter egg.” Stepping inside Grant’s sprawling pre-war home sparks immediate sensory overload; so full is it with decades’ worth of photos, artwork (including a giant unfinished canvas upon which Grant’s husband, producer and artist Joseph Feury, is painting a portrait of her), and stuff, your eyes aren’t quite sure what to focus on first. Everything about it screams: This is the home of a woman who has lived.

Grant is a Hollywood veteran, with a staggering 70-year career that transcends genre, medium, and even the limitations of the industry itself, having successfully engineered a trailblazing second act pivoting from actor to director in the mid 1970s. High on a bookshelf nestled in the corner of her sun room sits a small sampling of proof: two Oscars (one for Best Supporting Actress in 1976, a second for Best Documentary Feature in 1986), two Emmys, and a Directors Guild Award—the first awarded to a woman in the organization’s then-49 year history. Quite simply, Lee Grant has the range. 

Her career even survived a 12-year McCarthy-era period of blacklisting. At just 24, and newly married to Communist screenwriter Arnold Manoff, Grant spoke at a fellow actor’s memorial, insinuating an investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee contributed to his fatal heart attack. Subsequently called to Washington, she refused to hand over names; her just-launched film career ground to a halt. When she returned to the spotlight at 36, she hit the ground running, and hasn’t stopped since. 

The trauma of being silenced for 12 years lingers; she explains that the shock has caused names of even her closest friends to evade her for decades. But today, Grant still has a lot to say. Over coffee, she discussed her turn from acting in films like 1975’s Shampoo to directing social justice documentaries, many of which will show in a 13-film retrospective of Grant’s career on both sides of the camera—the first of its kind—at New York City’s Film Forum now through February. She lambasted the parallels between today’s political climate and the days of McCarthy, as well as Hollywood’s long history of cruelty towards women. Grant has lived through some of the most toxic parts of American history and is angry that more hasn’t changed. Despite this, however, she still remains soft and good-humored—which is all one can hope to be after enduring decades of mistreatment in a merciless industry. At one point, as our conversation stretched into its second hour, in the middle of contemplating the perils of ageism, she reached over, cupped my chin in her hand, and called me “little cutie face.”

A recent tweet by Be Kind Rewind quipped: “My goal for 2020 is to get everyone to start stanning Lee Grant.” If 2019 could see the renaissance of the eternally reclusive Elaine May, then with this kind of unapologetic candor, a Grant-aissance surely seems possible.

Detective Story (1951)
Lee Grant in ‘Detective Story’ (1951) | Paramount Pictures 

The new Film Forum retrospective is really exciting, especially in terms of how comprehensive it is. How did that come together?

I was at the Elaine May retrospective at Film Forum. I worship Elaine May.

So do I.

Her first movie! She wrote it, she directed it, she starred in it—it was so extraordinary! And Bruce Goldstein [Repertory Programming Director of Film Forum] was there, and I said “What about me!?” And he took me up on it! I was kidding. [laughs] But he took me up on it! All of a sudden, he made November, December, January about the work that I’ve done. 

I love it because it’s aficionados. There’s no New York Times coming in and doing reviews. It’s people who really know the work who come. It’s very gratifying for me. It’s very freeing.

How so?

Because I don’t have any obligations, and it’s the part of my work that I feel closest to. The documentaries are all issues that I was violently connected with—Down and Out in America and When Women Kill and especially the Texas documentary, Women on Trial.

Women on Trial was such a shock because it’s a documentary about women with children where a judge ruled that the child be taken away from the woman and given to the husband, whom she is no longer with. The idea was so shocking, but so evident, and it was happening before our eyes. And when we showed it on HBO, that judge sued HBO for millions and millions of dollars and it broke our contract with them.

When that happened, how did that feel? You had done everything right, you got all the clearances, sorted out the legal permissions.

You know, I was so immersed in the problems of these women that it was like, “Oh, I understand. They’re being sued for millions.” I didn’t have any “What about me? What about the Oscar?” It wasn’t that. It was, “How do I continue?” The shock of going into these interior places where we were doing our documentaries was so novel to me. It was like Alice in Wonderland, all of these places I was stepping into. I leave my home, which is my barricade, and step out into a situation that I have to do something about. And the great thing I can do about it is to film it, to ask these people who I’m meeting for the first time, “Why? Why is this happening to you?” And know that when I show it, I can help. 

Right, and bring awareness so other people see it and want to do something.

Well, especially with HBO, because that reached millions of people. 

But now Women on Trial is being shown for the first time in 27 years. What took so long to get it back out? 

Well, how do you show it? The events took place in 1992. The contact that I had with the women continued with one woman. The assistant to the judge, who was helping to take away the children, his wife called me and said, “This guy took my daughter from me. What can you do?” And I said, “I could cry for you, but you’re living there, and he’s a villain.” A very suave villain, as you’ll see in the documentary. What can I do? The documentary is over. I’m sued. I’m out at HBO. Life goes on, unfortunately. The little girl had strength enough to get away and eventually go back to her mother. And, as you’ll see when you see, there were two kids who managed to get back to their mother, too. It’s a horrendous story.

It sounds punitive, in a way. They were angry that you even dared to make it, so they were going to stop it from being shown at all. 

Well, not HBO. I’ve got to say, they were at my back for every film—and all my films were controversial. All of them went to a place where they hadn’t gone before, as far as we were concerned. They were at my back each time, but this was money. Fortunately, we were able to go to Lifetime. Joey was the producer. He’s very persuasive. He’ll do anything. He’ll get on his knees, he’ll beg, he’ll sing…and so he got us another gig, which went on for years.

I wasn’t aware until recently how many episodes of Intimate Portrait you directed for them.

Yeah, and one or two documentaries. Not ones I’m totally happy with, but we did do one on weapons and it’s okay. But at least we did a documentary on guns.

All of your documentaries were ahead of their time, focusing on subjects that not a lot of people were talking about, and certainly not women. What was it like being the one of the first to do so?

I felt so liberated. Having to be silent during the 12 years that I was blacklisted, and then going into Hollywood, where I had to try and take 10 years off my age so I could play all those brilliant parts that I played—which I am very grateful for because I had great directors and great films that I acted in. But I also was very aware that I had to keep quiet, that I had a reputation, that if I wanted to stay, I had to stay off whatever stuff was going on. So, I didn’t say anything for so long.

Then I made a film at AFI. They set up a women’s directing workshop [in 1974], and I did a half-hour film of [August] Strindberg’s [The Stronger]. Strindberg is so anti-woman. It won a prize, and it was shown at the same time as Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, USA. My jaw dropped. This was—I get chills when I think about it—this was life! This was real! She was there. And now she was sitting right next to me. It was like I fell in love. You could say the truth! You can hold a mirror up to life and get paid for it! And say what you think, and say what you mean, all through filming other people’s life. The appetite that I had for doing it, for making it, for asking it, for getting it on—it was like food and water for the first time. I had had to hide so much. 

It was surprising to me to discover that AFI had been so proactive about making something that was for women.

It was the first time. I was so lucky, because they said, “Do you know anybody?” I recommended a friend of mine, then I called them back to say I’d be interested. I never, ever conceived of myself as a director. Everything was about acting, and I was a passionate actor, but I could feel that I was getting too old for that town. The kind of parts that I was getting, even in Shampoo, I was a mature woman. I wasn’t as hot as Julie [Christie] or Goldie [Hawn].

I could see the handwriting that this was my last hurrah in a certain sense. And that’s really what took me into that lane of “Is there another life for me in this? Because acting, I know, is gonna be out.” All there is is film and television. I can’t do lines anymore. I’d gone up on stage and forgot my lines in The Prisoner of Second Avenue and it became a sickness, my fear of failure. 

Which is big.

It was a huge, tragic loss for me. Huge. So, really, it was a great way out for me.

Shampoo (1975)
Warren Beatty and Lee Grant in ‘Shampoo’ (1975) | Paramount Pictures

If you hadn’t gone into directing, do you ever think about what you would have done instead?

No, nothing. Nothing. Teach, which I’ve always done through the years to make money.

Being a documentarian is like being a journalist; you are telling stories you’re interested in, and you really want to have your own viewpoint come across, but it is someone else’s story. How do you stay true to both and find that balance of being objective, but still very much through your lens?

I have this heightened sense of fairness and unfairness because of my own life. When I took on the very first one [for HBO], that was assigned to me, to go to the women’s prisons, and it could not have been a better job for me at the time. It was exactly the place I needed to go to to see what other women were going through and to see why they were there. I mean, When Women Kill…it’s because they’re threatened and they’re fighting for their life. Most of the women who I interviewed in prison had been battered women. That door that was opened to me was not something I had to look for.

It’s incredible that they took a vote of confidence in you and assigned you something at a time when there weren’t a lot of women directing.

Well, those were all the [issues] I was coming to them with. I came to them with Down and Out in America and they were not sure whether that was a subject they wanted to do, and I got a job acting. I was Mrs. Mussolini. We were shooting in Yugoslavia. George C. Scott was Mussolini and Robert Downey, Jr. and other incredible actors were the Mussolini kids. It’s a terrible, terrible film. I mean, it was just the worst! [laughs] 

But the insanity of being Mrs. Mussolini in Yugoslavia when Joey calls and says, “We’ve got Down and Out in America. There’s another couple going to HBO who want to do it.” And I say, “It has to be done. If I can’t get back in time, these people who are getting it…Maybe they should go with it. It’s that important.” He goes, “What!? Are you fucking out of your fucking mind!? That was something YOU brought to them!” So we got to do it. [laughs] I managed to get out of Mrs. Mussolini earlier and I got home and we got to do it.

There’s a double-edged sword now where celebrities are expected to be outspoken politically, yet they’re punished for it at the same time.

You know, not long ago, actors on [Will and Grace] wanted to put on the internet the names of actors who were going to this fundraiser party for Trump. Whoopi Goldberg, on The View, said, “Don’t do this. Don’t blacklist from the left the way the right blacklisted all those many years ago, because you pay for it. You don’t turn anybody in.” I loved her for that.

It’s a good point. People are also under pressure for not saying anything, like Taylor Swift, who for so long didn’t say anything, which made people very upset. 

Leave her alone. I mean, that kind of thing, that kind of pressure destroys you, because you don’t know where it comes from. It doesn’t come from you saying to me, “Why didn’t you do that? I think you should have done that.” And I say, “Fuck you! That’s your opinion.” That’s not across the table; that’s a threat from a cloud of faceless people saying, “We see you, and all the things you’ve done don’t make any difference because you didn’t do this, or you did do this!” Who is anybody to say who is right and who is wrong? Except if it’s about the fucking president. 

Does this political time remind you a lot of the McCarthy era?

Of course. It is exactly the same. Trump’s old lawyer, Roy Cohn, was McCarthy’s lawyer. To me, it’s the same. This buffoon, Trump, is like the buffoon McCarthy, who had Roy Cohn behind him with his evil little mind working all the time. By the way, I played Roy Cohn’s mother.

What was that like?

A very good friend, great writer, great director, Frank [Pierson], said, “Which do you want to play: Ethel Rosenberg or the mother of Roy Cohn?” And I said, “The mother of Roy Cohn!” I want to be the mother of the alligator. Let me learn what makes this ferocious, filthy man the way he is. And, of course, I didn’t. But at least I was tempted to go there.

But it’s the insanity of it, the insanity of the McCarthy period and Roy Cohn and the insanity of Trump, who is so like McCarthy, except he’s more practiced. He’s been on television for, what, 10 years? He’s a performer. 

There are also parallels between now and Down and Out in America and how you showed this whole subset of the population whom Reaganism was failing.

Yes, absolutely.

People are voting against their own interests and there’s a lot of disillusionment in America both now and then…

Reagan was on the side of McCarthy. He was the head of SAG, and he perpetrated the blacklist in the Screen Actors Guild. He took that to the presidency, too. He was a good actor. He was a very good character actor and he was like the all-American guy. That fooled a lot of people.

Since 2016, though, so much progressive change has happened. I think a lot about #MeToo’s huge impact, and how now there’s this retroactive look at the ways in which Hollywood was very unkind to women, not only with blatant sexual harassment.

Very. And, yes, it’s not the sexual harassment.

It’s everything.

It’s your span of work. I mean, you had to be fucking beautiful. You know? I look at English films that are so wonderful, or the new season of The Crown. Every old English actor is in every fucking movie! They use them! You go from beautiful to actor to character actor and so all of these ages are used in their films. We don’t use them. We have a formula.

Look at poor, poor Robert Redford. He has to play the same leading guy. His hair has to be coming over the side and he has to be cute and hunky. But he’s old now! [laughs] Let him play that! Let him play “I’ve matured to this place where I’m this character now. I’m not the young, beautiful guy, and I should not be pushed into being that anymore. Let me play myself.”

In the Heat of the Night (1967) | United Artists

You’ve been refreshingly candid about both ageism in Hollywood and being insecure about your own looks.

Well, the necessity of film is to be beautiful. It’s such a weight on all the women, and it had tragic overtones for getting older as an actress in Hollywood. Even though I was there at a new time, it still…being allowed to pull apart an actor because they don’t live up in the next two or three years to what they looked like those three years before, it’s just… 

It’s very sad, and it’s very unfair.

It is very sad. I watched The View yesterday and Jamie Lee Curtis was on, and she had grey hair and a sweet, natural face. It was such a celebration of getting older, and it’s okay. It was so refreshing. It was such an open door to see that she just did another movie where she is how she is, and not having to be cute and beautiful and funny. 

But thinking back to Redford—he’s someone who has directed himself a lot, and created roles that he wanted for himself. Would you have ever thought about doing that?

No.

Why not?

I don’t interest me that way. Not at all. But I’ve directed versions of the documentaries that I’ve made. I’ve made [narrative] television versions. It got the subject out to more people. I did one with Marlo Thomas about a woman Gloria Steinem introduced to someone, who had been in an asylum for a long time and Marlo played it and she was brilliant and she got an Emmy for it and I got a Directors Guild Award for it.

The first woman to get the Directors Guild Award.

Yes, and that meant a lot to me.

Do you watch a lot of films or TV now?

I watch Netflix constantly. We’ve been watching The Crown. Oh, it’s so good. The acting is so superb, and of course, there are all these older actors on it. We’ve known them through the years, when they were kids themselves, these actors. 

Some of the most exciting film is happening on streaming platforms.

It is. Most films coming out are those big, powerful hero flicks, which I don’t care about. But the acting, the work on streaming, is really beautiful. The girls are doing beautiful work in Big Little Lies, all of them—they’re all doing such beautiful work and it’s so intimate and so mysterious. In The Crown, they’ve also made it so intimate. Olivia Colman, who I thought would be terrible in it, she’s just this great character, this woman trying to go through life trying to be what she’s supposed to be. It’s a revelation on how you inherit a role and how it can work for you or it can’t work for you.

I mean, there are certainly interesting films streaming, and I think that’s opening up more opportunities for women directing, especially in the independent realm. A few of the best films I’ve seen this year have been directed by women.

Really? You’ll have to give me a list, honey. I’m starting to get the Academy [screeners] now, so I can look out for them.

Plus, so many older women are acting in starring roles.

Who?

Jessica Lange, Susan Sarandon, and, I mean, Laura Dern and—

Laura Dern is NOT an older woman! She is not!

No! No, but I mean, in the context of Hollywood, if over 50—

No, she’s not! Is she over 50?

She is! I mean, if we’re talking in terms of the “cutoff” age of Hollywood. In the past few years, she—

Laura Dern, she’s that rare character actress who has made her way through on the strength of her love of acting, really.

Right, but all these roles are opening up for women now.

The thing she got together with Reese Witherspoon, Big Little Lies, I think that’s sensational! What could be better? The story is sensational. Talk about women being…

Whole creatures.

Yes, yes! 

Do you think if these opportunities existed or were more prevalent in your time, you would have pursued them? Or was directing already becoming it for you?

You know, I just was so enamored with documentary. It was so new to me. It was such a love affair. I had everything I wanted out of acting. Maybe now, 30 or 40 years later, these opportunities coming up would have been interesting to me then, but this was letting myself out of the bag. I had to sit on so much for so long that letting myself see a situation and say, “Look at it. Look at what’s happening” was just such a gift for me. And it wasn’t all about me. The burden, coming through for everything. It wasn’t all about me. It was about them.

Did you ever have a documentary you wanted to make where you thought, “Maybe I’m not the best person to tell this story. Maybe this is not my story to tell?”

I never, ever thought that. [laughs] Never, ever. I always thought I was the best person to tell the story and never gave another person a thought. Never. 

I love that, though, because I think so many people—and I think it especially affects women—get this imposter syndrome.

That sounds very young. It sounds very young. By the time I was doing it, I was over 50. 

Even when directing was new to you? When did you feel you really hit your stride and knew what you were doing?

I know what I’m doing with my passion and working with the actors, but I never knew what to do with the camera. I always had a partner on camera who was flying with me. Fred Murphy, great cameraman, did Tell Me A Riddle with me, and he said to me, “Lee! It’s simple geometry!” [laughs] But I don’t understand any of that stuff. I failed arithmetic!

I always felt that I had a partner in the camera guy that would take over the parts that I was not good at. I could say, “Get this! Get that!” But they were geniuses. My ass was covered all the way with the people I was working with on camera. They were partners. They were amazing. I lucked out with every camera person I ever worked with, including Willmar 8, with Judy Irola. She came down from San Francisco and, again, just saved my ass, because she was a veteran. I knew the questions, I knew what I wanted to get, and I could see the drama, but I let the camera people do their thing and cover it the way they did. 

Knowing what questions to ask and knowing your way in is important.

Don’t forget, I had women producers with me who helped make up those questions.

Which was so ahead of your time!

We were a team. It wasn’t me alone. All these smart women: Roberta Morris, Prue Glass, Mary Beth Yarrow—she was the one who showed me the thing in the newspaper about these women going on strike in Willmar. We went there together because her husband at that time raised a couple thousand bucks so we could go and interview them.

Doing documentaries has a kind of invention to it. It’s like, let’s go there and let’s find out. It has a spirit to it that you just do it. These women who were producing with me on each thing, I asked the questions, they wrote it out so I had things to refer to, and if I needed it, it was there. If I didn’t need it, if I saw something happening with the person I was talking to, as you are with me, I’d say, “Wait a minute, your husband left you?” You know? All of that was open to what was happening in the moment. 

It really is incredible that you had so many women on your team.

All women. All women producers.

Was that just who you naturally gravitated to, or was it a proactive choice to work with an all-female team?

It really happened because of Roberta. I knew Roberta when she was a little girl; she babysat for my daughter [actress Dinah Manoff]. And so I [watched her grow up], and she grew up to be a great producer. She was a natural in the business. Mary Beth was leaving her husband, so what should she do except attach to something which she would be interested in? Prue Glass was a social worker at the time, who knew how to get us into the prisons, and just came in and became one of the producers. Virginia Cotts, who had been producing for us for a long time, she was one of the people in Women on Trial who was with us in the courtroom. She was also brilliant. All of these women who were so smart and connected to both the problem and to me, these were my best girlfriends. It was a great group. We were friends. 

Which is important.

I don’t know any other way.

It’s hard to work with people you don’t really like or even know well.

I would be scared of that. A lot of the women who were our bosses at HBO and Lifetime, I didn’t have that kind of connection to. You had to explain and reach across and I wasn’t that good at that. Joey was good at it. They were good at it. Actors don’t have that experience of being producers, so they really were such a help in telling our bosses what we were doing and why we were doing it and talking them into it.

Do you think it helped that your bosses were often women?

Oh yeah, absolutely. They were very open and warm and welcoming. We did work with Sheila Nevins at HBO, who has a kind of mixed reputation of being really tough and also a great boss. She’s a great producer. She surely gave us all of these remarkable documentaries to do. But she’s tough, and I like that. I like having things pointed out to me that may work or may not.

Speaking of HBO, about a year ago they aired Jane Fonda in 5 Acts. She’s someone who has lived through so much, as have you. 

Well, that was Susan Lacy. Susan Lacy kind of started a documentary on me about two months ago. Either it’ll be shown or it’ll be put in their vault for some other time. It was a long, four-hour interview. She’s a very tough interviewer. She’s an old friend and she’s made two of the best documentaries on other people that I’ve seen. The first was Leonard Bernstein, which was just extraordinary, and the last one was Jane Fonda. I thought it was a very, very interesting piece of work and it brought Jane out in a way that I had never really seen before, and I admired her so much. What did you think?

I loved it. I’ve watched it way too many times; I love Jane Fonda.

Yeah, I just thought it was a great exploration. Really, really well done. So she started this thing on me, which I like the idea of having before I go, that kind of thing on film.

You directed your own Intimate Portrait episode, though. I thought that it was so cool that you did it yourself. I love the power of that. 

[laughs] Oh honey, you have to see it. It is so self-serving!

I watched it! It’s on YouTube.

It’s on YouTube!? Oh, you’re kidding!

It’s a terrible VHS rip, but watchable.

[laughs] Not only that, but I had so much scrim on it! I made it so soft that even standing there looking at it, you couldn’t tell my nose from my mouth. [laughs] I beautified myself so much, I had this floral dress on…oh my God! 

Well, it’s interesting to me that you’d direct that but you wouldn’t want to direct yourself acting, the way you said you don’t interest yourself that way.

I don’t have that gift of saying, “Well, how are you today?” You have to have a real point of view to skewer or pet somebody, because you know where to get them and how to bring out the best and the worst in them. I don’t think we have that talent on ourselves.

I remember growing up, Intimate Portrait was on all the time, and it fascinated me. I loved that they were about brilliant women you captured so wholly.

Yes! Oh, it was such a good, fun thing to do. Great, great, great visits. I did a lot of interesting women. 

What made it so much fun?

I was fortunate enough in doing this kind of work to make friends with the women that I admired. Who could ask for anything more? I mean, you’re doing me! Lucky you! [laughs] I’m like history passing by, you know? [laughs] That surprise shock of being with somebody who is basically history, in a sense. Like me. 

People who are history, but also fascinating.

Yes, and fascinating! And pretty. You gotta add pretty. That’s all that counts. [laughs]

Speaking of being part of history, how do you feel about—between the Film Forum retrospective and your docs coming to streaming platforms soon—a younger generation discovering your work for the first time?

I just feel liberated. It’s a very interesting thing. You know, when I wrote [I Said Yes To Everything], the Times‘ book section refused to review it.

What?

That’s right. The Times‘ book section refused to review it. And as a New York City person, as a New York City actor, as a New York City director…They wouldn’t say why. I don’t know what made them say, “No, we’re not reviewing her book.” But it hurt me. It hurt my feelings. 

So, this is a kind of opening that an artist wants. The people who really want to see your work and are open to it and are smart about it, who have a history with you that you don’t even know about, come. It’s like you know me, I know you. It has nothing critical in it. It has a sense of together, we discover these things. You discover me without my knowing about it. 

And, you know, it’s like being able to go to your own funeral. Everybody loves you and appreciates you and says good things about you. [laughs] 


This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Down and Out in America, What Sex Am I? When Women Kill, and Women on Trial will be available to stream in January 2020. Grant will appear in the upcoming feature Killian & the Comeback Kids this spring.