Monday, May 11, 2020

Interview: The Iconic Lee Grant talks about Making Documentaries, Being Blacklisted, What She Wants Every Female Filmmaker to See and Her Virtual Cinema Retrospective

by Suzanne Ordas Curry

Lee Grant. Groundbreaker. Actress. Documentarian. Filmmaker. Role Model. Academy Award Winner.

If you would have told me ten years ago starting a new career in showbiz that I'd be working with some of  Lee Grant's "people" on some projects, I would have not believed it. But you never know what life brings to you.

And speaking of whatever life brings to you, whether good or bad you can take those ingredients and make lemonade out of it or you can just toss them aside and let them sour.  Lee Grant is all about the lemonade. The best lemonade you can make. 

I've had the opportunity to meet with her on several occasions. First, for a signing of her book, I Said Yes to Everything and then at the premiere party for her retrospective at Film Forum in NYC. (And by the way, her possie, including her husband Joey and pal Brenda Vaccaro are always there supporting her). 

Upon first meeting her, I could not believe what a petite yet big dynamo she was. She's poised, articulate, born with the gift of gab, clever, updated and full of spunk. She's got a zest for life, an interest in people and an optimism hard to find these days. She's not done "doing" yet, and she's in her 90's. We talked about things going on in the world now, and she talked about projects she was yet going to do. And if anyone can get something done as a nonagenarian, Lee Grant can.

To be honest I was not aware of all that she had done and been through. I am sure my mother would have known, but with a little bit of research I came to realize that this women broke ground for every woman in the workplace, and was one of the first ladies in Hollywood to "f" the establishment and forge a path for herself in an almost 100% industry dominated by men. Being blacklisted and being Hollywood "old" as a female didn't stop her from doing anything. 

Lee's IMDB profile is so long I stopped counting after 100. Movies and shows include Shampoo, Peyton Place, In the Heat of the Night, Fay, Ben Casey, Plaza Suite and so many more. She is an Oscar and Emmy Award winning actress and a DGA Award winning director. But what is most compelling about Lee is her presence behind the camera with her documentaries, Down and Out in America was before it's time in shedding light on some of the darkest topics in America.

Lee is still working, and you can hear her in the upcoming movie Killian and the Comeback Kids.

Right now, Hope Runs High Films is running the first curated retrospective to be available in virtual cinemas across the country. Called 20th Century Woman: The Documentary Films of Lee Grant it represents the largest series of her work behind the lens. The series is curated by Actor/Director Taylor A. Purdee. You can view them online through the independent movie theater of your choice, helping out the movie theater business at the same time. View here:

Actor John Donchak, Lee Grant and Curator of her 20th Century Woman Retrospective, Taylor A. Purdee

Suzee: First of all, did you ever think you would be the subject of virtual cinema? Did you ever think you would live through something like this? Many of us, including myself, believe this is a message from the universe. What do you think about it, and do you think this pandemic will have lasting change?

LEE GRANT: Never. never ever. I’ve not caught up to what's happening. I don’t know if I ever will.

I can't tell in my NY apt. I go out and walk the dog. I have a terrific husband and terrific sister-in-law. They take such good care of me and they’re fun. I think we’re all making the best of a dreadful time.

Lee Grant with the Douglases
Suzee: In this retrospective, you include A Father... A Son... Once Upon A Time in Hollywood. It played just a few months ago to standing room only at Film Forum, just a few days before we heard of the death of the legendary Kirk. Having been there for this screening and seeing it with the crowd there was quite a shared experience, I was amazed at how genuine Michael and Kirk were in front of the camera. It was like I was sitting at the table with them. How did you get them to open up? What's your history with the Douglas family?

LEE GRANT: Well first of all, Michael is one of my husband Joey's best friends. And Kirk had known me since before the blacklist, Detective Story was just before and he was a huge beautiful star in that, so we’ve had a relationship. And he was the first one who honored blacklisted writers. He brought them into the light and said, this is who wrote “Spartacus”. He was a Spartacus.

"He was a Spartacus."
- Lee Grant on Kirk Douglas

They both had really hard things in their lives. and as friends we were a part of it. So I think they felt they could open up with Joey and me, and have someone to push into the painful places. They asked us to make a documentary about the family. 

Suzee: Tell me something about some of your favorite films in this retrospective. What is special about them to you, is it the message, who you worked with, something about the shooting of the film?

Lee Grant with Roberta Morris, friend and producer

LEE GRANT: Down and Out in America, and What Sex Am I?

First of all, I think I was the only one, the only filmmaker at that time, pealing off what was really going on in that part of American life. That the factories were closing and moving and that families were loosing homes and jobs they had for years. And that people were falling through the grid, just falling. This was really happening and no one had gone in there yet. And so we were shocked and moved, the crew, Tom Hurwtiz who was the cameraman on it, we were all moved. We felt that we were at a historical breaking up of certainties in this country.

Suzee: If there was one film that an aspiring female filmmaker or actress should see that you've done, what would it be?

LEE GRANT: The one I would I wish people would see is Tell Me A Riddle, a scripted film I directed. It’s been kicked to the wayside. It’s extraordinary. It’s too long. But it’s extraordinary. I think Warner Brother’s just bought it for their catalogue. 

"I wish people would see Tell Me A Riddle"
- Lee Grant on what young filmmakers should watch 

Suzee: For all the younger people reading this, you were blacklisted in Hollywood. There were only a handful of females in this list including Lena Horne, Judy Holliday and Dorothy Parker. How did this change your life, especially being that you are a female?

LEE GRANT: You know, I was married to a writer and his friends were writers. And so what happened is that the friends, in the corporate world, in the television world. It’s the story of The Front, the Woody Allen movie that Walter Bernstein wrote. That the front would go to the network and present them something and they'd get paid so that they were able to work during that period. They had friends who knew how wrong taking away these jobs was.

There were a lot more men who were blacklisted than women. And I was very young. I was 21, 21 or something like that, or 23 when I was blacklisted and I didn’t get off it until I was 36, which is your whole life as an actress on the blacklist. And I was fierce about getting my career back, I was fierce about being able to work as an actor and support my family. I was fierce about that as I was fierce about making those documentaries. I was afraid if I opened my mouth I’d lose a job.  But then those documentaries, and to be with HBO, we just kicked open those doors and told the truth, i just felt very honored and liberated. Documentaries liberated me. It was a learning experience. I didn’t know anything before I went through those doors.

"Documentaries liberated me."
- Lee Grant on coming back after being blacklisted.

Suzee:  You are a groundbreaker. You were an actress and then a FEMALE director and producer. I can't think of many other women doing this when you did. Who was your inspiration? How did you know how to produce a documentary.. was it learn as you go?

LEE GRANT: I learned how to make film at the AFI. Documentaries were a lot simpler than making a narrative film. And also, the guys I worked with were genius. Tom Hurwitz, Fred Murphy, Hart Perry, f***ing geniuses. Those were the guys on camera, taking the picture, not me. And they would improvise all the time. I'd see shoots coming up when I’d watch the dailies that I didn’t even know they took. It was just a glorious marriage. 

Suzee: Who was your inspiration?

LEE GRANT: As for inspirations, it was Barbara Kopple's Harlan County USA. I hadn't seen many documentaries, and wasn’t interested they were too dry, and black and white. They were like news of the day. It had been news of the day until Harlan County USA. That film is a knockout. 

And then, Barbara came and did sound for us on When Women Kill. What?! After winning the Oscar and making that incredible film she ran sound for me. But that’s how she is. And she brought her husband Fred Murphy who’d shot Harlan County to film When Women Kill. Just the most incredible team of people.

Suzee: As a female, I've encountered comments from men that should not have been said, and you've dealth with this in they heydays of  Hollywood. Do you really think that the #METOO movement is making a difference?  Do you think it is possible when men are still in charge?

LEE GRANT: Reese Witherspoon is anyway. I love the stuff that she's doing, and she's doing independent films with her buddies, the actors, and she's on the cover of Vanity Fair. Her take was that she was finished, they said she couldn't bring in the box office money any more and so she made her own stuff. And her stuff has been so fresh and so wonderful.

"Her stuff has been so fresh and so wonderful."
- Lee Grant on what Reese Witherspoon is doing now

Suzee: Lee, you look "Mahvelous Darling."  You have talked about how difficult it is to be an actress and maintain any weight that would preclude one from being called a "fat pig." What was your diet like when you were younger, and what is is now? I know you adore Pilates.. well maybe adore is not the right word, but what is your exercise routine like now?

LEE GRANT: Pilates still, once a week, every week. And of course I live with two great chefs, the foods certainly not vegetarian but it’s yummy.

You May Like: The Making of Lee Grant's Virtual Cinema Retrospective

Suzee: Tell me what are some of the movies you like to watch, in this century and the last.

LEE GRANTOh so many. But Joey and I are watching a lot of series these days. Last century - Wuthering Heights. Heathcliffe. That made the biggest difference in my life. I was Cathy and Olivier was Heathcliff. I just floated down 148th Street where we lived and looked in the mirror and said, He's for me.

Sold-out show at NYC's Film Forum
Suzee: What are you watching on Netflix these days?

LEE GRANTLine of Duty, it's an Irish cop series, it's very fresh. Shtisel it is a long series out of Israel about the orthodox. The acting in this and the view of their life and how restricted it is is just extraordinary. And Unorthodox is a spinoff miniseries.

Suzee: When we get out of isolation, what's the first place you will go to?

LEE GRANT: I don't know. Just walk. Just walk. My daughter Dinah just found out that a book she’s written, a novel, is being published. It’s very exiting. Maybe we’ll get to go to some great New York bookstore once everything’s back and see it up their on the shelves. That would be fun to walk to.

Lee Grant's Documentaries Can be Seen in 
Virtual Cinemas Across the Country. 
To find yours visit:

To View through Film Forum in New York City: