Actress and director Lee Grant reflects on living through the darkest period in Hollywood’s history.
Originally published on Little White Lies on 5th February 2016
In 1951, Lee Grant was a promising young Hollywood actress with a glittering future. She had just earned rave reviews on Broadway for her performance in ‘Detective Story’, and an Oscar nomination for her debut screen role in the film version, in which she starred alongside Kirk Douglas. Just when it seemed things couldn’t get any better for the 23-year-old, however, they got a lot worse. Weeks before her nomination, Grant found herself on the Hollywood Blacklist, costing her 12 prime years of her career.
“It was war,” Lee recalls in a voice still full of righteous anger despite her 87 years. “It was war, and which side were you on? There was certainly no choice in my mind over who were the really stupid bad guys and who were the good guys.” The Blacklist was introduced in 1947 by the House Un-American Activities Committee, in cooperation with the major Hollywood studios, in order to counter what was seen as a growing Communist threat in America. The first victims became collectively known as The Hollywood Ten, an ostracised group that included legendary screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who is the subject of a new biopic, Trumbo, starring Bryan Cranston.
Grant admits she may have been, “mistaken for a Communist because I was married to a Communist,” but it’s clear that to her Trumbo and co were the good guys. Despite never knowing Dalton personally, she was certainly aware of his larger-than-life personality: “All of the men who were of that period – Ring Lardner and Zero Mostel – all of the musicians and actors, were so extraordinary and I had never ever met people like that. I mean, I was in a hit play and I knew Kazan and Strasberg, but they were not on the level of what these people were.”
Grant had nothing but respect for her contemporaries, but that turned to pity in 1956 when politician Nikita Khrushchev revealed the truth about Stalin’s regime in the Soviet Union. Stalin had ordered the execution of roughly a million Soviet citizens during his ‘Great Purge’ of 1936-38, a fact hidden from the rest of the world. “That was such a blow,” says Lee with a heavy sigh. “A blow to their whole belief system; it was tragic in a way. That whole group were involved socially with what they felt were the important things, the good things in life, and they were misled on what was being done.” In contrast to the atrocities of the Soviet Union, Grant describes the community of Blacklistees as having a kind of “Bernie Sanders good guy [feel] about them all.” More than anything, she says, “they didn’t have a sense of what Stalin was doing to artists like them, you know? So the irony was so…bizarre.”
Many of those who found themselves blacklisted may have had their belief systems shattered, but Grant’s suffering was more personal than most. She was asked to testify against her then husband, Arnold Manoff, in front of the HUAC and, in refusing, she developed a mental block. “After that afternoon with the committee I never remembered the names of any of my friends. That stayed with me for the rest of my life.” It was only when writing her recent memoir, ‘I Said Yes to Everything’, that Grant was able to come to terms with what had happened during the Blacklist era. “It was very hard, and a huge facing of myself and everything, but writing the book really released me from a lot of things because I just told the truth for the first time in my life.”
Though the Blacklist years were undeniably tough, Grant and her colleagues survived by pulling together. Her husband Manoff brought in what money he could, working as a screenwriter under an alias like Trumbo, while Grant herself returned to the theatre where the actors’ union Equity struck a deal which ensured there would be no Blacklist. She describes it as, “like dancing on the head of a pin, because most of us were living in the same apartment house – I had my daughter Dinah in that apartment building.”
Just as Trumbo depicts the absurd situation where blacklisted screenwriters were still working and even winning Oscars, hearing Grant’s reflections raises various contradictions. “You found yourself in the most interesting community you ever wanted to be in,” she reminisces, “because these were fascinating people and you were fighting for your life in a way. You were in the most charming war that could possibly be fought, but people were dying.” At this point Grant’s voice becomes more sombre, reiterating the harsh reality of life on the Blacklist. “I don’t know whether Trumbo, or any film, can reflect that kind of intensity and normality at the same time.”
One of the first victims of the Blacklist to affect Grant was an actor named Joe Bromberg, and it was her decision to speak out at his funeral in 1951 that landed her on the Blacklist. Bromberg had already refused to testify once in June that year, and Grant recalls how, “Joe had said to me that the committee was calling him again and that he had a bad heart and didn’t think he could survive it. So I simply said what he had told me, and two days later I was Blacklisted for the next 12 years.”
Grant was banned from working in Hollywood from the age of 23 to 36, which she refers to as her “ingénue years”. It was a heavy blow and, Hollywood being Hollywood, in order for Grant to resume her career she was forced to “hide the fact that I was 36.” She had her first facelift aged 31 and credits it with not just making her look younger but feel happier. Her return to the limelight was immediate, beginning with a role on hit TV show Peyton Place, for which she won her first of two Emmys.
From then on Grant’s acting talent continued to shine through, and in 1971 she earned her second of four Oscar nominations, finally winning in 1975 for her role as a politician’s wife in Hal Ashby’sShampoo. She went on to appear in Airport ’77 and later Mulholland Drive, but it was her directing career that really took off – in 1987 she received the Oscar for Best Documentary for recession-era exposé Down and Out in America.
When the conversation returns to the Blacklist years, I ask whether those who named names were viewed as traitors. Grant takes a moment to answer: “Yeah.” She describes the decision of her husband’s friends and co-workers to turn their friends in, in order to work again, as “heart-breaking.” She tells me the story of Larry Parks, a huge star at the time and one of the first people to go in front of the committee, who begged not to testify but was promised “his next big movie” in return. After giving HUAC the names they wanted, he wound up being despised by both sides. He never worked in Hollywood again.
Parks’ story is indicative of how the Blacklist turned people against each other. Grants tells me with great sadness how so many of her peers at the time died before they were 60, in part due to the pressures and stress of the Blacklist and everything it brought with it.
It seems crazy today to think that the studios ever agreed to the Blacklist in the first place, but the collective might of the major studios far outweighed that of individual actors and writers. Surely the studios could have resisted the government? According to Grant, it wasn’t that easy. “They were Jewish-Americans. [The studios] were Jewish-American, and the war had just been fought over how the Jews should be eliminated and exterminated from the world, okay? And so, you think that those Jews that ran the studios weren’t sensitive to the fact that they had to prove how American they were?” It all makes perfect sense when you look at it like that, but the reality that this misguided sense of patriotism led to the destruction of so many lives is a desperately sad fact.
Although the careers of most of the Blacklistees were destroyed, Grant reserves much of her sympathy for their children. “They had their lives taken away from them. Even after the courage of their parents, their whole lives were spent defending them – Chris Trumbo spent the rest of his life getting Dalton’s credits back. Chris died young. He wrote a play about his father – and it was very successfully done – but his life was Dalton. So many of the children’s lives were just extinguished by the need to protect their parents. That’s something that people really don’t realise and talk about.”