Lee Grant, at her home in New York City. Photo: Ali Smith / Guardian / eyevine
As the 1950s began, Lee Grant was set for a stellar Hollywood career. Her debut in Detective Story had won her an Academy Award nomination, the best actress award at the Cannes Film Festival and the praise of her co-star Kirk Douglas, who said she was “a beautiful young girl with extraordinary talent and a big future”. Then the McCarthyites came knocking.
“And it was all over,” Grant tells The Big Issue, speaking over video from the bedroom of her Manhattan apartment. Dragged in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee – suspected of communist sympathies like her husband, screenwriter Arnold Manoff – she was blacklisted from film and television for the next 12 years. A lesser person may have been cowed. Grant was galvanised.
In her long and storied career, Grant went on to go toe-to-toe with the Hollywood establishment, bigots, ageists, LA cops, Texas judges, abusive husbands, murderers. Hell mend anyone who underestimates her. In the entire history of the Oscars, there has only been one person who has bagged a trophy both for acting and as a documentary director. She is that person. Now in her 90s (though not looking or sounding a bit of it) she remains defiant.
“I wasn’t scared during the blacklist,” she insists. “I wasn’t. I had a community. And it was a real fighting community.”
While Manoff and his friends (the “communist literati”, as she refers to them) talked of Marxist theory and economics, Grant found practical solidarity in the New York theatre community. They stood firm against the witch-hunts, offering employment and support to those deemed un-American. “We were not destroyed,” she says. “So this whole island of committed people was my schooling.”
Among the lessons Grant learned was a fierce empathy for people who’ve been downtrodden by the system. Later, it would inform an extraordinary second career as a champion of the dispossessed in Reagan’s America.
Removed from the blacklist in 1963, by 1975 Grant had rehabilitated her career, making memorable appearances in Sidney Poitier movie In the Heat of the Night, classic Columbo mystery Ransom for a Dead Man and comedy film Shampoo. The last of these finally earned her that delayed Oscar for acting. But thanks to Hollywood sexism and ageism, doors were closing rather than opening.
“I hit 49 in Shampoo and so my career as a movie star was over,” says Grant.
As she was looking for what to do next, a friend told her about an ongoing strike by a group of female employees of the Citizens National Bank in Willmar, Minnesota. Facing massive opposition, the Willmar 8 were equal-pay pioneers and became Grant’s first documentary subjects.
“Making the documentary was so freeing. I was a horse out of the gate,” she says. “For me, it was a ‘take that’! You think you can put me down? You think you can get rid of me as an actor? That I’m gonna sit there at 49 and take three-line parts? Fuck you. Fuck you.”
Throughout the 1980s, Grant made a series of documentaries for HBO with themes that are shockingly relevant today. Rereleased in 2020, five of these – The Willmar 8, Battered, What Sex Am I?, When Women Kill and Down and Out in America – are the basis for a retrospective at this year’s Glasgow Film Festival. It’s a welcome sliver of the recognition they – and Grant – are due.
All feature incredible personal testimony from people on the sharp end of injustice: the strikers in Willmar, victims of domestic abuse, women imprisoned for murder. In 1985’s trailblazing What Sex Am I? Grant meets a group of trans people in ’80s America. Both her sensitivity and their openness are striking. They had such a “desperation to be understood”, she says.
“I keep thinking of the tall, unattractive guy who was married, with a daughter. There could not be a more unattractive woman in this world. And he is saying, ‘I am born to be a woman.’ Please,” says Grant, her hand clasped to her chest, “you’re breaking my fucking heart. And I believe you.”
But it is 1986’s Down and Out in America that is her magnum opus. From farmers facing foreclosure to the family falling apart as they’re crammed together in one rat-infested welfare hotel room, it exposes the suffering bubbling under the thrusting success story of Reaganomics. At one stage, Grant visits a group of homeless people in Los Angeles who’ve used discarded wood and plastic to build their own settlement on a vacant lot. They call it Justiceville.
“It was small, and it was civilized,” says Grant. “They had a mayor. It was so dear, and eager, and good, and charming. They wanted so much to make a place for themselves.” The owner of the lot agreed to let them stay but the authorities are implacable. The next day, the meagre shelters are bulldozed.
Those stories have stayed with Grant. But “the thing is,” she says, “today it is worse. I live on West End Avenue. When I go up to Broadway, my friend, the toothless lady on the corner, is there as she has been for the last 25 years. Down the street is the guy who has his bedding right in front of the deli. And I go past and say hi. This horde of stricken unemployed people – young, old. The people I see now are desperate. They’re just desperate people.”
Grant says her instinct is to go out and make another documentary, but in the post-Trump world – after the January 6 riots – it doesn’t feel safe. “I want to hold a mirror up to what’s happening now. But I’m too scared. For the first time in my life, I’m scared. I’m a joyous target, you know? It’d be nothing to take me out. I’m not guarded.”
She’s putting her faith in the current president of the United States as a bulwark against the Trumpians. “I salute President Biden,” says Grant. “I think that is the bravest old man. I see this fucking old man, and I’m moved by him. And I root for him.”