If, like me, you spent the late 1970s glued to ‘The ABC Sunday Night Movie,’ ‘The CBS Late Movie,’ and ‘NBC Monday Night at the Movies,’ then the name Lee Grant probably conjures up images of All-Star casts, international intrigue and blockbuster drama.
From Neil Simon’s “Plaza Suite” to “Voyage of the Damned” to “Airport ’77,” Grant appeared alongside some of the biggest names in Hollywood, in some of the best (or worst, in the case of Irwin Allen’s wonderfully loopy killer-bee epic “The Swarm”) films ever made.
For a period of time, you couldn’t turn on a television without hearing broadcast announcer Joel Crager’s deep, rich baritone voice reciting a who’s-who list of movie stars, ending with the familiar refrain “…and Lee Grant starring in…”
This might explain why Grant’s new autobiography “I Said Yes to Everything” is a book I’ve been waiting years for her to write.
Beginning with dreamy childhood memories and ending with a celebratory Christmas dinner in 2013, Grant takes us through her life’s arc with all the passion and candor that one could hope for. There’s an artfulness to her prose, a sense of adventure and revelation in the way she structures the tale. Not one to dodge a fight or hold her tongue, Grant writes with a clarity and self-deprecating honesty that’s all-too-rare these days. From boldly confessing her deepest fears, weaknesses and vanity, to exposing embarrassing moments like the time she visibly got her period on stage during an opening night performance (and kept right on acting), this is the memoir of an artist with nothing left to hide.
The fact that she does it all with a ribald sense of humor and razor-sharp intelligence makes it that much sweeter.
There’s a vibrant, sensuous quality to the early chapters set in 1930s New York and France. Grant writes with a child’s eye for detail, painting the sights and sounds of the Bronx and Paris with a heightened intensity that’s impossible to resist. We wince at the vicious anti-Semitism she suffers as the daughter of Jewish/Polish parents, and experience her fumblingly awkward sexual awakenings amid the subways and tenement houses of NYC.
Around this time, we witness the birth of an Academy Award winning actress. From the moment she’s chosen at random while walking across the stage at the Metropolitan Opera House on her way to a children’s ballet class, to her years studying alongside Sanford Meisner and teaching at the famed Actors Studio, Grant takes us step-by-step through her development as a performer.
For fans like me, it’s thrilling stuff.
The twelve years she spent on the Hollywood blacklist forms the most fascinating section of the book. Married to a communist playwright at the time, Grant’s fearless commitment to social justice and her outspoken support of accused fellow artists landed her on the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) watch list. Just as her career was skyrocketing, offers for film and television roles dried up overnight. The Kafkaesque events that followed eventually destroyed her marriage and threatened her sanity.
And yet, as righteously angry you’d expect her to be, Grant’s story never bogs down in bitterness or blame. The person we find within these pages is far too practical and grounded for that. Although the toll that Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohen exacted was enormous, Grant outlasted her political enemies and reclaimed her career through sheer determination. It’s truly inspiring.
And then there are the larger-than-life personalities she encounters along the way; from a brooding, mercurial Marlon Brando, to a desperate, haunted Lenny Bruce. Grant spills juicy details about illicit romances with Burt Bacharach and Warren Beatty, and sheds sad light on Melvin Douglas and Grace Kelly, both of whom seem lost and tragic by the time she meets them. Best of all are the outrageous stories she tells about the incomparable Shelley Winters. The two actresses worked together on “The Balcony,” and Winter’s narcissistic bullying instantly clashed with Grant’s professionalism. Their uncomfortable rivalry eventually exploded during promotion for the film at the Playboy Club in New York. I won’t soon forget the image of Lee Grant literally chasing Shelley Winters across the grotto screaming “Cunt!” at the top of her lungs.
The final chapters of the book document Grant’s transition from in front of the camera to behind it. At a certain point, the lack of good roles, coupled with a crippling fear of forgetting her lines, forced the actress to reevaluate her career. An article in the news about a group of women on strike against a bank in Minnesota inspired her to document their plight, which is how she added award winning documentarian and filmmaker to her list of credits.
Covering almost 90 years in the rollercoaster life of a gifted artist, “I Said Yes to Everything” is exactly the book I’d hoped it would be. Near the end, Grant hints that there might be a few more stories for a second memoir.
We should be so lucky!