'Shampoo' star Lee Grant on her new memoir, acting career
Actress Lee Grant came that close to washing "Shampoo" out of her hair when co-star Warren Beatty told her how to play the scene when she learns he has seduced her character's daughter. The matter got resolved after she spoke to the actual director, Hal Ashby, and then to Beatty again. Not only did she win an Oscar for the role, but she and Beatty became great friends, even sharing a few passionate kisses after filming ended.
Grant, 88, relates the story in her memoir, "I Said Yes to Everything," and she'll be signing copies Monday night after a screening of "Shampoo" and a Q&A at the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington. Here's what else she has to say.
Do you think your career would have gone in the direction it did if you quit "Shampoo"?
I'm sure that it would have taken a nosedive if I hadn't done it. On the other hand, I had been nominated for an Oscar twice before and once afterward, so I certainly stayed in the flow as a working actress.
In the book, you deal with being blacklisted for 12 years for not testifying against your first husband and delivering an impassioned speech at blacklisted actor J. Edward Bromberg's memorial. Did you think your career was over?
It was, and I knew it. Film and television were out. I was 24 and it went on until I was 36. For an actor those are your years. I got a great urgency and education during the blacklist and it made me grow up in a way I never could have before, and in very good ways, too.
You write that you had no interest in being the star who has to carry a movie. Why not?
You see stars rise and fall today if their movie doesn't make over $200 million, whereas the supporting actors go on from one film to another. The work was what I wanted to do, and the carrying of the film was such a burden. First of all, the leads aren't the kind of acting work that I like. The parts that are meatier are not the ones that have to have a romance.
Of all your movies nothing can touch "Valley of the Dolls," which is definitely not a great film, but is so much fun. Are you surprised it's become such a cult film?
Not at all. Usually the worst films become cult films. I saw a gay version of it onstage where they did not change a line, and it was hilarious. Those things come along once in a lifetime.
Had you been toying with the idea of writing your memoir for a while?
It really came out of my not remembering names and the fear of losing memory. I started writing to reassure myself that I was still all here. What happened was that a door just opened, and it was so inviting. ... It was a great experience for me, and also it was so reassuring because my memory was amazing in terms of childhood and everything.
What was the most difficult part of the book for you to write?
Losing my family was the hardest. Since I met my husband Joey "the Tomato" [Feury], I've been surrounded with family, and I think that's what this lonely little actress needed. I've found myself very lucky since. ... I've felt enclosed and closed in. Friends and family are everything.
You became an acting teacher during those years you were blacklisted. Did being a teacher help you become a better actress and director?
Practically speaking, it was a way to make a living. If you can't act and nobody's going to give you a job and there's no play on Broadway, what the hell can you do? ... It did open up such a different side of acting to me. I was able to explore so much more, to give my students improvisations, which is what I love the most, improvising on a script.
You've also established yourself as a successful director. Which has given you more satisfaction, acting or directing?
The deeper satisfaction came from acting. And don't forget at that time when I went to Malibu and got "In the Heat of the Night" and all of those films, it was such a personal outlet for me. Even Stella Chernak in "Peyton Place" was a way of funneling all of my past problems into a form that I love and respect and cherish and I am talented at.
The directing was a realization that after "Shampoo" my career was going to go on a turndown and I needed to survive in a meaningful way. ... In 1980, I directed this exquisite film, "Tell Me a Riddle" with Melvyn Douglas and Lila Kedrova. I could not make anything better. Bergman had seen it. His photographer Sven Nykvist worked with me on "Nobody's Child," which I did for TV, and said Bergman liked it, and what else would any new director want but Bergman's approval. And that's why Nykvist wanted to work with me.
"Shampoo" is probably the movie you're best remembered for. Why do you think it has endured?
It was not only a revelation about the values in Hollywood, but it was a reflection of Nixon's America. For me, as a political person, it had tremendously political overtones in terms of the times, the money, the relationships, the shallowness and the inability of the hairdresser to get any kind of realistic concept in his world.
In the early 1960s, you decided to get a face-lift when you were cast as the ingénue in the play "The Captains and the Kings." Was this common for actresses to do back then?
It wasn't, but I was also desperate in my marriage at that point because my husband said I couldn't take the play or we'd break up. He was like the last person to blacklist me, in a way. I was in a very fragile kind of emotional state. The play was asking for a 26-year-old ingénue. I didn't look like that anymore. The years had taken a toll on me. I had this downward look of rejection. It was something I did that saved my life. It was to make my face look smiley again. To have things go up instead of down. And it worked.
You called your book "I Said Yes to Everything." Was there anything that you really wanted to say yes to, and you never had the opportunity?
The only thing I can think of is my stupidity in turning down "Two for the Seesaw." I didn't really get it when I read it. To have Anne Bancroft do it and become the biggest star on Broadway when I knew Arthur Penn wanted me, I understood how stupid and how shortsighted I was.
Was there something you wish you had said no to instead of saying yes?
Not now I don't. I'm sure that in the middle of the blacklist I might have been thinking maybe I shouldn't have gone to the memorial for Bromberg. But when I think about it, what kind of person would I have been if I hesitated about that and knew what was coming about because of it. It was the first step in my education.
WHAT "Shampoo" screening followed by interview and book signing with Lee Grant
WHEN | WHERE Monday night at 7, Cinema Arts Centre, 423 Park Ave., Huntington
INFO $25, 631-423-7610, cinemaartscentre.org