Lee Grant’s Career Is Like a Sea Turtle’s

Lee Grant has had a long career — and she ain’t done yet.

Posted Jan 27, 2020

Sea turtles take 20 years to mature, then live to be a 100 — like Lee Grant.

Lee Grant (born Lyova Haskell Rosenthal) made her first screen appearance in Detective Story, starring Kirk Douglas, which was released in 1951, and began filming in 1950. (She had appeared in the play on which the film was based in 1949.)

Grant was on stage and onscreen the entire film as a kind of Greek chorus knitting the story together. (Her role was as a young woman caught shoplifting a handbag waiting to appear in night court.)

But the film didn’t start a glorious film career. The next year she was blacklisted by the House on Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).

This was despite Grant having been nominated for best supporting actress for Detective Story, although she didn’t win at that time.

Flash forward a quarter-century, when Grant did win that Academy Award for her role in the 1975 film, Shampoo, playing a middle-aged woman with whom Warren Beatty has an affair.

Perhaps, you might think, Grant had become a go-along actress in the interim.

Not exactly:

"During one scene, she wanted to play it in a way she felt was more realistic from a woman's perspective, but Beatty disagreed. After thinking about the scene for a few days, she told director Ashby that she could not do it Beatty's way and was quitting. As she was walking out, Beatty stopped her, and asked what was wrong. "I sat down and told him", she said. "He threw up his hands and said, 'Play it your way. What do I know? I'm a man.'"1

Grant was not without her anxieties as a fiftyish woman:

"I was becoming my own worst enemy as an actor, traumatized onstage and fixated on staying young so I could keep working in film. A woman of a certain age does not play in movies or TV; we're kicked to the side or out. And I was a woman of a certain age, terrified I'd be found out and unemployed again."2

But she did continue to work, for example, another quarter-century down the line when she had a prominent role in David Lynch's critically-acclaimed 2001 Mullholland Drive

Other notable roles she played included the alcoholic mother in The Landlord (1970) and the widow of the murder victim in In the Heat of the Night (1967), about racial prejudice in a small Southern town. 

Seventy years after appearing in Detective Story, Grant discussed the film and her career at Film Forum’s series on films Grant acted in or directed-produced. I saw her speak Sunday.

She looked glorious, was alert, and fielded with aplomb the varied questions diverse audiences ask. (Wikipedia lists her age as 92 to 94; Grant refuses to divulge her age.) 

And, yes, she was outrageous.

Perhaps the most striking admission — made with no trace of guilt or apology — was that she was able to gain the cooperation of both Kirk and Michael Douglas to make a documentary about the Douglas family because she and her husband, producer Joseph Feury, regularly took drugs with the “younger” Douglas (Michael Douglas is now in his 70s). She discussed details of an intimate sex scene she did with Beatty.

In another interview, in which “she talked passionately about a range of subjects,” Grant described how she and Feury, in their heydays, were open to casual sex: 

Joey was 12 years younger than me. He was a producer on commercials and was going to be traveling around the country for jobs. I knew that there was going to be some cute little girl along the way that he would, you know, spend an afternoon with, or try and pack it in with, or go to the bathroom in the airplane with. If somebody came along that I could not resist, I wouldn’t have stopped myself…. I like to flirt. It’s part of living. If he was serious about somebody [however], it would kill me.

So it seems that some people live elongated lives that, despite the ups and downs, offer never-ending opportunities for self-fulfillment. If you don’t quit.

References

1 Biskind, Peter. Star: The Life and Wild Times of Warren Beatty. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010 (e-book).

2 Grant, Lee. I said yes to everything. New York: Penguin, 2014.