Friday, August 01, 2014

I Said Yes to Everything: An interview with Lee Grant

Actress, writer , director Lee Grant has written a memoir called I Said Yes to Everything. Don't miss it. This lady has either experienced or survived -or both-the Neighborhood Playhouse, Peyton Place, winning an Oscar (for Shampoo with Warren Beatty) Hollywood, a difficult first marriage, a debut at the Metropolitan Opera and the Hollywood blacklist of the McCarthy era.
I suspect she's just getting warmed up.

I Said Yes to Everything is more than a compelling memoir. It's a real look at the New York Theater and movie-stardom.

I spoke with Lee Grant on the phone from her home in New York

LG: Wait a second! Wait a second! I'm looking for the television thing to shut it off.  Judge Judy is on, and I don't want her to be part of our conversation. Hold on!


CP: Judge Judy is my hero in life!
LG:: She is! My husband lovers her

CP: I said yes to everything. Tell me about this title

LG:  I guess in looking back at all the bumps and slides and kind of Candide -like story of my life, it seemed that I did say yes to everything.  Because of all the strange twists and turns that my life took. I didn't say no.
I went along with it. And here I am! Out the other side!
Antonio Scotti with young Lyvova Rosenthal (Lee Grant) in L'oracolo

CP: You are probably the youngest Metropolitan Opera debutante in history!  You were four years old when you appeared in L'oracolo with Antonio Scotti.  Do you remember that?

LG: You know, I can't remember names. This as a problem I had during the House Un American Activities Committee. So writing the book was to see how my memory works.

Everything that I did remember at age four was so clear to me. My time on that great stage at the Metropolitan was so clear. It was one of the great reassuring places I went to-you may not remember names, but you remember everything else.

CP: Do you have any specific memories of Antonio Scotti*?

LG:  At four I was taking ballet lesson at the Met with Miss Curtis. The elevator was down, and all the little girls who were taking her dancing class were crossing the stage.   This mountainous, huge stage, it seemed to a little girl like it was a mile long.  Gatti-Casazza*, who was the maestro of the whole Metropolitan Opera, pointed at me and said You!

They need a Chinese prince for L'oracolo, and the test was whether Scotti could carry me across the stage.
His character was supposed to kidnap the prince and carry him off stage, after alluring him by passing an orange back and forth. He picked me up and I stiffened., and the more he said relax the more I stiffened because I didn't know what 'relax' meant. Finally, there was no place else to go,  I was like a board across his hands, when my body just slumped and I got the part!

It was the easiest part I ever got.

CP: The blacklist era was a big part of your story. I'm familiar with the fact that you were not allowed to work in film or TV for a dozen years. For people who weren't around then, what was the atmosphere like, walking around knowing this was going on.

LG: There were several worlds. The blacklist took place in film and television. The theater never had a blacklist. As a New York girl and a New York Actor, I was able to go from one play to another on Broadway. Since I was born in New York, that was a very comfortable place for an actor to swim in.

My so called career, which had started off so promisingly with an Oscar nomination and a big picture -Detective Story-and a Cannes award for Best actress in the World at 24- was over. My career was over. From 24 to 36. Career was over

CP:  Is it true you were being penalized for not testifying against your husband?

LG:  Yes. It went on longer than any other blacklisted people. CBS called HUAC and said, can we use Lee now? The voice on the other end said to the person at CBS, not until she names her husband, Arnie Manoff.

CP: Was he named eventually?

LG: Yes. He was named by one of the Hollywood Ten, who was in jail at that time. Arnie's was one of the people who Eddie Dymytryk named.

CP: So turning somebody in was currency then?
LG: Yes. That's a very interesting way to put it. Yes, it was currency

CP: Sanford Meisner, the great acting teacher was also a big part of your story. Can you distill for us what his teaching was like . Who he was and why he was so powerful?

LG:  There was nothing mystical about him. He didn't hang on to his students. He wanted them to be able to fly in the world. Someone like Strasberg-he kept his students for fifty years. The work  and what he said was more important to Strasberg.  More important than any critic or any audience in the world. Sandy was exactly the opposite. He was tough, and he trained you, and he changed the elements in your mind-to understand a different way of thinking-of how to approach a script or a screenplay. How to be a very different actor. He was powerful, he was not sentimental. He didn't want to hear from you after you graduated, . He created a base for me for me to think from as an actor that I never got from anyone else.

I saw myself on the Robert Osborne show last night. I impressed myself! I t was the first time I saw what a really good character actress I was. Going from one extreme to another, from Detective Story to Buona Sera Mrs. Campbell to Shampoo-was so defined, so well defined but so real. I'm giving myself a pat on the back! I've never done that before as an actor. Seeing all the different characters I did, made me say-well done! Thank you, Sandy. Thank you for being so pristine in your teaching.

CP: It sounds as if Meisner was a very practical teacher. He wanted to produce working actors.

LG: Yes. Absolutely. But he opened a door, to the way of entering into a character. Not by showing off, not by pleasing the audience, not be being charming, but by being true to the method in which you entered into the world of this character to create a new character.
I saw the work, and I bless him for it.

CP: Did you feel yourself changing during his teaching?

LG: I hadn't a clue. I had no idea of what acting was before I stepped into his rooms. I'm so glad I was such a kid and so open and had  no kind of aims in life except my mother's which was to marry a rich boy.
It gave me a cause for the rest of my life. Acting became a religion for me.

CP: You directed a film of one of the great novellas, Tillie Olsen's Tell Me a Riddle.

LG:: Bless your heart! When I finally got the Oscar for Shampoo, I realized I had hit the ultimate of what I was going to get as an actress in Hollywood.

Having a great sense of knowledge of change from the blacklist, I thought I'd better find a way out of this. I'm forty -maybe more!-and I'm not going to be loved and admired and given parts in this town forever.

The American Film Institute had a women's directing workshop. I did Strindberg's The Stronger as my short piece. Somehow these girls who were in college in San Francisco saw that Strindberg film that I had done, and asked me to do the Tillie Olsen. (The girls were Rachel Lyon, Mindy Affirme, and Susan O'Connell)

It was like this amazing serendipity. It began this extraordinary step into a new life as a director.
The cast that I had to work with! Lila Kedrova from Zorba the Greek with Anthony Quinn, the play and the film. She was magnificent. So was Melvyn Douglas, who had never stepped over into that character part before.

Tillie Olsen's novella was gorgeous. I started at the top. There's no better movie that I ever made than that first movie for those girls in San Francisco . No better performance that I ever got either.,

CP: We need to see it more.

LG: I haven't seen it! I'm so glad you told me its on amazon!

CP: The language of Tillie Olsen is rather opaque and very beautiful. How did it translate to the screen. From the clips I've seen you did it.

LG: I didn't do it. A great writer, Joyce Eliason translated it from a book to a film in extraordinary way.

CP: Tillie Olsen was out here not long before her death, teaching.

LG: Really!

CP: I got to be in one of her classes and she was incredible

LG: How lucky for you

CP: Yes, and I'm happy to have realized how lucky I was, as luck as talking with Lee Grant!

* Antonio Scotti (1866-1936) Italian baritone. Known for his voice and his extraordinary acting ability. Leading artist in London, Milan, Rome, South America. At the Metropolitan Opera from 1899 to 1933. Over 1200 performances in New York.

Giulio Gatti-Casazza (1869-1940) General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera 1908-1935.

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