I Said Yes to Everything: A Memoir
“The book is perhaps most compelling when the author tells of the blacklist, an American evil that she bore the full brunt of for her unwillingness to cooperate in the witch hunt. . . . It is a compelling story, beautifully and movingly told.”
The story is like the plot of a Douglas Sirk movie, told in muted colors, filmed against a lush musical score. With strings, lots of strings.
A young actress, intense, talented, restlessly intelligent, part of the New York Jewish intelligentsia, a member of the Actor’s Studio, gets cast in a film opposite one of Hollywood’s greatest stars.
The young actress is great in the part. Everyone notices her. She is nominated for major acting awards and wins a few. Her career, it seems, is guaranteed.
But fate has other wishes.
The young actress is married to a brash, passionate writer who is a generation older than she. The writer has attracted attention, not only from the reading public, and the literary elite, but from the government as well.
In Washington, DC, storm clouds are gathering. A senator casts a shadow across the land. And the color of that shadow, it seems, is pure red. The senator seeks to find the Communists who lay hidden in our land. He calls himself a patriot and calls them traitors, and the nation seems to agree.
He finds that most Communists live in New York or Los Angeles and that many work in the entertainment industry and in the arts. Writers, it seems, are the most likely Communists, with actors coming next, followed by any number of other professions: make up people, hairdressers, lighting designers, producers, directors, on and on.
The senator feels that it is his God-given duty to root out these Communists by bringing them to Washington, DC, and questioning them in front of Congress (and later on live TV). Once there, they are encouraged to name others with whom they Communistically cavorted at one time or another.
Lists are compiled. Names are named. A blacklist is created, made up of those who have been declared to be Communists by someone who was trying to avoid that same fate themselves. And those whose names appear on the list cannot work, because the senator has publically declared that anyone who would hire such a person is surely one himself.
Fear rules the land.
The young actress discovers that she is on the list. Blacklisted, she cannot work. At age 24, she has lost her means of artistic expression and of making a living. She will not be hired again for 12 years. And so, from age 24 until 36—the most important years in any actress’s life—she is forced to make her way as she can, by teaching acting, by doing what the title of this memoir suggests and “saying yes to everything.”
Lee Grant, of course, is that young actress. Before the blacklist, she was one of the “it” girls: the chosen few actresses whose careers, it seemed, were without limit. She, along with Anne Bancroft, Lois Smith, Kim Stanley, Kim Hunter, and a few others, were the women that Hollywood had its eye on. The next generation.
Then suddenly it stopped. And for a dozen years, Grant had to swallow her anger, push back her fear, and survive, simply survive, finding a way to support her child and her two stepchildren, to say nothing of their father, through the worst of it.
Then as the world finally turned against the senator, as someone at long last had the strength to point to him, television cameras rolling and ask, “Have you no shame?” the blacklisting ended. Very quickly, the actress heard again from her agents, who hadn’t called for 12 years, and discovered that she could once more work.
The trouble was, she had aged. In a position of starting over, of auditioning for jobs up against girls who were actually 24 years old, rather than a 36-year-old who the casting agents and directors only remembered as being 24, Grant faced a dilemma.
As she writes about it:
“I was in two independent movies through the blacklist. One gave us enough money to have our daughter; the other, Middle of the Night, gave me a sense of doom. I played Kim Novak’s best friend and confidante in her romance with an older man, played by Fredric March. Maybe because Kim was Cover Girl-beautiful, maybe because I just looked like hell, but I suddenly saw myself for the first time cast as the ‘friend,’ ‘comic friend,’ ‘understanding friend’ of the leading lady, the Nancy Walker part, the Thelma Ritter part.
“Then the director, Joe Anthony, called with a description of the ingénue lead, I as no longer an ingénue. He hadn’t seen me. I was thirty-one. I looked sad and bad.
“I threw myself into remaking myself into a commercial entity. My outside was what producers would buy. The talent was inside; I just had to look the part—young. I’m not vain. I’m not.
“As soon as I returned to the city I went to see Dr. Blumenthal, the plastic surgeon my mother had found when I’d wanted to straighten the bump on my nose ten years earlier, when I was still living at home; the year I met [her husband] Arnie. I threw myself into the doctor’s office.
“’Change me. Save me. I need the part!’
“I asked Dr. Blumenthal to stop my face from sagging down, because when I looked in the mirror, all I could see was sad. Nothing was up anymore. I wanted up. . . .
“Dr. Blumenthal gave me a face-lift. I spent August in our empty apartment with a swollen face, bandaged at first. Then, as the swelling subsided, another face emerged. The face of ten years earlier; a girl again.”
Ms. Grant provides ample photographic evidence of the transformation. An intense actress with a red slash of a mouth, short, dark hair and a heavy brow suddenly emerges slimmer, sleeker—a Malibu beauty, with auburn hair and gauzy gowns, recalling Bette Davis in Now Voyager.
And suddenly, she’s everywhere: on television in Peyton Place, in movies like In the Heat of the Night and Valley of the Dolls and Shampoo, for which she won her first Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress (her second Oscar would come for directing a documentary film, years later).
Again, as Lee Grant puts it:
“I think I may have been the only blacklisted actor to climb back up to the position I’d had when I’d started out and become even more visible on television and film if not theater. Just young enough to absorb twelve years and start over.”
Ms. Grant’s memoir of the blacklist and of her subsequent success in Hollywood, to say nothing of her groundbreaking work behind the camera of one of the industry’s first women directors, makes for compelling reading. And her author’s voice is as compelling as her performer’s—intelligent, passionate, enthralling.
The book is perhaps most compelling when the author tells of the blacklist, an American evil that she bore the full brunt of for her unwillingness to cooperate in the witch hunt. But in recounting the events this time she has no trouble in naming names, she seems to rejoice in it, in fact, especially here where she discusses one of the “unstable, insignificant guys” who exercised “power over the choice of talent and content on television and radio for twelve years:”
“One of the men, Vincent Harnett, created Red Channels, the pamphlet I was listed in. Harnett also created AWARE, Inc. Private, anti-communist entrepreneurs created the blacklist business in New York not to just catch Communists, but liberals. They set the standard for how far left an actor was, wheat Harnett considered to be Communistic . . . in New York it was a witch hunt. Only Harnett and his cohorts decided who was a witch. It was also a lucrative business. Vincent Hartnett was a smart businessman, he was hired by ad agencies and networks to clear names for them. Anywhere from five bucks to twenty bucks a name, and there were hundreds of names daily to be cast.”
While perhaps of less historic import, but no less interesting are Lee Grant’s anecdotes of life in Hollywood in the ’60s and ’70s, and of work as an actress in some of that era’s most important (or, in the case of Valley of the Dolls, most entertaining) films. If there is an aspect of disappointment to be had, it is Ms. Grant’s unwillingness to gossip. On several cases, having taken us to a party in the Hollywood Hills or behind the scenes of a major motion picture, she abandons us and leaves us begging for details that she does not choose to share.
That said, Lee Grant’s ability to transform and reinvent herself is evident on every page of I Said Yes to Everything, as she morphs from a Blacklisted New York stage actress, to a Hollywood film star, to a director of documentaries as well as scripted, dramatic films, and now finally to an author. It is a compelling story, beautifully and movingly told.