Friday, February 26, 2010

In General, Lee

What a multi-faceted career today’s subject has had. Born in New York City in 1927 (yes, ladies and gentlemen, she’s 82 years of age!), Lyova Rosenthal would grow up to become the wondrously intense, beguiling and edgy Miss Lee Grant!

Taking her stage name from the US Civil War generals Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S Grant, I guess it could have been worse. She could have dubbed herself Roberta Ulysses. Grant actually started her stage career at the tender age of 4 when she portrayed a child princess in a Metropolitan Opera production. Continuing to perfect her skills throughout her school years, she eventually won a scholarship to Sanford Meisner’s Neighborhood Playhouse, a place that also helped shape the acting talents of Robert Duvall, Steve McQueen, Joanne Woodward, Suzanne Pleshette and many others.

Grant had an early success in 1949 with the Broadway drama Detective Story, portraying a shoplifter who is held at the police station where myriad criminals and victims are intermingling, frightening her terribly. She won The Critic’s Circle Award for her performance and when the play was filmed in 1951, she, along with several other members of the cast, was brought on board to reprise the part. Capping off this great career start was an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for Detective Story!

Despite this accolade, Grant was not yet a film commodity, nor did she reside in California. She kept busy back on the stage and in live television dramas broadcast from New York City. Before she could even hope to establish herself as an actress of the cinema, the McCarthy Witch Hunts, in which Communists were sought out in the film colony and anyone suspected of being one was blacklisted from working in the medium, began. Grant’s husband fell (as many folks did, whether it was justified or not) under suspicion and because she would not comply with the interrogators or name names, she was prevented from working in Hollywood movies. She claims to have a permanent mental block when it comes to remembering peoples’ names as a result of this tormenting experience.

She did land a job, thanks to friend Cornel Wilde, in the movie Storm Fear in 1955, but otherwise, except for some TV and Broadway work, she lost out on a decade of promising employment as a big screen actress. In ’59, she appeared in Middle of the Night, an adaptation of a Paddy Chayefsky play, that starred Fredric March and Kim Novak. However, her primary work was in television until 1963.

’63 brought the film of The Balcony, a controversial and much-examined Jean Genet play. The star of the film was Shelley Winters, who played a sexually ambiguous brothel madam and Grant played one of her gals. Peter Falk also starred and Leonard Nimoy made an appearance, giving the picture quite an eclectic cast.

Minor film work, along with various TV appearances, continued until 1965 when Grant was added to the cast of the hit prime time soap opera Peyton Place. For her work as Stella Chernak, she took home an Emmy Award.

1967 was quite a year for Lee Grant. First, she popped up in the Dick Van Dyke/Debbie Reynolds comedy Divorce American Style. Then she had a featured role in the striking Oscar-winner for Best Picture, In the Heat of the Night. In this film, she played the wife of a man who is slain in a small Georgia town and whose murder no one seems to be in a great hurry to solve.

Southern, sloth-like sheriff Rod Steiger is joined on the case by sharp-dressed, slick, city detective Sidney Poitier, stirring up significant racial tension in the process. Grant has a remarkable scene of despair when she is informed of her husband’s death. It’s not one of those hysterical, over-the-top moments, but rather a grippingly solemn pronouncement that the room is warm.

She also fights hard to keep Poitier engaged with the case when practically everyone else wants him removed. It was a role that called for fragility blended with intense determination and she was nominated for a Golden Globe as a result, losing to Carol Channing, of all people, for Thoroughly Modern Millie, and not receiving an Oscar nod at all.

As if to counterbalance the extreme quality of Heat, she also had a key supporting role in the camp screamfest Valley of the Dolls, as Miriam, the fretful sister of a male singer with a degenerative disorder. The same introspective passion she brought to her quality projects was evident here as well, but when the script and subject matter was this rotten, it could result in unintentional humor. It was a situation that would happen to Grant on more than one occasion.

All the while she was making these movies, she continued to appear as a guest on hit TV shows such as The Big Valley and Ironside. In 1968, she played Telly Savalas’ wife in the Gina Lollobrigida comedy Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell (which also starred Shelley Winters.) This tale, about an Italian woman who had relations with three different soldiers in a ten day span during WWII, resulting in a daughter, would later serve as inspiration for the smash ABBA stage musical (and later film) Mamma Mia!

Next, Grant took a supporting role in The Big Bounce, an adaptation of a novel by Elmore Leonard, that starred two of her old Peyton Place costars, Ryan O’Neal and Leigh Taylor-Young (who were married at the time.) The film was remade in 2004 with Owen Wilson. She followed this up with a small role as astronaut Richard Crenna’s concerned wife Marooned.

Now established as a go-to girl for colorful supporting parts, she played Beau Bridges’ mother in The Landlord, another film that examined late 60s/early 70s race relations, though this time she was far less noble, enacting the role of a wealthy slumlord. This role earned her a second Oscar nomination. She also had a small part in Kirk Douglas’s There Was a Crooked Man, including a bed scene in which he was all business, to her mild dismay.

TV continued to provide her with meaty leading roles of a wide variety. In Night Slaves, she played the wife of James Franciscus and the couple is stuck in a town full of unusual-acting residents. She won another Emmy for The Neon Ceiling, about a woman embarking on a spiritual quest with her daughter when she realizes how unfulfilling her life is. Then, in Ransom for a Dead Man, she got to take on Peter Falk’s Columbo in one of the earliest entries in that venerable series.

When Neil Simon turned his play Plaza Suite into a movie starring Walter Matthau, Grant was cast as one of three female costars. Originally meant for two actors to do a tour de force in playing three roles apiece in three acts, the movie version did so only with Matthau and the results were middling. She did, at least, get to work in the most purely comic of the three vignettes as a harried mother of the bride.

Her role in the film Portnoy’s Complaint (a once-scandalous novel) was hacked down tremendously. She had filmed her character in a variety of ages and stages, but only her scenes as an old woman were left in the final cut. She continued to seek out interesting television roles until 1975 when she would be given Hollywood’s highest accolade.

Warren Beatty was working with Robert Towne on Shampoo, a movie concerning a highly successful, philandering hairdresser with many clients, several of whom get more than their hair done. The film’s landscape was crowded with actresses including Julie Christie and Goldie Hawn (and Carrie Fisher, in an early role!), but it was Grant who wrangled an Oscar win for her part as a sexually ravenous woman.
Hot on the heels of Shampoo, Grant went to work as the lead in a sitcom called Fay. The show featured a strong-minded, liberal character with a mother with whom she engaged in loving combat. Written by Susan Harris and produced by Paul Junger Witt and Tony Thomas, it was cancelled after only eight episodes. Most notable, though, is the fact that the show was 5th in the ratings at the time! The series got so much negative mail that NBC felt compelled to pull it, despite its popularity! As just one sign of how prim TV was in 1975, the network actually bleeped the term “stretch marks.” This infuriated Grant who went on The Tonight Show and voiced her opinions quite clearly. If the names of the creators seem at all familiar, they should. They went on to create the vaguely similar The Golden Girls a decade later and offered Grant the lead in that. She (foolishly) declined, not wanting to play a grandmother (but, perhaps, also not wanting to head down the same road again as even that show occasionally faced censorship issues.)

We now enter my own personal favorite phase of Grant’s considerable career. In 1976, a truly astonishing cast was compiled for Voyage of the Damned, a gut-churning account of a German cruise liner filled with Jews that is sent to America ostensibly as a sign of goodwill, but actually as a political game, the Germans knowing full well that the US will not allow the passengers to disembark.

Based on a true (and shameful) story, the cast included Max Von Sydow, Faye Dunaway, Orson Welles, Malcolm McDowell, James Mason, Julie Harris and others. Dunaway (who everyone knows is practically my favorite actress) has a remarkable scene with Grant (who is easily in my top ten list of faves.) When it becomes apparent that the ship is going to return to Nazi Germany and result in death for many, if not all, of its inhabitants, dread sets in and some people can’t take it. Dunaway comes upon a distraught Grant who is snipping off her hair in an act of self-punishment. It’s an amazing moment and secured Grant yet another Oscar nomination.

For reflections on Grants’ work in Airport ’77, please click on the appropriate posting from the list at the right. Suffice it to say that her dazzlingly shrewish, mesmerizingly brazen work in that film changed my life for all time. Some people dream of one day playing Hamlet or Willy Loman. I fantasize about being allowed to portray the drunken, grasping bitch Karen Wallace of Airport ’77!

Next up was the horror flick Damian: Omen II, a sequel to the blockbuster The Omen, which, this time, had the anti-Christ aged to about 13. Having been orphaned in the first movie, the boy now lives with his uncle William Holden and Holden’s wife Grant. Several notable stars appear in the movie from Robert Foxworth to Lew Ayres to Miss Sylvia Sidney, who portrays a crusty, skeptical and confrontational old aunt. Am I the only one who finds this lobby card exceptionally amusing??

Anyway, Holden and Grant seem to find any excuse to disbelieve the suggestion that anything is unusual about Damian even though the body count seems to increase by the day! One memorable scene takes a page from Hitchcock’s The Birds and has a crow attacking a woman violently. Once again, Grant’s intensity serves her well by the film’s climax. No one, and I mean no one, could possibly scream the name “Daammmiaaaaan!!!” the way she did.

Irwin Allen somehow shanghaied her into a dull, useless part in his all-star bust The Swarm, after which she, again, turned back to TV and smaller films that could offer acting challenges (one of them being The Mafu Cage, the story of two strange sisters living with their dead father’s gorilla!) In 1981, she got to play the cougar-ish older woman who romances the divinely sexy Gregory Harrison in the TV movie For Ladies Only. Silly or not, his Zorro-inspired stripper persona pleasantly burned the retinas of many a viewer.

Then, in 1982, she filmed the third part of her Underworld Trifecta, the threesome of roles that earned her a place of honor here. She played the opinionated women’s movement speaker Deborah Ballin in the Canadian horror flick Visiting Hours.

A confident, forward-thinking character, a proponent of non-violence, she inadvertently sets off a deranged and emotionally abused man (Michael Ironside) who decides he must kill her. When his first attempt doesn’t do the trick, he follows her to the hospital where she’s being treated, hence the title. There are quite a few jolts along the way and it’s great to see Grant getting to emote her little heart out in panic and fear, even if it is in such a low-budget piece of junk like this.

Her boyfriend in the film is played by none other than William Shatner, though there’s little chance for him or his hair to steal much of the ham spotlight from Miss Grant. She does, however, allow Miss Linda Purl to have quite a chunk of screen time as a caring nurse who also manages to tick off the loon.

Though Grant would continue to work in many TV projects (some of which included being Frances Farmer’s disturbed mother in Will There Really Be a Morning?, portraying Marilyn Klinghofer in the true story The Hijacking of the Achille Lauro and assaying the part of Roy Cohn’s mother in Citizen Cohn) and the odd film (such as Albert Brooks’ Defending Your Life, It’s My Party, which reunited her with Gregory Harrison and Mullholland Dr.), eventually her acting assignments became less and less frequent.

Beginning in the mid-70s and continuing though 2005, she directed many short films, documentaries and an occasional feature. She also took the helm for 43 installments of the Lifetime TV biography series Intimate Portrait. Long-divorced from (the now-deceased) Arnold Manoff, their daughter Dinah became an actress as well and appeared in Grease, on the TV show Empty Nest (started by the same folks as The Golden Girls) and in many other things. Grant is now married (since 1962) to producer Joseph Feury and it’s quite hard to believe that she is now in her early 80s!

Since she turned to more behind the camera work, I’ve missed seeing her in things, but I know when I come upon something with her in it, especially during the 70s, she’s going to find a way to keep it interesting.


Klee said...

I love Lee Grant too! Ransom for a Dead Man was actually Columbo's pilot. Your blog is great!

Poseidon3 said...

Yes. It's technically the second pilot (Prescription: Murder was first), so I didn't note it as such. Thank you and thanks for reading!