By Lee Grant
Blue Rider. 463 pp. $28.95
Lee Grant is a woman who has really lived. Just don’t ask her to say exactly how long.
Throughout her career, the Academy Award-winning actress and filmmaker has often engaged in a smoke-and-mirror routine regarding her age, something she admits to on numerous occasions in “I Said Yes to Everything,” her magnificently titled, admirably candid autobiography. She notes that a facelift in her early 30s saved her career. Later, after returning to film and television following more than a decade on the Hollywood blacklist, she persuaded the mayor of Los Angeles to finagle a more youthful birth date on her driver’s license.
“The fear that my age would be disclosed became the neurotic focus of my life,” she writes. “Today, with the Internet, I’d be finished.” That neurosis has stayed with her. When she turned 65, Grant remembers that her financial manager called her daughter, actress Dinah Manoff, and said, “Your mother is sixty-five. Who is going to tell her?” Even now, when the Internet provides confirmation that Grant is well into her 80s, the “Shampoo” star writes, “I’m not telling you the number, you can always look it up.”
Grant might be in denial about her senior status, but she’s not in denial about her denial, and that’s part of the appeal of “I Said Yes to Everything.” The elegant theater and screen actress bares all of her insecurities and regrets in the book’s nearly 500 pages, which cover enough struggles and career twists for multiple lives.
In a way, Grant’s life actually did get broken into at least two pieces: the one that existed before she was ostracized during the madness of 1950s-era McCarthyism and the one that unfolded after. The native New Yorker, born Lyova Rosenthal, emerged first on Broadway, debuting in 1949 as a shoplifter in the play “Detective Story.” That led to a role in the film adaptation, which earned Grant the first of four Academy Award nominations. (She won once, for her supporting role in “Shampoo.”) But then everything ground to a halt in the early ’50s, when her name made the list of artistic “subversives” in the anti-communist publication Red Scare, in part because of some fiery words spoken at the memorial service for the actor Joe Bromberg, one of the many targets of the House Un-American Activities Committee. “From that day forward, for twelve years, I was blacklisted from film and TV,” she writes.
Although she ran with a lefty crowd — including her first husband, writer Arnie Manoff, who also was blacklisted — Grant says she “wasn’t sure whether I was a member of the Communist Party or not.” She eventually learned that, officially, she wasn’t. But that didn’t allow her to bypass an appearance before that House committee — whose members she calls “incredibly, laughably ignorant about everything show business” — or to avoid getting fired from a CBS soap opera once her “red” leanings were exposed.
It’s impressive that Grant, who continued to work in the theater during the blacklist crisis, not only survived the witch hunt but also turned her career into such a thriving one after it was all over. The TV shows and films for which she’s best known — “Peyton Place,” “In the Heat of the Night,” “Shampoo,” “Voyage of the Damned,” “Airport ’77” — all came to her after her years of Hollywood alienation. It’s just as remarkable that she so deftly turned her attention in the 1970s and ’80s to directing, making feature films, TV movies and documentaries that explored such subjects as the lives of the transgender and, in “Down and Out in America,” poverty during the Reaganomics years. (That film won an Academy Award for best documentary.) As a filmmaker, Grant worked in a world that was — and continues to be — dominated by men, a stark reality that comes into clear focus when she remembers how a male producer screamed at her on the set of one of her early directorial efforts: “ ‘That’s not the way to shoot it!’ he barked. . . . ‘You don’t know how to direct it!’ ”She was among the women breaking ground then, but she writes about it with real humility.
Grant’s prose possesses a stream-of-consciousness quality, reading at times as if her memories were transcribed by someone else. It’s quite possible they were; in the acknowledgments, the author thanks Roberta Morris Purdee, a documentary producer who has frequently worked with Grant, for “her ability to translate and arrange my handwritten ink-stained pages.” The net effect of that approach is that “I Said Yes to Everything” often reads as if spoken out loud, complete with language that occasionally repeats itself — Grant compares more than one person’s behavior to the Red Queen’s in Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking-Glass” — and fragments that often take the place of fully formed sentences. (At one point, she says of Kirk Douglas, with whom she starred in “Detective Story”: “Gorgeous. Intense. Amazing. 1951.”)
But there’s also an intimacy and directness in how she shares — including numerous dishy, behind-the-glam anecdotes about people including Bruce Willis, Elizabeth Taylor, Shelley Winters and the man who manages to wind up in practically every celebrity memoir, Warren Beatty. After acting together in “Shampoo,” Grant writes, she and Beatty said goodbye “in the most delicious way.”
Grant has lived a long, full life. While she may prefer to be coy about precisely how long it’s lasted so far, “I Said Yes to Everything” serves as evidence that it’s been long enough to give her a meaty, multifaceted and compelling story to tell.
Chaney is a pop culture writer who contributes frequently to The Washington Post.