Lee Grant: A Vital and Clear Instrument

In Conversation with Tenn
Royal Orleans Hotel
New Orleans

Tenn spoke at great length about the use and the training of the actor’s body, comparing it to the writer’s use and placement of words. The soul of an artist, he believed, was revealed by the use of those tools most vital to their expression. Here are some comments from Tenn on Grant’s work in film, and her use of her “vital and clear instrument.”

In the Heat of the Night: There is a moment in that film in which Lee is literally propelled from a seated position by news that is unbearable for her to hear. It’s extraordinary, and so like the extremity I’ve witnessed in people when they face an awful reality. Her physical consummation with [Sidney] Poitier, when she, against her cultural will, grasps his hand, is also remarkable. Her role is small, but she made me believe the center—the crime—of that film. Without her, there is no engine on which that film can run.

Shampoo: I felt that her character had decided that her youth, her charm, her fecundity were all gilded butterflies, and she was constantly chasing after them, until she recognized the futility of the pursuit, and then she began a slow curdling. Her ability to move from amorous activity to sincere concern—for others, for her hair, for her carnal needs—is maddeningly sharp.


The Landlord: She seems to never firmly touch the ground in that film, because the mind-- the ambitions-- of that character are so ethereal and flighty: She doesn’t much like the earth, even though it has thrown a great deal of its bounty her way. Watch her hands, and watch her body: It is as if her solar plexus had been filled with helium. It’s a joyous performance—we feel it from her and we experience it as we watch her search for her bearings.

Valley of the Dolls: She not only elevates the text and the intent of her scenes—she elevates the cigarette and the telephone.

There is, of course, the artist and the person who houses and husbands and transports the artist from place to place, job to job. It is impossible, I think, for the artist to survive if the vessel in which it is housed is dysfunctional or askew or committed to activities that do not allow for the clarity and the commitment that are necessary for the work.

On this I speak vividly and entirely from experience. I have destroyed my vessel, but we have dealt with that to a great extent already.

The work of an actress who is committed not only to the character at hand, on the page, but the character, the spine, the heart, the mind of the woman who must bring this work to others is instantly recognizable. Look for it. Look for particular characteristics. In time, you will not need to look so closely or intently: it will be instantly obvious that you are safe and in the hands of an artist in control of all vital assets. This is a woman who possesses a character and a stage. This is an actress who fulfills all the goals of the theatre to which I am devoted and to which I would like to return.

Look at the work of Lee Grant. Her stage work is unavailable to you now, both because of your youth and your location, but you may have the opportunity to see it still. Watch her film work; watch her in Detective Story. I saw that on stage and then I saw the film, where Lee’s work was crystallized and enlarged by [William] Wyler: It was brought into sharp focus. [Elia] Kazan once praised her by saying that her characters were so focused and strong that their feet were nailed into both the stage and the ink of the playwright. I would want that to be said of me if I were an actress. I would want always to work with an actress like that.

If you watch her in that film—as a sad and funny shoplifter—she is utterly true. There is no staginess about her. She is clearly acting—it’s what she does for a living—but I do not recall catching her in the act of acting: I saw a sad and funny woman, desperate for attention and affection, and finding it through the commission of a crime and the requisite duties of the police officers who pity her even as they provide her with a spotlight, for a time. I do not know if the intentions of Lee or Wyler were present in the presentation of one of the most remarkable aspects of her performance, but for a rather extended period of time, her character is flipping the bird—to the world, her situation, herself, her brother, her playwright? Who is to know, but it’s on the screen, and so much a part of her physical characterization that I didn’t catch it until the third viewing. I find it wholly appropriate.

There is courage in the woman, and there is courage in her work. I write from anger—at the world, at myself, at a particular situation in which a character I love finds herself. I don’t think I am capable of sitting down to write until and unless I am angry about something. I feel in Lee an anger toward sloth and dishonesty and expediency: I think she loves her characters and her work and her players deeply, but within her is a core commitment to avoid and abhor the sloth and dishonesty that is present in so much work. I have no way of knowing what her desires for her career might be—I want her to succeed, and I’m sure she shares this wish with me—but I never see the maneuvers of a careerist in her work. I see an artist.

Clarity. Look for it in all things. If you find it in an actress—and you’ll find it in Lee’s work—you’ll be able to find it in the work of a writer or a photographer or an artist or a musician. Clarity is rarer than one would think. Clarity is not desire or ambition. Clarity, I suppose, is a gift—a way of seeing things and analyzing them and making sense of them, and of then sharing what you’ve discerned with others. To have this ability is extraordinary; to share it is magnificent, perhaps saintly.

Lee Grant has this ability.

I am disposed to loving her, too, I should add, because it has been brought to my attention that she has come to my defense on more than one occasion, when my worthiness as a playwright was being questioned. I trust implicitly the people who have told me of her defense of me, and I love her for it. These things mean a great deal to people: They mean a great deal to me.

Lee Grant, winning the Oscar for Shampoo, in an old wedding dress, a touch Tennessee found delightfully Southern. Joel Grey is to her left.


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