Should Trump Enablers Be Ostracized? We Asked an Actress on the Hollywood Blacklist

Lee Grant was shut out of work for 12 years—and she cautions against snubbing the president’s loyalists

Sidney Poitier comforting a distraught Lee Grant in a scene of In the Heat of the Night

In early November, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez posted a tweet wondering whether anyone was “archiving these Trump sycophants for when they try to downplay or deny their complicity in the future.” At the time, it seemed obvious the president’s enablers would eventually come to regret their association with one of the most pernicious regimes in American history. They’d try to move on, furiously deleting tweets, editing Wikipedia pages, or attempting a pasodoble on Dancing With the Stars as they scrambled to maintain a grip on public life.

In the replies to AOC’s tweet, Hari Sevugan, Pete Buttigieg’s former press secretary, said he was helping spearhead something called the Trump Accountability Project, which aimed to create the “definitive factual record of those who enabled the Trump era,” per the project’s website. Critics likened the scheme to a Nixonian “enemies list,” a Stalinist purge, and a return to the bad old days of the Hollywood blacklist. A week later, “in the spirit of the President-elect’s call to build a more united country,” the site was quietly shut down.

The idea bubbled up again following the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. First, Forbes’ chief content officer, Randall Lane, warned that for anyone who dared to hire one of Donald Trump’s former press secretaries “Forbes will assume that everything your company or firm talks about is a lie.” The Lincoln Project’s Stuart Stevens announced that the group was building its own database to track Trump officials and staff. “They will be held accountable & not allowed to pretend they were not involved,” he tweeted, leading to another round of dark allusions to the Red Scare.

I couldn’t help wondering: Is creating an inventory of the people who proudly and publicly served Trump really comparable to the government-led witch hunt that kicked off 75 years ago? Shredding peoples’ careers and reputations not for their actions but for their purported beliefs? So I reached out to actor-director Lee Grant. Now in her nineties, she is one of the few surviving victims of the original Hollywood blacklist.

Movie stars may be the last people any of us want to hear opine on politics these days, but Grant is a special case. Not only has she been around longer than America’s newest (and oldest) president, she’s a dyed-in-the-wool leftist with an FBI file to prove it. If Grant is uncomfortable with the effort to keep dossiers on Trump’s lackeys, she deserves a hearing.

Grant sees echoes of her own experience in the fiery calls to track Trump loyalists. “I have a physical reaction against it,” Grant says, speaking from her apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “That puts you right in the thick hog water with Trump. Right in the shit. You can’t fall into viciousness. They’re out, and they know they’re out. I don’t think that if they go up for a job that they’re going to be hired anyway. Why? You were one of the bad guys. But to aggressively go after them and shame them like the Salem witch trials? No.”

Though hardly a Trump fan, Grant understands his appeal. “He’s funny,” she says. “Nobody ever said that he wasn’t a great entertainer. People were dazzled by him. He glows in the dark, and his metabolism is extraordinary. He’s like a rocket. So I can understand people being sucked in. But there is an evil covered by that sunniness that is more frightening than Joe McCarthy, who was out there banging his gavel. And this evil has brought out the messianic and ignorant and ugly side of America.”

Grant was never actually a Communist, but her husband, screenwriter Arnold Manoff, was. In 1952, after she delivered a eulogy for a blacklisted actor, attributing his heart trouble to the stress of being called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, her name promptly appeared in Red Channels, a list of industry figures believed to have Communist sympathies.

At the time, Grant was poised to become one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. She’d been named Best Actress at Cannes and received an Oscar nomination for her very first screen role as a wide-eyed shoplifter in William Wyler’s 1951 noir Detective Story. The blacklist brought her career to an abrupt halt. The HUAC regularly pressured her to testify against her husband and to name other “fellow travelers.” Those who agreed to name names, such as director Elia Kazan and studio chief Jack Warner, were allowed to continue working. Grant steadfastly refused, and for the next 12 years, she didn’t set foot on a soundstage.

After she was finally removed from the list in 1964, Grant quickly reestablished herself in Hollywood. “All of the directors reached out,” she remembers. “It was as rich and gorgeous and extraordinary as the 12 years before were hard and terrible.” Besides, it was the 1960s. “Honey, we were smoking, drinking, never thinking!” Grant says, quoting Billie Holiday. “It was weed, snorting, going to each other’s houses — and everyone in the world would come in the door. It was anybody’s idea of heaven.”

In 1976, Grant won the Oscar for her role as a cougarish salon client in Shampoo opposite Warren Beatty. And then, despite all the fun she was having, she largely gave up acting — intuiting that being a fiftysomething woman in Hollywood had marked her with a new sort of stigma.

“I don’t want the responsibility of hurting somebody like all of my people were hurt.”

Instead, Grant became a documentary filmmaker focusing on political themes, including labor rights (The Willmar 8), incarceration (When Women Kill), and spousal abuse (Battered). She credits her experience being hounded by McCarthy and his collaborators with providing the inspiration. “The blacklist gave me a whole sense of injustice and of what needed to be done,” she says. Her 1985 film What Sex Am I? was one of the first documentaries to take a sympathetic view of trans rights, five years before Paris Is Burning. “The openness of the people I spoke to, their desire to communicate, to be — just to be — and to be affirmed, was so powerful and charming,” she says. “It just was a privilege.”

The following year, Grant’s Down and Out in America, a look at poverty during the Reagan years, won the Oscar for best documentary. As searing as that film is, though, Grant says American society today is in far worse shape. “We’re at the lowest point thanks to Trump and not getting the shots out,” she says. “We’re all in great danger, all of us.”

Fortunately, the way Grant sees it, the January 6 insurrection showed America the true face of Trumpism and may ultimately spell the movement’s demise. “Those hordes really could not have choreographed it better,” she says. “Thank God for that Capitol invasion. Thank God he went too far, and those people stormed Washington. Now he’s over, and they are back on their heels. But the road ahead is really tough for all of us.”

While Grant sympathizes with AOC’s call to hold Trump’s enablers to account, she bristles at the tone of indignation. “The way she expressed it sounded an awful lot like McCarthy to me,” she explains. “She’s a firebrand, and one of the reasons she’s there is because she takes positions that are so powerful. I may have been a firebrand once, but I’m not now. I can’t condemn her. All I can do is say I wouldn’t go there. That wouldn’t be my way. I don’t want the responsibility of hurting somebody like all of my people were hurt.”

As an actress and a filmmaker, Grant has learned to approach her subjects with empathy. She even played the mother of one of her chief antagonists, Roy Cohn, in the 1992 HBO film Citizen Cohn. Director Frank Pierson thought she might like to play Ethel Rosenberg, who was convicted of espionage and executed due to Cohn’s strenuous smear campaign. Grant declined. “I said, ‘I don’t want to be a victim, fuck that. I want to know where this weasel came from. Let me see how the snake was made.’”

“A year or two ago, Trump said, ‘Where is Roy Cohn when I need him?’” she notes. “And honey, Giuliani is no Roy Cohn. You know what I’m saying? But the evil of that conspiracy between Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn went right on to Trump.”

For years after appearing on the blacklist, Grant refused to disclose her real age. “I had to be 10 years younger,” she says. “I was desperate to work.” More recently, however, she has come to see it as a badge of honor. As I dance around the question, she quickly interjects. “My age?” she asks with a laugh. “You mean 95?” Soon, she’s yelling into the phone, “95! 95! Niiiineteee-FIIIIVE!” Grant pauses, offering up a rich, hard-won, liberated laugh, then adds, “Fuck you!”

A few days after our conversation, on Trump’s last full day in office, SAG-AFTRA, the Hollywood union that decades ago supported the blacklist, expelled the president. In the words of union president Gabrielle Carteris, of 90210 fame, Trump attacked “the values that this union holds most sacred — democracy, truth, respect for our fellow Americans of all races and faiths, and the sanctity of the free press.”

Medium editor-at-large, with bylines in the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, the New York Times and numerous other publications. ¶ aarongell.com

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