In 1952 Lee Grant was about to become a star.
She had been nominated for an Oscar as best supporting actress, playing a shoplifter alongside Kirk Douglas in “Detective Story,” But that same year she had the temerity to suggest in a eulogy for an actor friend that his death was caused by his fear of the red-baiting House Committee on Un-American Activities. “From that day forward,” writes Grant, now 94, in her memoir, “I Said Yes to Everything,” “for 12 years, I was blacklisted from film and TV.”
Fast forward to 1976 and Grant would win her first Oscar — best supporting actress for “Shampoo.” And in 1987, after reinventing herself as a filmmaker, she would win her second — best documentary, for “Down and Out in America.” It and four other nonfiction films by Grant can be seen online in the Coolidge Corner Theatre’s Virtual Repertory Series “20th Century Woman: The Documentary Films of Lee Grant,” which is curated by Taylor A. Purdee and released by Hope Runs High Distribution.
Grant approaches her subjects with assertiveness, tenacity, and humor — like Michael Moore without the ego, snark, manipulativeness, or fudged facts. Like herself, many of these people have been victims of a ruthless, heartless system.
In her first film “The Willmar 8” (1981; streams with the 1983 documentary “When Women Kill” starting May 8) she travels to the snowbound Minnesota town of the title to report on a strike by eight women employed by the town bank. They are paid much less than their male colleagues and are routinely passed over for promotions. Though they had never before been involved with politics or unions or feminist causes they entered a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board and picket the bank in the sub-zero cold as they wait for a decision. They are, Grant points out, ostracized by most in their community — Grant confronts several townspeople and tries to track down officers of the bank for comments but to no avail. Compassionate but hardheaded, Grant records the toll, economic and personal, on the strikers. Yet despite the sacrifices and frustrations, they persist.
In “Down and Out in America” (1986; streams with the 1985 documentary “What Sex Am I?”) Grant reveals the ruinous effect of Reaganomics on marginalized and middle-class people. In Minnesota she visits small farmers facing foreclosure from predatory banks who then sell the properties to corporate mega-farms; protesters stage a sit-in at one bank, singing Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” In Los Angeles homeless people build a shanty town called “Justiceville” that is efficiently run by a young minister; the police come with bulldozers, evict the residents, and raze the settlement. In New York City families who have been evicted or lost their homes to fires are warehoused in cheap hotels. One young couple with four children are crammed in a tiny space which the father describes as “a sewer” where “it’s raining in the bathroom.” As Grant interviews them the cracks in their lives and in their relationship that have been brought on by these circumstances are exposed.
They visit their old building where their former apartment has been taken over by squatters. The nearby, vacant off-season Coney Island amusement park adds an ironic and melancholy note. Asked what she liked about her old home a toddler says she misses her kitten; it burned to death in the fire. “The sweetness is gone,” the mother says in tears. “I want to go home. But there is no home to go to.”
One wonders what became of them. And what has become of our country. The prospects of such victims of greed and misfortune have not improved while the baneful injustice of economic disparity has gotten worse.
Grant takes on a more upbeat subject in her documentary “A Father … a Son … Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” (2005) in which she catches up with her first costar, Hollywood legend Kirk Douglas (who died in February at 103) and his son (and Grant’s old friend) Michael, himself a Hollywood superstar.
Throughout the film, Michael and Kirk, who is witty and articulate though suffering the speech disability brought on by a stroke, sit around a table with cake and beverages to reminisce. At first they swap gibes, compliments, and endearments. But the sweet talk has an edge and the nostalgia and levity at times darken into resentment, regret, and guilt. Kirk’s intensity and fits of anger were not all onscreen; and his womanizing was pathological. When he asks Michael if he was a good father, his son pauses and says it was not his greatest talent. Kirk’s other sons concur, and much of Kirk’s domestic difficulties are attributed to the shadow cast by his own father, an abusive wastrel who would never acknowledge his son’s success.
That seething core of frustration, ambition, and rage might have made it hard on his family — though as Michael notes, his dad mellowed considerably post-stroke — but as the film’s rich selection of clips demonstrate, Kirk transformed that core into one of the most dynamic forces in cinema.
Peter Keough can be reached at email@example.com.