Social documentaries by blacklisted actress come to BI

At age 97, Lee Grant is still an activist.

“If I was still young I’d be making a documentary in Ukraine, making a nuisance of myself,” she said in a phone interview March 3 from her home in New York.

An Academy Award-winning actress, Grant said while she enjoyed being recognized for that type of work, she’s even more proud of her documentaries, some of which will be shown at the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art March 17-18. “I was doing something that meant something,” she said. “I wasn’t going to a studio and just saying writers’ words. I didn’t have to worry about being young and beautiful. I was holding up a mirror to other situations.”

Unequal pay for women, homeless families, hungry children, farmers losing out to corporations, gender-identity politics and abusive relationships that end in homicide. Sound like problems today, don’t they? But they also were problems decades ago, and are social ills featured in documentaries made by Grant, who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for the 1975 movie “Shampoo” with Warren Beatty and a host of other stars.

Grant agreed it’s amazing how far society has come the past 50 years in things like technology, but how little progress has been made on social issues. “If you’re looking for the core of what makes me love doing documentaries it’s the human condition,” she said.

In 1951 Grant was a rising star at age 22 on Broadway, nominated for an Academy Award, and winner of the Best Actress Award at Cannes for “Detective Story” in 1952.

Grant’s daughter, Dinah Manoff, said Grant became blacklisted after speaking at the funeral of a blacklisted actor. She was told she would stay blacklisted unless she named Manoff’s father as a communist. She never did.

So she was blacklisted by Hollywood for 12 years for not naming names during the communist scare. That’s when she got involved in fighting the system. “I was trying to change the situation” by doing things like handing out petitions. She said it became her job to get rid of the heads of the blacklists. “I learned from my commie friends how to do it,” she said, adding she was successful.

It was then she learned how to be a director “because the only way I could earn a living was to teach. And it gave me a very solid grounding in breaking things down and knowing how to work with other people,” she is quoted as saying in a BIMA news release.

Grant said some of the issues in her documentaries may be worse today than ever. “There’s an enemy to the kind of things I was making.” She said, “The darkest part of the community have come into the light.”

Grant added that the Trump presidency and the Jan. 6 riots are partly to blame. “It’s a bad time to see the emergence of viciousness,” she said, adding things are so bad she doesn’t even go downtown anymore. “What’s happening has shaken me so much I won’t even go to a play.”

She said she’d rather stay in her apartment with beautiful paintings, “delicious” wallpaper and pictures of her children and grandchildren all around. “TV is my source of news and amusement,” she said.

Speaking of children, Grant’s daughter, Dinah Manoff, who played Marty, one of the Pink Ladies in the movie “Grease,” will be at the evening BIMA screenings.

Grant said she never really talked with Manoff much about her documentaries or heavy social issues. The family “fled to Malibu when she was 4. She’s a true Malibu kid,” Grant said, adding she likes to ride horses. But Grant said she’s very proud of Manoff, not only for being an “amazing actress” but also for writing a book about a very successful young Hollywood actress,” something they both know a lot about.

BIMA showing

At 2 p.m. March 17, “The Willmar 8” will be shown followed by “Battered.” At 7 p.m., “When Women Kill” will be shown followed by Academy Award-winning film “Down and Out in America.” On March 18, the last two films will be shown in the afternoon, with the other two at night.

In between the night showings, BIMA film director Ken Matsudaira will discuss the issues with social workers from local tribes as the problems, while prevalent in all communities, are even more common in Native American society, Matsudaira said. He said the films are a good way to get people talking about the issues. The tribal experts will share how they deal with them and describe their community support networks and how their work could expand outside their community. After the showings, Matsudaira hopes to have time for Q and A.