Friday, April 2, 2021

Lee Grant’s Great Comeback: 'Peyton Place'

Lee Grant's Stella Chernak won her an Emmy two years after she got off the blacklist.

Lee Grant's future got even brighter with movies like '67's "In the Heat of the Night."

Lee Grant’s 1965 Emmy-winning turn as Stella Chernak on Peyton Place, TV’s then-phenomenon, was her big comeback after a dozen years on Hollywood’s blacklist. This was a bittersweet victory for Grant, who had made an equally big splash recreating her Broadway role in 1951's Detective Story. Lee nabbed a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her first movie and won a Golden Globe. A year later, Lee Grant found herself in Red Channels’ blacklist after speaking at a “communist” actor's funeral.

"Just don't ask my age!" Lee Grant's debut in "Detective Story."

Grant got by as an acting teacher, grabbing roles in NYC-made TV shows, for whoever was brave enough to hire her. Once the blacklist was lifted, Lee Grant was determined to make up for lost time. A dozen years older than she started—and Lee says they were hard years—Grant first got a face lift and then got busy. PS—Lee Grant has the most variable birth date since Joan Crawford, but let’s just agree with Lee that she went from promising starlet to early middle age, losing prime acting years in between. She made guest appearances on top dramatic TV shows and also a feature film, The Balcony.

Lee Grant as Stella Chernak in TV's smash hit "Peyton Place."

Then Grant landed a recurring guest role on TV's first night time soap, Peyton Place. A runaway hit, with its youthful cast, Lee was 40ish and playing 30ish as Stella Chernak, a bitter woman who returns home. Grant later said in interviews that she put all her frustration and fears from getting branded by the blacklist into the role of this woman from the wrong side of the tracks.

As hard-bitten Stella, Lee is fierce as the biochemist that’s learned more from the school of hard knocks than college. Her alcoholic father Gus toils at the Peyton Mill while nursing the bottle and a large chip on his shoulder from working for “the man.” When Gus wasn't knocking around or mocking his children, Stella and her little brother Joe, he instilled in them his dysfunctional attitude. 

Stella and her little brother Joey ponder the screwed-up Chernak family.

Stella Chernak is a fascinating character, especially for a 1965 TV show. While considered a soap opera, Peyton Place had surprisingly strong writing and characters. Though the show had a number of great villains, what Lee Grant brought to the role of Stella was not just a memorable bad girl, but a complicated woman. This dynamic duality made Lee Grant Peyton Place’s only Emmy-winning performer. Lee’s performance reminds me much of Bette Davis’ star-making turn as Mildred Rogers in Of Human Bondage. After several years of getting stuck in junk roles, Davis begged to play the role of the bitter waitress, and gave it her all—knowing she had nothing to lose. Lee took the same tact with Stella and gives the same type of startling, powerful performance. In fact Stella and Mildred have a few similarities: both are working class and are prickly about their class status; both women are courted by kindly men in the medical field; and both respond to kindness with mistrust. I can’t imagine how 1965 TV audiences took to Stella Chernak. Even today, with YouTube’s uploads of the show, in the comment sections, Peyton Place fans are often taken aback by surly Stella. However, it’s not the ingénue or leading lady that gets all the kudos or awards. Aside from Lee Grant’s win, the only other acting nominations Peyton Place got were for Barbara Parkins as snippy, ambitious Betty Anderson and Ruth Warrick, brilliant as the show’s own Mrs. Danvers, Hannah Cord.

Lee Grant looks more like her unglamorous ‘50s self when she first shows up in Peyton Place as Stella. Grant said she had to put her foot down to get time and care from the camera man, like the younger stars. I’m not sure why Grant's sporting what looks like a helmet-like black wig, but by the time she leaves Peyton Place a year later, she looks closer to the auburn beauty who looked the same from the late '60s through the '70s.

Stella comes to the forefront when her younger brother Joe is accidentally killed in a fight with local golden boy Rodney Harrington (Ryan O' Neal). Though a part of Stella has a very blunt and clear-eyed view of her family's problems, the dysfunctional side of Stella falls into the blame game trap and misguided family loyalty. Officially, she claims Rodney called on her, and said he would kill Joe. This lie is a major obstacle when Rodney goes on trial for murder.

Stella Chernak body slams Rodney Harrington on the witness stand, "Peyton Place."

Meanwhile, Stella has started to fall for nice guy doc, Michael Rossi, played by Ed Nelson. But her prickly personality makes it hard to break through. Nelson, a solid and warm actor, is a great balm to Stella’s often brusque personality. To see Stella occasionally warm to Rossi also shows Nelson and Grant’s rapport.

It’s amusing to also see Grant’s Stella rubbing elbows with the locals, who are curious about the working class girl who made good as biochemist. However, Stella seems to prefer throwing elbows, with snarky replies to the townspeople’s questions.

The creators of the Peyton Place series deserve credit for creating not just a scandalous soap, but a show with complex characters, and issues that are still problems today: dysfunctional families, alcoholism, drug theft, gangs, sexual abuse of young women, etc. Then there are Grant’s great scenes as Stella: the ferocious showdowns with her deadbeat brother Joey and drunken dad Gus. Yet, Stella gets to show affection and frustration with her onscreen little brother. When “Papa” goes too far with his excuses, Lee’s Stella tears into him and his self-deceptions. And Lee is just as convincing when Stella spouts the family’s official line, when she reacts to her dad's death with denial at Martin Peyton's house, who sets her straight. Grant knocks all these big scenes right out of the ball park.

Stella with "Papa" Gus Chernak in "Peyton Place." At times, pre-glam Lee Grant
 looks like "Dark Shadows" Grayson Hall!

Lee Grant’s working class grrrl has some lovely smaller scenes, too. My favorite is when bar keep Ada Jacks calls Stella to say papa Gus has ordered a drink and is spoiling for trouble. Lee’s Stella walks in—sooo over it—and treats Gus like a kid caught skipping school. After the usual Chernak family bickering, Stella tells him to make up his mind about the drink. Gus knocks the shot glass over, instead. With weary humor, Stella says, “Beautiful. Now you just made a lot of work for Ada. All you had to do was leave it alone.” Stella gets ready to go. Come on, Papa!” Stella slaps her purse like a tambourine. “Let's go home! So long, Ada. Sorry about the mess.” Stella even gets her own Butterfield 8-esque jazzy theme, which cues up every time Chernak is saunters into a scene or makes a memorable exit! Even in this quieter encounter, Grant’s line readings are so versatile and authentic, that she’s riveting.

Michael Rossi has the thankless task of consoling Lee Grant's Stella in "Peyton Place."

Grant is intense and powerful as Stella, but also shows warmth and vulnerability beneath the tough cookie façade—she’s no ingénue, but she’s a sexy, sharp woman. The strong script is already there, but Lee takes it to the next level and plays some clichéd moments in a striking departure from the usual soap suds.

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Lee Grant won an Emmy for Best Supporting Actress in ‘66, just two years after she got off the blacklist. The acting roles, which had just started to roll in, really kicked in after the Emmy win. Grant next made the most of roles in two film hits, Valley of the Dolls and In the Heat of the Night. From then on, Grant alternated between TV, film, and theatre as an actress and director the next couple of decades. While the journey wasn’t always easy, Lee Grant proved that there was life after 40 for women in show business.

Here's my look at Lee's '67 classic, In the Heat of the Night

Lee Grant with her much-deserved Emmy for her role as Stella in "Peyton Place."

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Reflections of a Life-Long Elizabeth Taylor Fan

Elizabeth Taylor: The face that launched a thousand headlines.


Elizabeth Taylor’s star shines on like a crazy diamond, 10 years after her death at 79, in all her facets. ET’s fierceness and fabulousness, contradictions and flaws, inspired both love and hate from the public, occasionally at the same time!

When I read the news that Elizabeth Taylor had passed away on March 23, 2011, I had been terribly sick with bronchitis for two weeks. I had to sleep upright on a sofa, or my coughing spells would worsen. Elizabeth would have proud of the way I hacked away, just like dying Sissy Goforth in Boom! I was living in a Portland, OR communal house and nearly all my roommates were straight. As one roomie put it, he thought of Liz Taylor as the movie star with that “crazy Grandma hair,” who was pals with Michael Jackson.

Elizabeth Taylor was the rare film star who looked just as beautiful off-camera.

Well, Elizabeth Taylor was much more than that. I'll say it right here: this is a tribute to Taylor, not a roast. I like to remember late, great family members, friends, and favorite stars at their best, not their worst. Over the next weeks, I pulled out some of ET's greatest hits on DVD to watch with my roomies, and she’s been on my mind since her Feb. 27th birthday. 


Elizabeth Taylor was game as a guest on "Here's Lucy" with Richard Burton.

Funny Lady We started with Here's Lucy, with the legendary "Lucy Meets the Burtons" episode. This was one of Lucy's highest rated shows, and I love this appearance because it shows off Elizabeth Taylor's flair for comedy. I thought it was a shame that ET didn't do more movie comedies in her heyday, perhaps with George Segal, Jack Lemmon, or Walter Matthau. Most Lucy fans remember this episode as the one where she gets Liz' million dollar diamond stuck on her digit. Not only does Taylor splendidly send up her image, Richard Burton even more so, in the bigger role. The scene where Lucy's milk-white arm appears from behind a curtain, pretending to be tanned Taylor’s, is still a hoot.

"Lucy Meets The Burtons" gave Ms. Ball one of her highest-rated shows.

Gutsy Gal We then watched Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, where my most alpha male roommate commented that he would do ET. Aside from that classy comment, the roomies watching agreed that Liz and Paul still made this movie sizzle, despite the censorship. A major point of admiration for me: Elizabeth did some of her best work under great duress, but this may have been her most challenging. Two weeks into filming, adored hubby Mike Todd was killed in a plane crash. Several weeks later, ET was back on the set. Imagine this happening today. Though only 26 at the time, Elizabeth Taylor had already led several lives worth of drama!

"Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" was a challenge for Elizabeth Taylor, on-screen & off.

Screen Diva My closest roommate and I then commandeered the house owner's big screen TV and watched the restored version of Cleopatra. He was a bit leery because of its length and reputation as a bomb. I hadn't watched it in ages and only on TV stations’ faded, commercial-laden viewings. While Cleo's not a classic, we were both surprised by how watchable and truly epic some of the scenes were—especially Cleopatra's entrance into Rome. We both marveled that, in the age of CGI, that a cast of thousands were watching the most famous woman in the world make this grand entrance upon a huge statue, a wow moment. We liked Cleopatra so much that we watched the making of disc, and were even more impressed that a decent film even came out of such chaotic circumstances. My then-roomie admitted that Elizabeth Taylor was at her peak of beauty. He now "got" why everyone made a fuss over that older star with crazy grandma hair!

Both Cleopatra and Elizabeth Taylor knew how to make an entrance!

Feisty Female I think the film role closest to the real Elizabeth Taylor was Leslie Benedict in Giant. Like Leslie, Elizabeth was womanly and wise, but also not afraid to speak her mind. Off-screen and on, Elizabeth was forward thinking and not concerned about what others thought. The moments when Elizabeth as Leslie stands up to Rock Hudson’s rancher husband ring so true. Particularly, the scene where Taylor scolds the ranchers over "men talk" reminded me of her Republican wife years, where she sparred with John Warner publicly or later, unafraid to challenge those who thought AIDS wasn't "their" problem. 

As Leslie in "Giant," Elizabeth Taylor knew how to give a hubby a piece of her mind!

Daring Diva I admired that ET never backed away from a challenge, whether it was personal or professional, and her greatest acting one was when, at 33, she played 52-year-old Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? While there are still some naysayers, most agree she hit a home run. And 55 years later, she and Burton are still instantly associated with this groundbreaking work. Aside from her lack of vanity as a great beauty, I admire that Elizabeth wasn't afraid to show a side of her that wasn't particularly flattering. I was well enough to see Virginia Woolf at a Taylor tribute with a friend, then a bartender, who noted the Burtons were very believable as battling drunks! I was amused at younger audience members who gasped at the insults hurled throughout the movie. As for frequent criticism of her voice, I've listened to audio of her big scenes and there's a subtlety in her readings that some greater actresses didn't achieve playing Martha. With almost 25 years of film experience under her belt, ET knew how to play for the camera.

Elizabeth Taylor & Richard Burton let fly in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

Movie Star Mensch Elizabeth Taylor's great generosity has always been a buffer to her tabloid image, but when I watched A Place in the Sun recently, I was struck by how tender and maternal she was with Montgomery Clift. This is even more notable, since he was almost 30, and she was just 17. In one of ET's greatest acts of personal generosity, over 17 years later, the studio making Reflections in a Golden Eye didn't want now-erratic Montgomery Clift as her co-star, citing him as uninsurable. Taylor, who had been considered uninsurable after the Cleopatra scandal, offered her million dollar salary as collateral for his insurance. Clift was stunned, but sadly died at age 46, just before filming started. I can't think of another Hollywood star that has made such a generous gesture.

Elizabeth Taylor & Monty Clift on the set of "Raintree County."

Baby Diva:  To see Elizabeth Taylor in her early roles, before her breakout role as National Velvet, is to be startled by her assurance and astoundingly mature beauty. This is especially true in Lassie, Come Home, when you see Taylor in color for the first time. A friend of mine once said it was like somebody took the adult ET's head and stuck it on a little girl's body. Not exactly poetic, but on-point. In Jane Eyre, as the title character's doomed orphanage friend, Elizabeth and Peggy Ann Garner are genuinely affecting. Filmed in Orson Welles favorite noir-ish black and white, Taylor's beauty and presence is eerie.

Elizabeth Taylor at 10, in "Lassie Come Home."

Mature Diva: ET never seemed like a girl, even when she was, which made it difficult to cast Taylor as a juvenile. When audiences were wowed by Elizabeth at 16 in A Date with Judy, she started playing romantic leads, often with men 10 or 20 years older than her. And ET never went the route of "playing young," like Joan or Lana. Often she was cast in mature roles, like A Place in the Sun or Giant, where she aged 25 years. She's probably the youngest major actress to play Maggie the Cat, a role most actresses don't touch till they're 40-ish. Elizabeth played Virginia Woolf’s Martha at 33. In Ash Wednesday, Taylor was 41 when she played the 60-ish wife of Henry Fonda, who undergoes full-on plastic surgery to win him back. Later, during her plump political wife era, ET spoofed her weight gain in The Mirror Crack'd, as an aging actress making a comeback. Her greatest act of dropping the vanity veil was personal, when she was the first major celebrity to go public as she entered the Betty Ford Clinic at age 51.

Elizabeth Taylor after her stint at Betty Ford. Here with Carol Burnett,
who co-starred with ET just before she sought treatment for her addictions.

Final Curtain I've been a lifelong fan of Elizabeth Taylor. But I've never cared about her diamonds or husbands (with the exceptions of Mike Todd and Richard Burton). I was struck by her beauty as a kid, when her big hits played on the afternoon movies. I was fascinated by the extreme reactions about her from grownups. Everybody talked about Liz like she was their next door neighbor.

I especially admired Taylor when she reinvented herself and attempted to change serious bad habits that plagued most of her adult life: substance abuse, weight issues, and dealing with ill health. I felt her personal life interested her more than her professional one, which made her unique among Hollywood divas. The work Taylor did for AIDS activism and keeping the cash flowing as a savvy business woman with her perfume line was a testament to ET knowing her brand.

I had mixed feelings about Elizabeth Taylor seen as an aging woman, instead of the legendary film goddess who was like She who walked through the flames, only to come back immortal once more. ET was frank about her personal mistakes, addictions, illnesses, and finally, growing old. How many actresses can you think of who celebrated each major birthday with a Life magazine cover? Who else but Elizabeth Taylor would pose with a shaved head after brain tumor surgery? 

Elizabeth Taylor's last performance was in a wheelchair, for a 2007 reading of
"Love Letters" with James Earl Jones.

Taylor’s last public appearances were in a wheelchair, which she long fought. Elizabeth’s voice, always soft (how did she smoke all those cigarettes and not sound like Lucy or Lauren Bacall?) was now a whisper. But she was there, usually for AIDS or her perfume. The Sondheim song "I'm Still Here" has been sung by many legends, but Taylor lived it.

When Elizabeth Taylor passed away, I feared there would be a slew of “tell all” books. Surprisingly, there was little Taylor tittle-tattle, a testament to the loyalty she received from family, friends, and associates. I worried that ET would be forgotten, since she didn't die young like Marilyn or Judy. Elizabeth Taylor has left her impact on film and in life, still a frame of reference for a larger than life star and great beauty. Finally, flaws and all, Elizabeth Taylor the woman should be remembered as a most genuine human being.

I've written over a dozen pieces on Elizabeth Taylor. Go to my blog's main page to see more on all about Liz!

ET in Dylan Thomas' "Under Milkwood." Death & near-death was a dramatic part
of Elizabeth Taylor's life.

FYI: I put all the movie overflow on my public FB  movie page. 

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