Lee Grant always has stood up for the disenfranchised, whether sitting before the House Un-American Activities Committee during the McCarthy era or in the director’s chair in more recent years.
“I’m not smart about keeping my mouth shut,” the legendary actress says matter-of-factly. “It’s obviously gotten me into trouble all my life, but I can’t help myself.”
For speaking out against socio-political abuses, Grant is receiving the Freedom of Expression Award at the 35th annual San Francisco Jewish Film Festival on Sunday, before a screening of her 1980 directorial debut, “Tell Me a Riddle.”
“The fact that ‘Tell Me a Riddle’ was first shown at this Jewish Film Festival in its first year, and this many years later, they have the grace to ask me back to commemorate it, is a tremendous honor,” she says. “This is my first and probably most important film. It’s so worthy and moving to me that we should all come together again.”
Based on San Francisco feminist author Tillie Olsen’s award-winning story “Tell Me a Riddle” — about an aged Russian Jewish émigré who cannot escape traumatic memories of Communism — the film was a natural draw for Grant, whose own Jewish mother emigrated from Russia.
“’Tell Me a Riddle’ was also so connected with the people I married and those I became friends with, when I was a 24-year-old actress,” she says. “It was something that gave me an opportunity to find my own voice and transmit these really deep, emotional feelings that were left over from 12 years of not being able to work in film or television.”
Three decades earlier, Grant — who garnered praise for her 1951 film debut in “Detective Story” — came under scrutiny for publicly criticizing the HUAC in a eulogy for an investigated costar. After refusing to testify against her then-husband, playwright Arnold Manoff, she was blacklisted for a dozen years.
In a reversal of fortune, after being removed from the Hollywood blacklist in 1963, she enjoyed 12 of her richest years in front of the camera, costarring in “In the Heat of the Night” (1967), “Valley of the Dolls” (1967) and “Shampoo” (1975), for which she won her first Oscar.
She went on to direct movies championing feminist rights (“A Matter of Sex”), supporting transgender people (“What Sex Am I?”) and railing against economic oppression (Oscar-winning “Down and Out in America”).
Grant recognizes just how topical many of her films remain today. She says, “The betrayal of the promise of equality, I relate it to the [Pussy Riot] girls or any of the people who’ve been jailed or killed in recent years for speaking their mind.”
IF YOU GO
Presented by S.F. Jewish Film Festival
Where: Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., S.F.
When: 2:35 p.m. Aug. 2
Note: The festival continues through Aug. 9 in San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland, Palo Alto and San Rafael.