By Ray Young
Generally forgotten today, Grayson Hall was an actress who worked mostly in off-Broadway plays but attracted a sizeable cult audience through television. Handsome and domineering, she possessed a stately deportment, not unlike mid-period Rosalind Russell, and a deep, throaty voice tailored to hit the back rows of a theatre. Although she died in 1985 at the age of sixty-three from cancer, her fan base is apparently still quite active, making the new biography, Grayson Hall: A Hard Act to Follow
, something of a must for anyone with fond memories of Dark Shadows
That show ran between 1966 and 1971, an experimental mix of daytime soap with gothic horror by producer/director Dan Curtis
. Ms. Hall played several roles (Curtis and his writers used time travel scenarios to widen their palette and create additional characters), but is chiefly remembered as a no-nonsense doctor out to cure a vampire of his toothy affliction. That she had the hots for her patient made afternoon viewers swoon.
“Her roles seem to have been…women with an edge,” biographer R.J. Jamison writes, “obsessed by a wildly improbable passion…women who, one way or another, were exceptional.” Dark Shadows
aside, Ms. Hall’s filmography is woefully spotty, beginning with barely released low budget exploitation pictures like Run Across the River
(1961), The Parisienne and the Prudes
(1964), and Satan in High Heels
(1962), which the actress “would try her best to publicly deny that she was ever in.” In just a few short years and a plum role in John Huston’s Night of the Iguana
(1964), Grayson was on the brink of a stardom that never came entirely to fruition.
Grayson with Deborah Kerr and Ava Gardner in Night of the Iguana
She was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for the picture, the only performance to be nominated out of a cast that included Richard Burton, Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr and Sue Lyon. Based on the play by Tennessee Williams, it related a self-loathing alcoholic’s slide from the mundane world to a putrefied state of isolation—a theme haunting Huston’s work, from Moulin Rouge
(1952) to Fat City
(1972) and Under the Volcano
Ms. Hall’s ostensibly peripheral character, a repressed lesbian named, rather transparently, ‘Judith Fellowes
,’ is chaperone to Lyon’s underage and oversexed vixen. Judith became the picture’s unexpected beacon of morality even though she’s completely out of touch with her own feelings and desires. Faced with an allegation of homosexuality, Judith freezes in her tracks—and for that revelatory moment the actress may have surprised Huston as much as she does the audience. It’s a tour-de-force in miniature, when a character’s realization is imbued with humility direct from the actor’s core.
After the nomination it seemed that Grayson Hall could have found a niche in Hollywood, but she ended up with a secondary role in Disney’s That Darn Cat!
(1965) and various television appearances. She “was surprised more scripts did not come her way after the Oscar nomination,” writes Ms. Jamison. “But she was adamant about not moving to Los Angeles where everyone sat in the sun…The more she saw how Hollywood treated women…the less she wanted it. So the Hall family stayed in New York where Grayson emphatically stated, ‘I do not want to be another Claire Trevor.’”
Without probing too deeply into Ms. Hall’s persona (nor explaining such things as that allusion to Claire Trevor), the book profiles her acting work with periodic glimpses into her marriage to writer Sam Hall, their son, author Matthew Hall, and their years living in a Manhattan apartment and a house in upstate New York. The dates and places and events are all here, and we’re told that Grayson strikes “a different note, an individualistic turn in her work, specifically in not trying to be molded into someone else in looks or style.”
Dutifully reporting Ms. Hall’s leftist leanings, a fierce independence from male domination, her fans in the gay community, and the odd assortment of opportunities offered throughout her career, A Hard Act to Follow
has done its homework. But the book often feels as if it’s obligated to report rather than investigate and analyze. For one thing, we would have liked Ms. Jamison to reveal more of herself and elaborate on the passion that drives one to chronicle the life of Grayson Hall.
We’re thankful that she did, however. This may be the only biography of Ms. Hall that will ever see print. Her relative obscurity should guarantee that. And though we found issue with the publisher’s shoddy proofreading (there are typos), at least they’re helping to preserve her legacy. Grayson Hall was a fascinating presence, and a reminder of the panache and devotion one rarely sees nowadays in stars or character actors in American films and television.
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Copyright © 2006 by Ray Young