Sunday, September 18, 2022

The Unforgettable and Unique Grayson Hall

It’s the birthday today of the late great American actress Grayson Hall (1922-1985), whom I first encountered in the early 1990s when I chanced upon a late night screening of The Night of the Iguana on Australian TV.

Hall’s portrayal in this film of the closeted lesbian Miss Judith Fellowes is outstanding, and definitely worthy of her Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for Best Supporting Actress. It’s even been said that Grayson was the “first actor to ever receive an Oscar nomination for playing a gay role.”

The Night of the Iguana was released in 1964, and although Grayson missed out on receiving either an Oscar or a Golden Globe for her unforgettable portrayal of Miss Fellowes, she was soon famous for playing multiple prominent roles in the supernatural soap opera Dark Shadows (1966-1971). In particular, Grayson’s portrayal of Dr. Julia Hoffman made her an icon to the show’s fans, including its gay fans. As David Alexander Nahmod explains . . .

As [her character] attempted to cure Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) of the vampire curse, [Grayson Hall] made an acting choice that changed the course of the series’ history. Though it was never spoken or scripted, Hall let the audience know, with nothing more than a flicker of her eyes, that Julia was deeply in love with Barnabas, a love she could never express aloud. To the many gay men watching the show who could not express their own love publicly, Hall was speaking to and for them.

Incidentally, it was the following meme about her portrayal of Julia in Dark Shadows that recently reminded me of the unique artistry of Grayson Hall.

When I was preparing to return to Australia in August (a trip I subsequently had to postpone) I decided that one of the books I wanted to take with me for the long flight was R.J. Jamison’s Grayson Hall: A Hard Act to Follow. I recently started reading this biography, and have been moved by Jamison’s dedication to documenting and honoring the legacy of her subject.

The book contains a powerful foreword written by S.R. Shutt, who himself spent many years researching Grayson’s career. As a result, he writes the following with both knowledge and conviction.

There are moments in Grayson’s work of unique human grandeur, laced with a poignant tenderness, salted here and there with streaks of surprisingly bawdy humor; moments as unforgettable and unique as the woman herself was in her own life. . . . Grayson’s legacy remains with us to illuminate all the darkest shadows of our days and nights with her undaunted and unbowed commitment to the dignity, beauty, and extravagance of the human spirit.

I hope to share more from Jamison’s biography of Grayson in a later post. Today, though, in remembering Grayson on what would have been her 100th birthday, I share (with added images and links) an excerpt from another very well-written piece: Frank Jay Gruber’s online article, “The Performance Art of Grayson Hall: Life on Two Levels.” Enjoy!


[Grayson Hall] is still one of the most unusual and arresting performers in film and television history. Her Best Supporting Actress Golden Globe and Oscar-nominated performance in the film version of Tennessee Williams’s play The Night of the Iguana still registers impressively, while her television portrayals of Dr. Julia Hoffman and Magda the Gypsy [below] in the original Dark Shadows are scorched in viewers’ memories.

Why is this so?

Certainly her physical presence is a factor. Her tightly-pulled skin, coolly probing eyes, sharply arched eyebrows and nostrils, hair that always appeared at least mildly askew no matter what wig or how coiffed and short her hairstyle, and the relentless intelligence of her deportment and delivery all served to render her unforgettable.

. . . [Grayson Hall] possessed an innate assurance before the cameras, whether it was while adapting her own stage role as Judith Fellowes from Night of the Iguana, or playing the Mrs. Danvers-like role of Carlotta Drake in [the film] Night of Dark Shadows. On film, each of her motions was carefully performed, meticulous in execution. Her delivery was precise and nuanced. Each subtle look was powerful and each glare was a rare and shocking indictment, while every line delivery sounded out crisp and flawless. Regardless of what the demands of her harried personal life may have been as working wife and mother, in motion pictures Grayson Hall was almost supernaturally cool and competent – an absolutely assured professional continually delivering a moderated and perfect performance complementary in tone to the material and to the medium of film.

. . . On television, over a span of 475 Dark Shadows episodes, Grayson Hall had countless memorable moments and flashes of brilliance, but was often comically uncomfortable. Not only was she without the luxury of intense rehearsals and downtime for performance preparation, but the storylines were often so fantastic that she admittedly had little idea what was going on – which was even more frustrating since her husband, Sam Hall, was writing many of the shows. There is a memorable vignette in one of Kathryn Leigh Scott’s memoirs where Grayson Hall ducks into a backwater diner for coffee and meets a waitress who at last explains all of the recent Dark Shadows plotlines to her in understandable terms.

Receiving the script the day before, blocking a full show only scant hours before taping, and not understanding the full arc or meaning of the story all understandably took their toll on the theatrically-trained actress’ performance. Layers of subtlety and gradations of emotion went out the window. It had to be enough to hit the correct marks, get most of the lines right and rely on a library of stock facial expressions, reactions and body language just to get through each show. This often betrayed her, as looks of shock and befuddlement were always comical when coupled with a daytime drama’s frequent musical stings to telegraph moments of dramatic reveal or tension.

“We learned to never end a scene with a shot of her,” admitted Grayson’s husband Sam Hall, presumably with a smile. Viewers will never forget her intrepid but befuddled performance as a victim of the Dream Curse: prancing gingerly, backhand covering her mouth in terror, opening one door after another and barely reacting to such things as bright-eyed plastic skulls or lethargic guillotines – but becoming completely undone by a full skeleton in a wedding dress and a cheap wig, responding with a smoker’s throaty scream and hurrying back to her chair during the bride’s close-up to wait for the camera and wake with a horrified “Aaaah! No! No!”

Yet her art demanded she take even these nonsensical moments and the most absurd lines as reality. “Yes, I was a ridiculous doctor . . . but when I did it I was actually serious and believed every minute of it,” she told Soap Opera Digest years after the series ended.

On one level, this must have been humiliating and frustrating for an Academy Award-nominated actress. Then again, a child had to be raised, bills had to be paid – Dark Shadows furnished two regular paychecks each week for the Hall family – and there was legitimate classic film star Joan Bennett starring in the show, too. Grayson Hall had to make the best of it. Realistically speaking, it just had to be done.

Which brings us neatly back to The Night of the Iguana. Late in the film, Deborah Kerr as Hannah Jelkes concludes, “We are operating on a realistic level when we are doing the things that have to be done.” Regardless of what was required, no matter how fantastic the circumstances or plot machinations, and whether acting before film cameras or on video for the small screen, Grayson Hall’s priority was always the heightened reality of her performance art. Few actresses are consistently as committed to the needs of each project, vital and alive in each moment, and absolutely riveting.

To read in Frank Jay Gruber's “The Performance Art of Grayson Hall: Life on Two Levels” its entirety, click here.

Related Off-site Links:
Grayson Hall: A Hard Act to Follow – Official Website.
Chronicling the Life of Grayson Hall – Rebecca Jamison (
Parker Posey on Channeling ’70s Horror Icon Grayson Hall in Tales of the Walking Dead – Stacy Lambe‍ (Entertainment (August 24, 2022).
Grayson Hall Delivers Your Every Quarantine MoodYouTube (May 6, 2020).
Happy Birthday Grayson Hall! (Probably!) – The Collinsport Historical Society (September 18, 2019).
Gay Icon in Waiting – David Alexander Nahmod (Bay Area Reporter, September 19, 2006).
Grayson Hall Ain’t No Snitch, 1964 – The Collinsport Historical Society (August 29, 2016).
Clippings: A 1972 Interview with Grayson Hall “Superfan” – The Collinsport Historical Society (July 15, 2016).
Praise for Grayson Hall from Richard Burton – The Collinsport Historical Society (April 16, 2015).
Clippings: Grayson Hall Goes Out of the Shadows, 1971 – The Collinsport Historical Society (January 13, 2014).
Grayson Hall at the 1965 Oscars – The Collinsport Historical Society (December 26, 2012).
Sam Hall, Soap Opera Writer for Dark Shadows and One Life to Live, Dies at 93 – Mike Barnes (The Hollywood Reporter, September 30, 2014).
Obituary: Grayson Hall, Actress, Of Stage, TV and FilmThe New York Times (August 9, 1985).

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