Marsha Hunt, Actor, Activist and Survivor

In today's volatile political and social climate, actors and celebrities are often as well known for their causes as for their movies and plays. Angelina JolieOprah WinfreyYoko Ono, and Alyssa Milano, to name just a few, are known for numerous foundations and humanitarian causes, for speaking up and out, and for making huge financial donations. It seems as if this is a new development, due to the omnipresent information that fills our screens regarding the famous. However, if you travel a little further back in time you find Jane Fonda fighting the Vietnam war, and prior to that, Audrey Hepburn leaving acting to focus on humanitarian work for UNICEF. The intersection of arts and activism is not new, and it doesn't always have clear cut benefits for those who engage in it. Especially in certain eras, morals and integrity stood in direct opposition to fortune and popularity. Many who stood up for the former ended up fading in the latter. For those who aspire to use public platforms to create and facilitate change, Marsha Hunt is a person to both honor and emulate.

Marsha Hunt is a retired actress and activist. She is 101 years old and still lives in her beautiful home in the San Fernando Valley. She has led an amazing life, both as an incredibly gifted and intelligent performer and as a forward thinking activist championing both individual rights and institutional evolution. Everyone should know her name, her unique voice and be aware of her legacy. This article serves simply as an introduction to her incredible life and work. It is impossible to condense all that she has created and stood for into one piece. I've included numerous links and additional information at the end of this post.

Ms. Hunt was born in Chicago in 1917. She did it all. While training as an actor, she began to work as a model, becoming one of the industry's highest paid by 1935. Although she wanted to do theater, she moved to Los Angeles in 1934 at the age of 17 and was initially signed by Paramount, where she starred in several films. Even at this tender age, she started to assert her rights. She refused to do pin up photos (known as “cheesecake” and “leg art”) and did not take part in the social party scene. She was starting even then, to find her own voice and to stand up for her values. Although she showed promise, Paramount released her from her contract after a few years. She freelanced for a while before ending up at MGM, where she stayed on contract through 1945. Notable films include Pride and Prejudice and Blossoms in the Dust. She also starred in the only wartime film to acknowledge the Holocaust, None Shall Escape (1944). While she did not become an A list star, she worked constantly as a supporting actor in quality films. During the war she also sang on USO tours and developed a career in radio. She appeared in over 50 films in her career, over the course of several decades.

Ms. Hunt's film career came to an abrupt halt when she was caught up in the Communist witch hunt of the McCarthy era. Ms. Hunt was and continues to be outspoken, with a liberal belief system that she guards fiercely. Ms. Hunt, along with her second husband, screenwriter Robert Presnell Jr., were so disturbed by the actions of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) that they joined the Committee for the First Amendment which was formed in 1947 and made up of many A list actors and Hollywood players. The group went to Washington to protest the hearings and produced Hollywood Fights Back, a star-studded radio program which was co-written by her husband.

Like many other notable actors and screenwriters who dared to stand up to the government and studio system, Ms. Hunt's career came to a complete stop in Hollywood. She was asked to denounce her activities if she wanted to find more work and she steadfastly refused. In 1950, Hunt was named as a potential Communist or Communist sympathizer (along with 151 other actors, writers and directors) in the anti-Communist publication Red Channels. Though she would continue to work through her 90s, the blacklist effectively stopped her ascent in major motion pictures.

Not one to sit still however, Ms. Hunt simply knocked on other doors, returning to her first love; theater. She made her Broadway debut in Joy To The World, in March of 1948. She continued to go between theater, working both on Broadway and in Los Angeles, television and radio for the rest of her career. She starred in the first live televised Shakespeare play, playing Viola in Twelfth Night. In 1950 she appeared on the cover of Life Magazine as the star of the Broadway play, The Devil's Disciple. In 1987 she even appeared in an episode of Star Trek! In addition to opening up time for theater, the blacklist also opened up her time for activism. This was not a new avenue for her to travel. She had worked throughout the war years at the Hollywood Canteen dancing and socializing with service men, especially on Saturday nights, when no one else wanted to. But, after the blacklist, the world opened up to her. As she stated in an interview with Film Talk in response to the question:

"How did you get involved in all the charity work you did for so many years?"
When I had so much free time because I wasn't allowed to act, I discovered the outside world. I went around the world with my husband and I came back as, what I called, a planet patriot. I fell in love with the planet, not just my country, but all of us. I learned about the United Nations which was right here in this country and I spent twenty-five years working as a volunteer on behalf of the UN, I worked on the Year of the Child, international cooperation, and made a documentary film during World Refugee Year with fourteen stars appearing in it to tell the stories of different refugees. There were still twenty-five million people floating around the world, stateless, with no travel papers, no identity papers, no work permits – fifteen years after World War II ended. The United Nations was trying to get the governments to open their borders and let their fair share of refugees in, so I made this film to acquaint Americans with it. It was very rewarding.

In addition to world wide charity work, Ms. Hunt made a huge difference right in the San Fernando Valley, opening the first homeless shelter for women and children. This is especially poignant because her own baby did not survive. During the turmoil of the McCarthy era, she gave birth to a baby girl, born prematurely, who later passed away. This was a true heartbreak for her and she did not have any other children.

Ms. Hunt's creative spirit is expressed in numerous ways. In 1993 she published The Way We Wore ... a beautiful coffee table book detailing fashion of the 1930s and 1940s. All of the photos are of her, in glorious outfit after glorious outfit. Many are studio shots used as publicity for her 50 movies, some are fashion shots for the designers. Each photo is explained and detailed by Ms. Hunt in her own charming manner. I actually met Ms. Hunt when I was directing and costuming a play set in the 1940s. She lent us clothes, making sure that each piece was truly representative of who would wear it. Her knowledge of fashion rivals many who made it their life's work. Her generosity of spirit was on display even in such limited contact.

One of the most charming surprises, but one that goes to the heart of Ms. Hunt's belief system is the song that she wrote about love and marriage equality for same-sex couples, titled Here's To All Who Love. She wrote it at age 95, and it has become an anthem at marriage ceremonies. She wrote it as a gift and it is has been received as one.

There is a documentary by Roger Memos about Marsha Hunt. It had a short run in 2015 but in order to recut it for streaming services, Mr. Memos is raising funds. The documentary was filmed in collaboration with Ms. Hunt and features countless interviews, clips and insight. It is a labor of love and an amazing project. If you would like to read more about the documentary you can check out the Facebook page. If you would like to donate to the GoFund account to help with the sound mix, closed captioning, the film's website and the film trailer, please click here.

In preparation for this article, I sent Ms. Hunt some questions to answer via email. Rather than edit them, I will share them with you as is.

Marsha being surprised by the crew of her documentary for her 75th anniversary. She is in her late 90s in this photograph.

What similarities do you see in the political climate today and during the 1940s and 1950s? Are there differences that you feel are more or less dangerous? 
At 101 years of age I am not as well informed as I once was. But of course I favor, as always, the most peaceful, most even handed solution to problems.

I don't know if you would remember, but we have actually met! You were extremely generous in helping me costume a play that I directed, set in the 1940s. I came over and you lent us clothing and gave me a copy of your book, which I treasure. How do you feel that fashion (or the lack of it) affects women's power and collective voice? I have been watching the new congress and all of the new younger and female members of the House in their bright clothes and fashion forward choices. Does this, in your opinion empower or diminish them?
I think there is an effect but it's hard to define. I think how well, how effectively, a woman legislator dresses can tell us something about her IQ, the effective, the becoming, the appropriate, which then empowers them. I don't think “fashion” diminishes unless it's extreme - then it can be negative, but I think that's pretty rare. I guess women in government dress without “headlines'. If they were fashion plates it would be distracting from their effectiveness in what they are there to do. It would become the wrong topic.

What do you want to tell women and actors who find that their activism is more important to them than their acting careers? Do you think it is worth it, if being known for your politics is hurting your castability. Do you think that is a truism, or simply a fear?
When you take positions you lose some people just as you gain others. On matters of importance to me, it is worth it.

What role do you think that the unions should play in helping actors become activists? Should the union be neutral or an active partner? (NB: Ms. Hunt was active in SAG prior to the blacklist and served on the board)

The union is there to protect and help the actor so when one's union takes a position the individual is spared blame or credit for it. At that extent we are protected by our unions.

Do you see any positive aspects to social media as it it used today? Do you see it as a danger (do you not care about it at all??)
The internet/social media is a way of “getting it out there” but then nothing remains private including opinions.

What changes would you like to see, both in the nation and in the entertainment/film industry, in regards to women specifically.
The changes in the entertainment/film industry ideally would be that it that it be an open opportunity to write, direct, produce whether a woman or a man.

Sweet Adversity Documentary:
Review

Book website:
The Way We Wore

Links to additional articles:
NPR: Actress Marsha Hunt, 100, Has Matters Of Principle
Movie Maker: Marsha Hunt at 100: The Actress Recalls the Blacklist, Film Noir and Being Cast in Gone With The Wind
IMDB bio
British Film Institute: Marsha Hunt: American girl, Un-American woman, upstanding centenarian
LA Times: Actress Marsha Hunt survived the blacklist without apologizing for her activism
Film Talk: Marsha Hunt: “MGM let me play absolutely everything, the studio gave me such joy”
Huffington Post: Marsha Hunt Pens ‘Here's To All Who Love' Gay Rights Anthem

Video:
Marsha discusses her career and the Hollywood Blacklist


I'M NOT BITTER (A Mom's Tale)

By Shannon McNally Ham

A few weeks ago, my husband and I had a fight that ended with two of my toes turning deep purple.

He came home around 11:15pm because he's in rehearsals for a new play and sometimes rehearsals go late. I'm cool with that. Being cool with stuff is part of any relationship that has got to last a long time. So, when I tell you that I can recall cordial greetings and niceties, but not how it went from “how'd-it-go” to “go-to-hell” in the space of a wine swallow, it's because I honestly can't remember. But I'm pretty sure it had to do with an ill-timed eye roll.  An eye roll, ill-timed mind you, caused me to throw my phone on the floor, use the profanity I save for special occasions, and kick the baby gate. Besides my toes, I also broke the number one rule my husband and I established about fighting from the get-go.  I called him a name.  (The name I called my husband wasn't' that bad. In fact, knowing that it will not happen again, I wish I had used something a lot more despicable. But it's all very regrettable.)

Childish? Sure.  Feel good? Sure.  Why the tantrum?  Not quite sure. It's out of character for me. But I do have a lead.

I used to act a lot more.  I used to write a lot more.  I used to live in the city and do cool city-type things. I used to work at an advertising agency by day (cool) and moonlight as a stage actress by night (radiating cool). I used to collaborate with theater people about original plays and drink in the filthiest dive bars on weeknights. I used to do staged readings and get calls asking me to please fill in for this role. I used to get callbacks.  I used to get greenlit (and un-greenlit).

I used to drink and drink while sitting across from my cool lesbian writing partner and laugh and shake my head at my unending comedy gold.  I used to spend whatever money I had at Anthropology so I could look like a classy, bohemian hooker. And I did. And I was hot.  I used to write at night and smoke all the cigarettes because it helped the process.  I used to think there was a process. And I was optimistic and ballsy and I still had elasticity in my skin. And I had time for everything.

Now I'm not ashamed of my age, but let's just leave it at that. I have two kids: a son who's nine and a daughter who's two, and I no longer have time for everything. When people say, “I don't have time for shit!”, I think, “Yeah, I don't have time to take one.”  And if I do, there's a kid in there with me. I'm a wife and a mom.  And even though I didn't make it to the big time, I'm still the curator of my dreams.

I'm currently a short-order cook who moonlights as a busser.  I'm a carpet cleaner who can get out the toughest human fecal stains and still have energy to get that week-old whatever-the-fuck-it-is out of drapes. I'm a Common-Core math student because I need to know how to help my third-grader with his homework.  I'm a nurse, without the academia, formal training or diplomas. I am not a nurse. I am, however, a has-been actress, a hack writer (just wait), and an unbelievably supportive and sexy life-partner, if people are still saying life-partner.

I'm a Christian, an apostate, and a Somewhere-in-the-Middle. I'm a pre-school teacher, a sometime Sunday school teacher, and I'm First-Aid and CPR certified so I maybe could keep you from dying until the real help came.  My socio-economic situation is somewhat different than back in the day, but who of us isn't in a book club just to get away from their family and chug economy wine?  Yes, this is me now, but I'm still relevant.  And I'm still the same ballsy chick I used to be if, people are still saying ballsy chick.

My 40's aren't so different from my 20's: I don't smoke pot because it makes me act like an 80's sitcom, but I am glad they're passing laws that allow normal people to smoke it.  I think having gay friends is easy, but having trans friends is hard. It won't always be hard, but today it is because to have a trans friend means I have to shut my mouth about my hardships (being a semi-affluent white woman is hard, yo) and listen to what it's like to fear for your life, and fight for the right to use a public restroom.  I believe Black Lives Matter.  I believe All Lives Matter as well, but I believe All Lives Matter needs to share their equality and privilege with All Black Lives Matter or else All Lives Matter needs a time-out.  Maybe even a spanking.

I know I must seem like the epitome of white privilege.  I'm actually whiter and more privileged than most, so I wear sunscreen when it's overcast and hate myself sometimes. I believe I don't really care for politicians or religious groups, or men or women telling me what I can or can't do with my inner trappings.

But, as it stands, motherhood is my mantle, my sub-culture and my blurry day-to-day gift. And I am grateful for it. But even the sweetest gifts can kick you in the balls, as motherhood has made my adult brain “go bye-bye” and my grown-up voice is “where'd it go?”.  I'm in the process of finding them again, but because my children have a deep-seated belief that sleep is stupid, it may take a while.  (Free tip: it is ill-advised to take any online “Test Your Vocabulary” bullshit test while extended-nursing an overgrown toddler at 3am, because the test results may indicate that you have the vocabulary of a fourteen-year old in the U.S. Those results are dumb and the tests are stupid and I'm going to take it again.)

One more thing about why I kicked the baby gate: I can't swear in my house or my car or my backyard. So, when I swear in my house or my car or my backyard, it's always under my breath, with no one around.  And then, unfailingly, a child will manifest out of the ether and use exaggerated Anime eyes to say, “You said the really bad word!”.  Quietly kicking inanimate objects is less incriminating. And I will continue to do so as I balance new theater projects with my mom duties while doling out Cheetos for breakfast and restricting my nine-year-old's screen time to a number I won't lie about.  I will keep my shit together when we're fresh out of the homeopathic children's sleep syrup I abuse I mean use. And fail daily at the list of what I'm supposed to get done on a simple Tuesday.  So, what does a poor privileged white woman do? Take a deep breath, give my son extra screen time, and carry on. (He will remember me as nice. Weary, but nice.)

And then this spring, I find myself on the board (read important) of a small, fledging theater company.  We have our season mapped out, our new space beginning construction, and our projects designated so that very soon, I will be the one coming home late while my husband decides how to react to an eye roll. But until then, on any given night after 11:15pm, tread lightly. Because this sexy (make no mistake) has-been is tired, and I'm not afraid to kick a baby gate.


LA LA LAND part 2a: LA-BASED ACTRESSES SPEAK UP

HIPSTER TIP OF THE WEEK:  Do not miss PLASTICITY by Alex Lyras at the Hudson Guild Theatre.  I beg to differ with Lovel Estell III for his prickly and nit-picky Stage Raw review of a show that has the best visual scheme and the most of on its mind of anything the Hipster has seen on LA small stages in recent memory.  Yes, it's true, the author has bit off more than he can satisfactorily chew - or, better metaphor, his reach does exceed his grasp -- but the author/performer's layered investigation of the human brain's complexity is fascinating in its many tangents, and the way it compares the intricacy of the brain to that of the cosmos.  I hope that Mr. Lyras continues to develop his flawed but intriguing script with his brilliant collaborators, co-writer/director Robert McCaskill and video artist Corwin Evans.  Don't let small-minded reviewers make your decisions for you.  The show has just been extended - check out www.plasticitytheplay.com for tickets and info.

(And don't forget, I can always be reached with any questions or comments HERE.)

Last week I posted a piece about the film La La Land and its less than believable thread about Mia Dolan (Emma Stone) writing, producing and performing a one-woman show in North Hollywood. (I hope everyone clicked on the link to the AV Club's take on the subject - hilarious!)  Anyway, it occurred to me that I'd like to hear what actual LA-based actresses thought of Mia Dolan's journey.

I put out the word to a few actresses I've worked with and to Facebook Friends, and eventually I received so many responses that I'm going to post a second installment with as many comments as I can fit.  It's my personal belief that being a professional actress is one of the most difficult possible endeavors.  That's not true for every actress, of course, but those who want to put heart and soul on the line and achieve an individual destiny -- as Emma Stone's character does in the film -- face untold numbers of obstacles.  Here then are three very different (and very unedited) views of very real Mia Dolans - Kaitlyn Fae Fajilan, Tamika Katon-Donegal and Jenny Lerner.

KAITLYN FAE FAJILAN

So here's my take on Emma Stone's character in La La Land:

It boggled my mind how accurate the way auditioning for roles in LA was portrayed. When I saw the film, I kept turning to my friend and whispering furiously, "OH MY GOD, THAT IS SO TRUE." From getting honked at for practicing lines while stuck in traffic, to trying her best not to get her hopes up after an audition, Mia's pain was frighteningly relatable. Each time she had to rush out in order to make an audition, I nodded and thought to myself, "Been there." When she goes straight home and face plants into her bed after a failed audition, my heart sank for her. I said aloud, "I totally know that feeling!"

There are two lines in particular Mia utters in the film that really rang true for me:

The first is when she said (something to the effect of): "It sucks walking out and seeing all the other auditioners who are better looking and probably more talented than me." MAN. That one hit home.  It can get so daunting at auditions, looking around and seeing everyone who appears much more suited to the role than you. It gets especially hard as a person of color trying to make it in an industry where minorities often get overlooked in favor of more "traditional" casting. I've literally had an acting teacher tell me that casting directors would consider me "non traditional" purely based off my race.

The second is when she nearly gives up on acting altogether after her one-woman play tanks. She tearfully tells Ryan Gosling "I'm tired of embarrassing myself." She took the words right out of my mouth. So many times have I walked out of an audition or acting class and thought, "Who do I think I am? I'm just making a fool of myself." It can get really, really disheartening, and I thought Emma Stone portrayed that aspect very well.

TAMIKA KATON-DONEGAL

Thoughts on La La Land

I found Emma Stone's character Mia to have a career and opportunities that not many LA actresses, ESPECIALLY actresses of color, have. For example, when I audition there aren't usually a room of Black actresses with curly blonde hair auditioning for the same part. It's like the UN; Asian, Latina, and Black women are all up for the same one line:

“Here's your gelato.”

At this phase in my career, I'm not auditioning for a variety of types either. It's usually: bitchy assistant, quirky best friend, or cop. (I no longer have a go-to prostitute outfit so I guess I've phased out of those types auditions.)

Finally, I've never experienced casting directors to be anything but polite and generous. If they are direct, or to the point, it's because I understand they have a job to do! It's my hope that I can make their search much easier!

JENNY LERNER
First, a little bit about me: I'm an actress in my late twenties, working 2 office jobs and some babysitting gigs on the weekends to pay rent around the theatre and tv jobs I (sometimes/seldom/will someday have more) get. I'm a member of the New American Theatre Company in LA and love acting and singing.  After writing this, I will leave my day job and go straight to singing class.

So, here's what I think "La La Land" got right: most of the audition scenes. I loved Mia's auditions for the cop or the teacher roles where she's dressed in a police uniform or as a teacher doing certain prototype guest star "type parts". I thought that was really real. And we've all been on those stereotypical auditions for the medical show, crime drama, etc. where you're clearly the suspicious person throwing off the detectives before we find who the real criminal is.  And I also appreciated the moments where the casting directors are talking to each other and reading over her resume instead of really paying attention to her audition. These are all things that have happened to me on the regular. Even the casting director talking to someone else through the door during that intimate scene rang true. People in the audience seemed shocked when they saw that. I wasn't.

BUT  they lost me at the one woman show and everything that comes after it. I understand this movie is about the "ones who dream" and leaps of faith. BUT her one person show:  we see her designing costumes, and writing it and working on the sets leading up to it, but we never see one moment of this (supposedly) incredible one woman show (based on her experience growing up in Nevada or where the fuck was it? How is it supposed to be ground-breaking? Is it?). We see her walk on stage to a small audience and walk off. And when she walks off, people say it was awful. Shouldn't we know about her amazing concept or writing or acting which landed her the job of a lifetime?

It is very difficult getting casting directors, agents, managers to see any theatre in LA. I am currently working with my company on this very issue. I am currently trying to figure out how to bribe family members (short of giving blood) to get them to ask industry members they know to come see some new theatre we're doing in a couple months. People do drop offs to casting offices, print flyers, send emails, make phone calls. I'll be working on these pitches for weeks and will be lucky if 1 out of the 50-100 casting directors/agents/managers my team of actors contact will come. We're supposed to believe Mia's mass email got this casting director to come out? Yeah, okay.

So next, she goes into the life-changing audition with her boyfriend in tow, which by the way, let's talk about that. I guess Sebastian comes for added bravery or moral support. Cute and romantic and all, but adult actresses go alone to auditions most of the time, right? Unless you're underage and need your parents to drive you, you go to your auditions alone. I don't think I'd want my boyfriend to come with me to my auditions. My therapist, maybe, but my boyfriend, no.

That's not even the issue though. If I remember correctly, the casting director doesn't even know the plot of the movie except that it will be built around the right actress (?) and shoots in Paris for a few months. Okay. How did this movie get funded? THAT DOES NOT HAPPEN. I WISH IT DID AND THE INDUSTRY WAS COLLABORATIVE LIKE THAT AND WE COULD ALL GO TO PARIS AND CREATE MAGNIFICENT, DEEP ART IN A SYMBIOTIC AND FREE WAY AND EAT CHOCOLATE CROISSANTS BUT THAT DOESN'T HAPPEN. Or if it does, someone get me into the room where it happens.

I thought it was realistic and great that she and Sebastian didn't get together in the end and I guess this movie doesn't strive for realism. I should know that because of the dancing across the night sky at the Griffith Observatory etc, but it just seemed like parts of the movie aimed for truth and other parts...what are you doing LA LA LAND? Which brings me to....That apartment? For 4 or 5 girls or whatever it was with tons of space and old-Hollywood rooms? How much money are these baristas making? Change that apartment to a POS in the Valley and two girls are sharing a room and let's talk.

Also, did she get fired from her barista job? I don't remember. But she was late a lot.

No shade to Emma Stone. She's a great actress. But any actor, really struggling, with their heart in the game, pounding the pavement would have seen "La La Land" and hated that. Most of my friends did. More troubling: does this movie give my non-industry friends, colleagues and frenemy that I will inevitably run into at my high school reunion the impression that it's only a matter of time until someone "discovers" me and I go to Paris for a few months and come back a movie star? Sounds great, but I fear that everyone but my frenemy is in for some bitter disappointment on that score. They'll conclude that I must not be very good since that hasn't happened to me yet, and come on, do we really think that's fair?

Also I didn't like the singing, but that just seems petty at this point.

I promise I'm a lot nicer when it comes to non-"La La Land" things and perhaps its hard for me because this is a world I'm so close to. But that's just it:  I so wanted this to be my story. It could have been and I went in thinking it would be, but it wasn't. I wanted to fully feel this film and let the characters get under my skin. There were times in the theatre that I felt my experience as an actress totally echoed back to me, but mostly it just made me super angry. I won't be singing "City of Stars" at my next audition. But let's face it, if my manager gets me an audition for [the inevitable] "La La Land" the musical, I'll probably go. I need the exposure.