Gay icon in waiting

  • by David Alexander Nahmod
  • Tuesday September 19, 2006
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Actress Greyson Hall.
Actress Greyson Hall.

Grayson Hall: A Hard Act to Follow by R.J. Jamison; iUniverse Press, $18.95

These days, Grayson Hall (1922-85) is chiefly remembered for her four-year stint on the horror-themed soap opera Dark Shadows, a job she took out of financial necessity. But Hall was also a highly regarded actor on the New York stage, one who made film history. In 1964, she played Miss Fellowes, the repressed lesbian in John Huston's film of Tennessee Williams' The Night of the Iguana. For her highly charged, daring performance, Hall became the first actor to ever receive an Oscar nomination for playing a gay role.

She brought her stage training to the world of daytime TV when she joined Dark Shadows in 1967, and her performance as Dr. Julia Hoffman made her an icon to the show's fans. As she attempted to cure Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) of the vampire curse, she 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.

Matthew Martin, currently the star/director of Trog at Theatre Rhino, is a proud member of the Grayson Hall cult. Martin feels that Hall is the kind of classical, over-the-top actress that gay men love to idolize, and he's determined to make her more known.

"She was a fascinating actress," said Martin. "She was one of a kind, and had a very self-aware campy quality. You could hear her balls clang when she spoke!"

But Hollywood in the 1960s was not kind to Hall. After her nomination, there were many professional disappointments, the worst of which was almost playing Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate. Instead, she got to guest on the TV series The Man from Uncle.

"Had she been born 20 years earlier, she would have become what Bette and Joan became," said Martin. Martin envisions a stage adaptation of Dark Shadows, in which he'd play Dr. Julia Hoffman.

In the meantime, Hall's fans can revel in a superb new book by R.J. Jamison. Grayson Hall: A Hard Act to Follow celebrates the actor's life and work, a career that had many ups and downs, but was far more extensive than Shadows fans realize.

Hall was a favorite actress of the avant-garde playwright Jean Genet, and her off-Broadway performances in his plays The Balcony (1960) and The Screens (1971) won awards. She hated Hollywood and stayed in New York, where she was able to express herself artistically, and cook dinner for her family every night.

High heels

Iguana was not Hall's first gay role. In 1962, she appeared as Pepe, an out lesbian club owner, in Satan in High Heels, an independent film now available on DVD. She was outspoken in her opposition to the Vietnam War, and of her support for gay and civil rights. She never worried how her opinions might affect her career.

Jamison's book covers all these aspects of the woman who was Grayson Hall. The author's research is meticulous, and was done with the full participation of Hall's husband, son, and co-star/friend, actress Sylvia Miles. Dark Shadows cast members also sat down for interviews, and remembered Hall as outspoken and dedicated to her family, friends and craft.

The author is clearly a Grayson Hall fan. Jamison has long admired this quasi-forgotten actress, and wanted to return her to the public consciousness. That she is also a knowledgeable film and theatre buff is an asset. Dark Shadows fans, theatre-history buffs, gay men who adore larger-than-life actresses, all will find much to inform and entertain them in this insightful biography.