By R.J. Jamison
iUniverse, trade paperback, 244 pages, $18.95
available online at www.graysonhall.net
Although a highly respected stage actress and Academy Award nominee, Grayson Hall (1922–1985) remains best known for her work in Dark Shadows. However, many people mistakenly believed that Grayson’s portrayal of the austere Dr. Julia Hoffman represented her real life persona too. In fact, as the biography Grayson Hall: A Hard Act to Follow, reveals, she was much lustier and vivacious off-screen, like her favorite Dark Shadows role, the flamboyant gypsy Magda Rakosi,
A definite act of love, A Hard Act to Follow lives up to its name in more ways than one. Not only was Grayson admired – even beloved – by most of her co-stars, but she was deliberately mysterious about her past, to the point where her exact birth year was only recently ascertained.
Originally born Shirley Grossman, she acted under several different stage names before settling on “Grayson Hall” (a conflation of two last names), which made tracking down early credits especially challenging. Nevertheless, R.J. Jamison has done commendable sleuthing, and presents us with as complete an account as we’re ever likely to get of the woman who “remains adored by a mixture of gay men, drag queens and Dark Shadows enthusiasts.”
Jamison postulates that, as an older woman in a competitive industry, Hall may have lacked the necessary “drive” to further her career, plus her husband and son were very important to her; acting in New York allowed her to emote before a live audience and still dash home to cook dinner or host a cocktail party. Additionally, she missed out on two iconic roles: Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate (which went to Anne Bancroft instead) and Nurse Ratched in the stage play One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (a part she reportedly refused six times).
Since most of Hall’s Dark Shadows work has been exhaustively detailed elsewhere, this doesn’t receive much in-depth coverage here, but anecdotes and trivia — such as the fact that she initially took the part of Dr. Hoffman out of financial necessity — will keep devotees happy. Just as interesting are the accounts of her work in plays like The Balcony and The Screens (Jean Genet adored her); filming Night of the Iguana in primitive conditions in Mexico; her failed first marriage, which remained a well-kept secret for years; her unlikely friendships with female impersonators like Candy Darling and Divine; and her abuse of the oral steroid prednisone (to treat her asthma), which probably contributed to her death from lung cancer.
VERDICT: Grayson Hall fans will go batty over Jamison’s hard work and the bracing pace of her writing, plus the many rare photos reproduced herein. 8/10
John S. Hall