New York — Lee Grant has directed a documentary TV film - she also is the reporter - which she describes as ''basically humanist, but with a strong feminist aspect.'' That's just about the way I would describe Lee Grant herself.
I am interviewing her in her apartment on upper Central Park West. After 12 years in Hollywood, she has forsaken the West Coast for New York, ''although those were very productive years for me out there.''
Dressed in a long white peasant skirt and a horizontally striped blouse, she basks in the sun that streams in the apartment windows. The lack of makeup reveals a remarkable woman with a remarkably mobile and beautiful face - one that seems to mirror her involvement in both her art and the important issues of her generation. These days Miss Grant says she feels so fulfilled by her acting and directing projects that she doesn't feel any great desire to make her own voice heard from a soapbox, as she has often done in the past.
Miss Grant's TV film The Willmar 8 (PBS, Friday,m Oct. 8, 9-10 p.m., check local listings, since dates and times vary) is a prime example of the kind of meaningful project in which she often manages to involve herself. It is a straighforward retelling of a true story about a group of eight small-town Minnesota women bank employees who went on strike because they wanted equal pay for equal work. The strike was precipitated when a bank president, approached with their demands, allegedly said: ''We're not all equal, you know,'' and continued to require them to train men to do the jobs from which they themselves were excluded.
In the film, Miss Grant's frustration at not getting the townsfolk to state their position openly is evident. Still, she manages to make the film a strong statement for women's rights.
Besides directing ''The Willmar 8,'' she has also directed a critically acclaimed feature film, ''Tell Me a Riddle.'' And she has just finished directing a documentary about women in prison for the pay-TV service Home Box Office.
''Sure,'' she says with just a trace of a native New York accent, ''those eight women now feel they lost because they have never gotten back their original jobs. But I feel they've won. They had hoped for all eight of them to go back to that bank together, that was their idea of a win, and it didn't happen that way, so they feel they lost. But they won in a different way.
''I think the kind of fight that they put up was so extraordinary for them, something they would never have dreamed of doing within the framework of their lives till then. They did something that was never done before - they went on strike against a bank for the first time in Minnesota's history. Banking will never be quite the same because of them. And they changed that town. In terms of the town's consciousness this was an enormous win as far as I am concerned.''
Miss Grant is planning to direct a two-hour dramatization of the same event later this year for NBC. She is concerned about many things. She has been in the forefront of many battles for social change. But she does not feel like a feminist.
''In my professional life, I've never run across sex discrimination. You have to fight for everything you get in acting and directing, man or woman.
''It's hard for me to speak in labels, but I know that feminists have adopted this show as something which they feel is particularly a woman's struggle. There was a certain awakening for me. And yet as an actress, it was difficult for me to see thi.gs in feminist terms. I get away with mmch more than the men I work with on the job. But these women opened my eyes, because what they were fighting against was a totally male-oriented view of them. No matter how much work they did, they could not be considered equal to young men who had no experience but who could walk in and be their boss. It was an education for me.''
Did she fight for the Equal Rights Amendment?
''To some extent. But unfortunately I feel that the major steps forward for women in this country have always come out of the economy rather than the avant-garde. The advance of women in World War II came when they went into the factories, for instance. The fight for the ERA did a wonderful thing for the men and women of this country in that it brought to their consciousness the fact that women were not treated as equals.
''I never felt that ERA could be won, but I did feel that the kind of involvement it drew from a broad stratum of men and women made the battle worthwhile. In this film I could see it when union men said if the ERA had passed, these women would never have had these problems. They were able to connect it in a very specific way.''
In her documentary on women in prison for HBO, Miss Grant says she has discovered that ''women are serving very stiff sentences for crimes for which men are not being punished as harshly. I think in the judicial system today there is a wave of punishing and making up, or getting even if you will, for women's new attitudes. The law seems to be ruling out a lot of what used to be accepted as mitigating circumstances.
''I think a lot of people have the feeling that what they do doesn't matter. What our film shows is that it can matter, it does matter, that the individual fight, if it's tied to something worthwhile, can not only be fought but it can make a difference in your own life as well as in somebody else's.
''The experience of the Willmar 8 gives people hope and shows the kind of friendship people can have for each other in bad times. You know, not everybody falls away from you - there are people you can depend upon in bad times as well as good times. Standing up and fighting for what you believe lets you discover who they are.''