An Interview with Marsha Hunt's Sweet Adversity Director Roger Memos
December 9, 2020
Marsha Hunt’s Sweet Adversity (2015) premieres on TCM this Friday night at 8pm EST. I recently had the chance to ask director Roger Memos a few questions about Marsha and the documentary, which chronicles her career, her fight against the Blacklist, and her vast activism and humanitarian work.
But first, some background. Roger initially met Marsha while working on a PBS documentary about blacklisted writer/producer Carl Foreman; she shared a story about being pressured by a publicist to take out an ad in the Hollywood trades in which she would confess to being a former Communist. “He wanted her to apologize for something that Marsha called a lie if she intended to keep her job on the film The Happy Time (1952),” Roger said. “Her journey through the Blacklist shook me to the core. I couldn't believe that this could actually happen to someone. The insanity of it all. Marsha acted on her conscience, and for this she paid a price.”
Roger Memos and Marsha Hunt at a 2018 screening of Marsha Hunt's Sweet Adversity.
That moment affected Roger deeply. “After hearing this story, I was outraged and knew in my heart that I had to tell her story,” he recalled. At the time, Lifetime’s Intimate Portrait was popular, and he hoped to share her tale as a one-hour documentary there before realizing she was older than most of their subjects. So, he decided to turn to fundraising and produce a feature documentary on her.
Q: What’s the most surprising thing you learned about Marsha Hunt from making this movie?
Along with producers Richard Adkins and Joan Cohen, Roger “spent months sitting around Marsha's dining room table, just talking to her about her life.” During that time, he was surprised to discover that Marsha was a gifted illustrator; she designed outfits as a teenager, including her dress in her senior class play; and she’s written over 50 songs. (Two are in the documentary, “Here’s To All Who Love,” a marriage equality anthem she wrote at age 95, and "When the World Grows Up," which she sings over the end credits.) “Marsha once told me that it was a dream of hers to get a check from ASCAP for writing her songs,” Roger said. “Now, finally, she WILL get a check. MANY checks!”
Marsha in an MGM publicity photo.
Q: What was the easiest part to film with Marsha? Was there one subject she loved to talk about?
“Most definitely, Marsha enjoyed talking about her early years, her formative years,” Roger confirmed, which makes up the first section of the documentary. “She loved her family, her school, her beloved New York City. She was driven. Her goal was acting, and she wasn't going to settle on anything less. She had so many interesting stories about her early days in radio, live television and her work at all the motion picture studios.”
Q: What did you find to be the most challenging and/or rewarding part of telling her story?
Outside of fundraising, which I assume is never an easy or pleasant task, Roger found it difficult at first to strike a balance between Marsha’s career and activism, particularly ensuring the latter would be interesting to audiences and not simply a “laundry list” of her vast accomplishments. “Richard Adkins joked that this was not a film on ‘Saint Marsha’! He was right,” Roger said. “As I was so close to her story, I had a tendency to put her up on a pedestal a bit too much.”
Roger acknowledged, “The most rewarding part of telling her story I think was allowing HER to tell her own story in her own voice. I feel that viewers have more empathy for her as she tells her story, rather than a narrator telling her story.” He is still awed by the range of emotions Marsha conveys as she takes viewers through her life. “Sad, mad, glad…simply amazing,” he details. “She is able to paint a picture of her life in the 20th century with words.”
Marsha going through UN mail in 1963 as the president of the San Fernando Chapter of the American Association for the United Nations. (Picture from the Valley Times Photo Collection, LA Public Library.)
Q: What’s the main takeaway you hope fans will glean from this documentary?
“When the documentary first came out in 2015, the world was in a different place,” Roger recalls. “While our documentary was received well, I don't feel people really understood the true meaning of the film.”
He believes the movie has taken on new meaning over the last four years, during which time we’ve witnessed excessive lying, disparaging comments, and refusal to negotiate from those in our government. As fans who watch the movie witness, Marsha is the exact opposite of that. “Our documentary is about a woman who honored her father's teachings and chose not to lie to save her career,” he said. Marsha “listened and respected the opinions of others. She may not have agreed but she listened and allowed them to have their own opinion without calling anyone names.”
Even during the most difficult period of her career, when she was blacklisted, “Marsha did not blame people; instead, she took the high road and went on to a career in activism,” Roger said. “The film is about ethics, civility, kindness, hope and empathy” as well as “patience, persistence and perseverance. Slowly and steadily, Marsha built a career in acting and activism. She became one of Hollywood's first ‘actor-vists.’”
And not to mention, the world has changed dramatically the past year with COVID. Right now, “people are looking for hope and inspiration,” Roger affirmed. “Our film offers that. Marsha, throughout her life, kept her ‘eye on the prize.’ She knew what she wanted and worked hard to make it happen. With COVID, we are forced to look inside ourselves. With the promise of a vaccine, we can look ahead to 2021 with a renewed sense of hope. My new mantra during this pandemic is: Marsha Hunt overcame adversity and we will all as well.”