Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Vanessa Redgrave: "Almost a Kind of Jungian Actress"

My friend Rick recently saw the film Foxcatcher and had this to say about it:

Sad, dark, beautiful. The actors are excellent, especially Channing Tatum who is heart-breaking. And Vanessa Redgrave comes in for two scenes and takes over the screen.

I'm actually considering seeing the film just for those two scenes with Vanessa! This is because I've long admired this accomplished and beautiful actress, though, in all honesty, I couldn't tell you exactly when my interest and admiration began. I think it was when I was in my early 30s, in the mid-late 1990s. A key moment was definitely in December 1999 when my paternal grandmother, Nanna Smith, asked me to pick out some items to include as part of her Christmas gift to me. Along with a nice shirt, I included Vanessa's 1991 autobiography which, if I recall correctly, I found in a bookstore in Tamworth, a rural city close to my hometown of Gunnedah. After reading Vanessa's autobiography I started going out of my way to not only find and watch her films on DVD, but to also learn more about her achievements in theatre and film, her passion for social justice, and the price she's paid over the years for her outspokenness on issues of human rights.

Above: Vanessa in 1978, accepting her Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in the film Julia, about a woman murdered by the Nazi regime in the years prior to World War II for her anti-Fascist activism. During the awards ceremony members of the far-right Jewish Defense League picketed the ceremony and burned effigies of Redgrave to protest her support of the Palestinian cause. (The year before she had financed and produced the TV documentary The Palestinian.) During her acceptance speech, Vanessa thanked the Academy for their refusal to be "intimidated by the threats of a small bunch of Zionist hoodlums whose behaviour is an insult to the stature of Jews all over the world and their great and heroic record of struggle against fascism and oppression." Her remarks drew both cheers and boos from the audience.

Years later, in around 2007, I took it upon myself to totally overhaul the Wikipedia entry on Vanessa, as I discovered it to be quite inadequate. I'm happy to say that the bulk of what I researched and wrote remains on the site, although others have added valuable information, especially in relation to her theatre work, which I wasn't as knowledgeable about as I was her film career and political activism.

This past summer I read Dan Callahan's Vanessa: The Life of Vanessa Redgrave. It's Callahan's book that provides the quote by actor/director Simon Callow that's in this post's title. It's a quote that refers to Jungian psychology, a way of exploring and speaking about the depth dimension of human life that honors the power of (and thus the need for) myth, ritual and a spiritual life. Carl Jung considered "individuation," which was his term for a process of integrating opposites, and thus a journey of transformation, as essential for a person to become whole.

Jungian-influenced author Thomas Moore suggests that whenever imagination achieves unusual depth and fullness, we glimpse the sacred. Through her art, her performances on stage and screen, Vanessa Redgrave consistently moves us to see and imagine with exceptional range and depth. Whether we acknowledge it or not, Moore says, any source of imagination that approaches this richness and depth helps create a religious sensibility. "When they expose the deep images and themes that course through human life, so called secular literature and art serve the religious impulse." (Moore, Care of the Soul, p. 290)

At one point Callahan contrasts Vanessa's "Jungian kind" of acting to her political activism:

In her art, Redgrave is the most empathetic and nuanced of actresses. In most of her adult life as a political ideologue, she was usually the opposite of that, an absolutist who saw only what she wanted to see.

At some point in her life, however, Vanessa, evolved beyond this absolutism. At least that's my sense. And I think a key factor that inspired her to embark on such a journey may well have been her portrayal of transgender doctor and tennis pro Renée Richards in the 1986 television film Second Serve. It was, according to Callahan, "the most challenging role of her career."

In this part, Redgrave would have to play many scenes as a biological man, and she would have to suggest all the various stages of Richard's development both before and after he had his operation to become a female.

Reading Richard's memoir, Redgrave had been taken aback by her own prejudices regarding what she thought of as normal or healthy, and she worked hard to come to a deeper and more nuanced understanding of gender. She threw herself into preparing for the part, cutting off her hair and shaving it at the forehead into a widow's peak. She met with many transsexuals to discuss their lives, but Redgrave didn't meet Richards herself until after the shoot was finished. She latched onto an accurate idea of her as a kind of radical romantic, and this idea gave her the psychological clarity she needed in a role filled with potential traps and unclear byways.

It's not explored in Callahan's work, or discussed in Vanessa's autobiography, but I have to wonder if her commitment to challenge her own prejudices and develop a "deeper and more nuanced understanding of gender" didn't somehow translate into Vanessa's political life. After all, it was around the same time she made Second Serve that she began moving away from overt and strident political activism with organizations like the Revolutionary Workers' Party to human rights work with groups like UNICEF, which are less ideologically obsessed.

She's still very politically and socially aware, of course; still labeled a "leftie" . . . and still outspoken – all of which I admire and find inspiring. For instance (and this is the type of information I made sure to include when I revamped the Wikipedia entry on Vanessa), during a June 2005 interview on Larry King Live, she was challenged on her criticism of the so-called "War on Terror" and on her political views. In response she questioned whether there can be true democracy if the political leadership of the United States and Britain does not "uphold the values for which my father's generation fought the Nazis, [and] millions of people gave their lives against the Soviet Union's regime. [Such sacrifice was made] because of democracy and what democracy meant: no torture, no camps, no detention forever or without trial. . . . [Such things] are not just alleged [against the governments of the U.S. and Britain], they have actually been written about by the FBI. I don't think it's being 'far left'. . . to uphold the rule of law."

Neither do I, Vanessa. Neither do I.

Vanessa is part of the renowned Redgrave acting family (she dislikes the term 'dynasty'). Pictured above, from left,Vanessa, her sister Lynn (1943-2010), and their parents Michael Redgrave (1908-1985) and Rachel Kempson (1910-2003). Absent from this picture is Vanessa's brother Corin (1939-2010). This photo was taken in 1960, on the occasion of Michael and Rachel's silver wedding anniversary. Michael's parents, Roy Redgrave (1873-1922) and Margaret Scudamore (1884-1958), were also actors. Two of Vanessa Redgrave's children also entered the acting profession – Natasha Richardson (1963-2009) and Joely Richardson (born 1965). Vanessa's son Carlo (born 1969) by actor Franco Nero, is a screen writer and film director.

Above: Vanessa and Franco Nero with (from left) Natasha, Carlo and Joely – London, 1970. The father of Vanessa's two daughters is English theatre and film director and producer Tony Richardson (1928-1991).

Above: A lovely portrait of Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero from the late 1960s. Franco's romantic involvement with Vanessa began in 1967 when they met on the set of Camelot. In 1969, they had a son, Carlo Gabriel Redgrave Sparanero (known professionally as Carlo Gabriel Nero), a screenwriter and director. After separating for many years, during which they both had relationships with other people, Vanessa and Franco reunited and married on December 31, 2006. Four years later they appeared together in the film Letters to Juliet. Carlo Nero directed his mother in the cinematic adaptation of Wallace Shawn's play The Fever (2004). Franco Nero walked his future step-daughter Natasha Richardson down the aisle when she married actor Liam Neeson in 1994. Her father, Tony Richardson, had died in 1991.

Above: A still from the 2010 romantic drama Letters to Juliet, featuring Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero as two lovers reunited after many years apart.

For a lovely interview with Vanessa and Franco conducted just after the filming of Letters to Juliet, click here.

To give you a flavor of Dan Callahan's well-written and insightful Vanessa: The Life of Vanessa Redgrave, I share the following excerpt.

Keeping up with [Redgrave's] film and TV performances has always been a challenge. Her early career is strewn with hard-to-see TV episodes, shorts, and oddities, and though her choice of material is generally consistent, where and how she worked and for whom can seem quite nomadic and peculiar. Past 1990 or so, her work accelerated and became even more random and wayward. The perilous excitement of Redgrave's acting career is that you never know where she will be next or how she will react to her opportunities. Through impatience or love of risk or sheer perversity, she might utterly fail in a major and worthy role, yet in the most unrewarding small part she sometimes boldly clarifies all kinds of conflicting ideas all at once and lifts you out of your seat with her creative reach.

Her instinct is always to pick projects that might be of some socially conscious value, something that might improve us. She once said, in all seriousness, "I choose my roles carefully, so that when my career is finished I will have covered all our recent history of oppression." All of it! And she has certainly covered the waterfront in her work when it comes to oppressed people. Such a statement is more than a little comic, of course, but it is also moving. What other performer would say something like that in all seriousness? And what other performer could lighten such a heavy load of persecution and suffering on screen with spontaneous moments of naughty glee and gurgling laughter, with sudden shafts of light and gulps of air in the darkened places she has led us into?

. . . There are times when, watching Vanessa at her best, it is possible to think that there has never been an actor as extravagantly gifted and expressive as she is, not even Marlon Brando. Like Brando, Redgrave is led by instinct. Her failures, like his, are in Mount Everest areas where most actors wouldn't even be able to breathe, let alone create. His instincts led him to renounce his profession for political activism in favor of the underdog and eventually led to self-indulgence and silence. Hers have led her to highly questionable political activity while she continued to practice her art at the highest possible level of skill and daring. "If there existed something like a dream in which a recipe was concocted to create an ideal actress, that dream would end with an entrance by Vanessa Redgrave," said Tennessee Williams.

Asked by Charlie Rose in 1995 if she was satisfied as an actress, she said, "Oh, no, because any achievement you may make at any given time, or may know you have made, immediately you arrive at a new state or field. You then perceive whole other fields that you couldn't perceive until you'd arrived at that particular state." Redgrave has brought audiences up to fields and vistas that had never before been see, "I'm lucky," she said. "When there's a difficult mountain to climb, I sometimes get chosen to make the climb. Growing up with Shakespeare, as I had to do, you lived with the challenge of what drama can mean as a social experience for people, how important it can be." Meryl Streep, often called our greatest actress, disagrees with that assessment. She thinks that designation belongs to Redgrave and has referred to Redgrave's work as "the pinnacle."

. . . As a young woman, Redgrave said, "Perhaps at the end of my life people will say. 'That old girl certainly tried doing a bloody hell of a lot, didn't she?'" Her repertoire in the theater has been wide-ranging and always unexpected. She might focus on a major playwright, but not on the play you might expect of her. A natural for the perverse Hedda Gabler, she never played that role but made Ibsen's lesser-known The Lady from the Sea a trademark part and performance. A perfect Alma for Summer and Smoke, she instead latched on to one of Tennessee Williams' most difficult plays, Orpheus Descending, and somehow pulled it up to her level and triumphed in it in London and on Broadway.

She's covered most of Chekhov, done Greek tragedy, Brecht, Shaw, Wilde, and Noël Coward, and hurled herself at Shakespeare. She defined his Rosalind for all time, took on his shrew Katherine twice, made one unhappy stab at Lady Macbeth, and tried three times in all to be his Cleopatra, but she was never Ophelia, only briefly Viola, and she was too tall, she thought, for Juliet. Some felt she was phenomenal as Mary Tyrone on Broadway in Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night. Others felt she walked through the part, as if O'Neill's Irish pessimism was too much for her own naturally hopeful nature. Redgrave will do battle, but she wants to win. She cannot fully function in a defeatist play, however great it is.

Already one of the most sensitive and empathetic artists, the sorrows of Redgrave's later years often brought her to a visual point of static grandeur and silent, agitated remembrance. The harder and more frightening edges of her politics were sanded away, for the most part, until she spoke for more general human rights as represented by UNICEF.

Redgrave made it to the very top of the mountain of human consciousness creatively, and what she has seen and what she has shown us will continue to be of enormous value. The human cost of this artistic mountaineering is there on her face as an elderly woman, and the personal cost, too, for she reached that height only by risking and daring the fathoms-deep sorrows and nothingness of the ocean floor, too.

Of her perseverance in the face of loss, Redgrave said, "You have a will to live. Even if at the same time it seems very attractive just to give up." Giving up is not a luxury that she has ever allowed herself. That is part of being an Englishwoman of her time, place, and class, and it might be said that it is also part of being a Redgrave, but Vanessa has surpassed all others in her family and in her profession when it comes to sheer stubborn survival and blistering anger at injustice and all-encompassing tenderness for others that does not flag or waver.

She will never go soft, but she will never get too hard. That's the wonder of her work. "You can see the weather on her face," said Eileen Atkins. "You can see every emotion passing across like a cloud." Redgrave has said that when she really clicks with a role, there is not even the smallest gap between herself and the woman she is playing. Her commitment to being that woman is total.

"All great English actresses stand in her shadow, and they know it," says Tony Palmer. "Judi Dench, who I know very well, would say that, I think. There's no envy or jealousy or spite about it, or anything bitchy, and this is a bitchy profession. You don't hear bitchery about Vanessa professionally. You know, people get cross about the Workers Revolutionary Party and all that stuff, but not professionally. When Vanessa is in a play in the West End, you see all the other actors and actresses there just watching her, and learning. And maybe we've forgotten Maggie Smith, but I think even Maggie would go along with what I've just said."

"Vanessa enters right into the mythic and the archetypal, and I think that's what she's very much trying to do as an actor," says Simon Callow. "Many English actors are very rigorous intellectually, and they chart the path of the character, and they often inhabit the thoughts of the character. I think that Vanessa isn't as interested in that. She is more interested in entering into these archetypal states. You could almost say, if you wanted to be quite grand about it, that's she's almost a kind of Jungian actress, whereas most actors are Freudian actors. Above all, Vanessa is an intuitive artist, and she lets her imagination respond in ways other actors do not."

Redgrave is the most warm-blooded of all actresses, outstripping heavyweight competitors like Maggie Smith and Meryl Streep with the depth of her need to communicate with us and shake us up, confront us, and soothe us. . . . [Hers] is the most transparent of faces. It is overwhelming in its Italian sun of joy and consistently fretful and querulous whenever Redgrave feels she needs to do what she considers to be the right thing, even if this means – or especially if this means – that she risks not being liked or even being outright hated. Those blue eyes of hers could still be playful in old age, but they could also be foggy and baleful and wounded. She is committed, martyr-like, to feeling ever-fresh and instructive pain for us while amply suggesting all the escape routes and tactile pleasures that can make the worst of life endurable. At this point in her career, she has nothing left to prove and everything to give. "Now and then of course I do think: 'I'm going to die,'" she said [in 2013]. "It will probably take me by surprise."

Following are some images and commentary on just a few of the many films of Vanessa Redgrave. Enjoy!

Above: An iconic image of Vanessa used in promotional material for Isadora, also known as The Loves of Isadora, a 1968 biographical film that tells the story of celebrated American dancer Isadora Duncan.

Above: Vanessa as the tormented Sister Jeanne of the Angels in Ken Russell's The Devils (1971). Notes Wikipedia:

The Devils faced harsh reaction from national film rating systems due to its disturbingly violent, sexual, and religious content, and originally received an X rating in both Britain and the United States. It was banned in several countries, and eventually heavily edited for release in others. The film has never received a release in its original, uncut form in various countries, and is largely unavailable in the home video market.

For a clip of Vanessa as Sister Jeanne in The Devils, click here.

Above: Vanessa as Andromache in the 1971 film The Trojan Women. The film also starred Katharine Hepburn as Hecuba, Geneviève Bujold as Cassandra, and Irene Papas as Helen of Troy.

Above: Vanessa with Jane Fonda (left) in Julia (1977).

In her 2005 autobiography, Fonda notes the following about her friend and colleague:

There is a quality about Vanessa that makes me feel as if she resides in a netherworld of mystery that eludes the rest of us mortals. Her voice seems to come from some deep place that knows all suffering and all secrets. Watching her work is like seeing through layers of glass, each layer painted in mythic watercolor images, layer after layer, until it becomes dark – but even then you know you haven't come to the bottom of it . . . The only other time I had experienced this with an actor was with Marlon Brando . . . Like Vanessa, he always seemed to be in another reality, working off some secret, magnetic, inner rhythm.

Left: Vanessa in the 1980 CBS television film, Playing for Time.

Playing For Time was based on acclaimed musician Fania Fénelon's experience as a female prisoner in the Auschwitz concentration camp, where she and a group of classical musicians were spared in return for performing music for their captors.

In light of Redgrave's support for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the decision to cast her as Fénelon was a source of controversy for many. Even Fénelon (at first) objected to her casting. Vanessa was perplexed by such hostility, stating in her 1991 autobiography her long-held belief that "the struggle against antisemitism and for the self-determination of the Palestinians form a single whole."

Above and right: Vanessa as Lady Torrance in the 1990 American television film, Orpheus Descending.

According to actress and playwright Imogen Stubbs, Vanessa's performance in Haymarket Theatre's 1988-89 run of Orpheus Descending is the best performance she's ever seen. Following is how she glowingly describes Redgrave's acting:

Vanessa acts out of instinct – she is an incredibly risky actress. I don't know if it is strategic or how her heart takes her. . . . She has greatness – charisma, bottle, daring, insanity. It is not even technically controlled. You know when an actor is cheating. But Vanessa has that element of catharsis. She is a great role model. I have worked with her and sometimes her decisions in rehearsals are mystifying: she has eccentric, extraordinary, not-to-be analysed instinct.

Above: Vanessa as Mrs. Wilcox and Emma Thompson as Margaret Schlegel in the Merchant Ivory production of Howards End (1992).

"Vanessa Redgrave, as the dying Mrs. Wilcox, casts a spell over the whole movie," wrote Roger Ebert, while Vincent Canby observed in his New York Times review:

Miss Redgrave is not on the screen long, but hers is a strong performance as a woman not quite in touch with the quotidian world. She looks grandly haggard, as she is supposed to, while her niece, Jemma Redgrave (daughter of Corin Redgrave), is very comic as her spoiled Wilcox daughter.

Above: With Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible (1996). When discussing the role of the arms dealer known only as "Max," Cruise and director Brian De Palma thought it would be fun to cast an actor "like Vanessa Redgrave"; they then decided to go with the real thing.

Above: Vanessa as Clarissa Dalloway in Marleen Gorris' 1998 film adaptation of Virginia Woolf's 1925 novel Mrs Dalloway.

In his Variety review of the film, Emanuel Levy writes:

Whatever reservations literary and film critics may have about Marleen Gorris’ screen adaptation of Mrs. Dalloway, arguably Virginia Woolf’s masterpiece, one thing is beyond doubt: Vanessa Redgrave’s towering performance in the title role. Perfectly cast, Redgrave portrays a middle-aged society lady, a “perfect hostess” who, thrown into a crisis, reflects upon her life. A highly romantic, deeply melancholy drama, the film offers psychological and existential insights about the inevitable effects — and price — of life choices.

. . . The piece de resistance is the long, heartbreaking monologue that Redgrave delivers upon learning of the suicide of Septimus, whom she never met but with whom she empathizes. As in Orlando, Woolf put a lot of her own personality into a male character, here in the unstable Septimus. Woolf suggests that Mrs. Dalloway is seeing “the truth” whereas Septimus is seeing “the insane truth.” In the end, it is Mrs. Dalloway’s humanistic vision and reaffirmation of life that dominates and hovers over her doubts.

The versatile, luminously beautiful Redgrave renders the kind of performance that is often described as delicious in theater circles. With her richly musical and resonant voice, she conveys brilliantly Mrs. Dalloway’s changing emotions: from exultation to introspection, from deep confusion and irritation to emphatic reconciliation. Remainder of the ensemble, which includes veterans of the British stage and television, is universally impressive.

For a 15-minute "special feature" on the making of Mrs. Dalloway, click here.

Above: Vanessa's portrayal of Edith, a lesbian mourning the loss of her longtime partner in the HBO series If These Walls Could Talk 2, earned her a Golden Globe for "Best TV Series Supporting Actress" in 2000, as well as earning an Emmy Award for "Outstanding Supporting Actress in a TV Film or Miniseries." This same performance also led to an "Excellence in Media Award" from the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). The award honors "a member of the entertainment community who has made a significant difference in promoting equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people."

Above: Vanessa as Queen Elizabeth I of England in Roland Emmerich's 2011 film Anonymous. Vanessa's daughter, Joely Richardson, plays the young Elizabeth. (For an interview with both mother and daughter about their involvement in this film, click here.)

Of Vanessa's part in the film, Dana Stevens writes:

Vanessa Redgrave, working with way sub-Shakespearean material, does invent some brilliant bits of business for Queen Bess—in one scene, alone with her closest adviser, she plonks herself unceremoniously down on the base of the throne, reminding us that even sixteenth-century monarchs must have had their moments of unfiltered intimacy.

Above: Vanessa and director Bennett Miller on the set of Foxcatcher (2014).

In October, Vanessa discussed her latest film with other cast members at the 2014 New York Film Festival. Wrote Eric Eidelstein about Vanessa's contribution in this panel discussion:

A sassy, but modest Redgrave first asserted that she did not "create the presence" of her character, but rather she channeled it. Redgrave plays [the lead character's] icy aristocratic mother, a woman he desperately tries to impress throughout Foxcatcher. Having starred in what seems like thousands of roles, Redgrave spoke about the essential things that draw one to a project – the script, role, producers and director. At one point, though, she called Foxcatcher "a masterpiece." High praise from a film legend.

Finally, I share a excerpt from the film The Fever (2004), a psychological drama produced by HBO Films, directed by Redgrave's son Carlo Gabriel Nero, and based on the 1990 eponymous play by writer/actor Wallace Shawn. A review in The New York Times describes Shawn's play as a, "controversial study of the growing chasm between the first and third world." The same newspaper describes the film adaptation as, "a drama that employs animation and thought-provoking first-person monologues to explore the concept of bourgeois privilege."

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Vanessa Redgrave: "She Has Greatness"
Natasha Richardson, 1963-2009
Lynn Redgrave, 1943-2010

Recommended Off-site Links:
Vanessa Redgrave Premiers Documentary on Bosnia Labor Rights – Maja Zuvela (Reuters, October 4, 2014).
An Interview with Vanessa RedgraveThe Telegraph (February 22, 2010).
The Saturday Interview: Vanessa Redgrave – Stuart Jeffries (The Guardian, September 9, 2011).
Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero: Lost & Found – A Love Story – Alexis Chiu (People, June 7, 2010).


Michael O'Sullivan said...

Thats a terrific commentary on Redgrave and her life and career. I was lucky to see her on the stage twice, here in London - a perfect"Design for Living" in 1973 where she, Jeremy Brett and John Stride did Coward justice, and an odd play with gay undertones "A Madhouse in Goa" sometime in the late 80s. Her autobiography was very interesting: her husband Tony Richardson wanting her to be like Italian actress Monica Vitti, star of the Antonioni films, then a few years later Vanessa is the star of Antonioni's cult "Blow Up" one of her first important films. Apart from her quality stuff she has done a lot of rubbish too, to either pay the bills or fund her political activities and I understand she has turned down Damehoods bestowed on her contemporaries like Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, Diana Rigg etc. I liked her in Merchant Ivory's "The Bostonians" which I caught recently and it good to fnally see Lumet's 1968 "The Seagull" too. I must get around to seeing "Isadora" again too. She can be luminous in the right part. Then there's the family tragedies she suffered in recent years, losing her daughter, sister and brother in quick succession. Her father, the great Michael Redgrave, was of course bisexual, as was her first husband Tony Richardson. Vanessa has always had an eye for an attrative man: Timothy Dalton, Franco Nero - good that they married in their later years. She still keeps working too, even if seemed a little frail in recent years. I will have to see "Foxcatcher" too - I saw the trailer and was surprised to see her pop up!

Michael J. Bayly said...

Thanks for your wonderful comment, Michael!

Unknown said...

Greetings Michael, I have posted your piece about Vanessa on my page dedicated to her. I will also mentioned it to Dan Callahan, so no doubt he will read it. Cheers and thanks for the thoughts...Tim Cook

Anonymous said...

Don't know why 'Playing For Time' isn't more appreciated. The early scenes of the transport trains are terrifying. Her earlier work needs to be remastered and cleaned up, for example her documentary 'The Palestinian'. A scene in which she picks up an unexploded Israeli bomb and examines it with curiosity sums her up perfectly. She is fearless.