Today is the 80th birthday of an actor, activist and all-round inspiring human being whom I've long admired – Vanessa Redgrave.
I've shared in a previous post how and why I came to appreciate and admire Vanessa. In this post I celebrate Vanessa's birthday by sharing (with added images and links) an excerpt from The Guardian's Simon Hattenstone's June 13, 2016 interview of Vanessa in which she talks about ageing, religion, human rights, and the "notorious Oscars speech that stalled her Hollywood career." Enjoy!
It’s always been the eyes with Redgrave. You can see through them into her soul. So blue, so weepy, such longing; she was born to play Chekhov. Which of course, she has done beautifully. Twenty-five years ago, she was a heartbreaking Olga (the spinster teacher who tells her youngest sister, Irina, she would have married “any man, even an old man if he had asked”) in Three Sisters, alongside her real-life younger sister, Lynn, and niece, Jemma.
Redgrave might be most garlanded for her stage work, but she also has six Oscar nominations (Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment, Isadora, Mary, Queen of Scots, Julia, The Bostonians, Howards End). When she finally won an Oscar in 1978, for playing the eponymous Nazi resistance fighter in Julia, she gave the most notorious acceptance speech in the Academy’s history, thanking it for refusing “to be intimidated by the threats of a small bunch of Zionist hoodlums”. In the previous year, she had funded a documentary in support of a Palestinian homeland. Effigies of her were burned by the Jewish Defense League, which picketed the Oscars.
Above: As Cleopatra in Tony Richardson’s modern-dress production at the Bankside Globe Playhouse in 1973.(Photograph: Michael Ward/Getty Images)
Right: As Imogen in William Gaskill’s production of Cymbeline, at Stratford in 1962.
Her politics have often attracted more headlines than her acting. She and her brother, Corin, were once leading members of the Workers Revolutionary party. In recent times, she has endured more than her share of tragedy; within the space of 14 months, she lost her oldest daughter, the actor Natasha Richardson (who suffered a traumatic brain injury after a skiing accident at the age of 45), Corin, and in May 2010, [her sister] Lynn (yet another successful Redgrave actor with two Oscar nominations).
. . . Does she still see herself as a revolutionary? “I think every artist is a revolutionary. That’s what Tennessee Williams said, and I think he put it very well.” Why? “The simple answer is you want to help change. Or before you can help change, you want to understand how can change be effected.”
Above: At a social justice rally in 2015. (Photographer unknown)
Left: In the February 15, 1967 issue of Vogue. (Photo: Bert Stern)
You seem such a strange mix of revolutionary and traditionalist, I say.
But she’s not having any of it. “It’s fair for you to say whatever you like, but I’m not going to fall in with it. These labels are so nothing to do with what’s going on today. I think every journalist would do well to drop these outworn, outlived descriptive adjectives. They do not apply to anything, in my view.”
She splutter-hacks again. I ask her if she is OK – she sounds terrible. “I think some dust has caught in my chest.” She smoked all her adult life until the heart attack last year, when she gave up. How is she coping without her cigarettes? “Surprisingly well. I do, now and then, get a withdrawal because I was a big addict.”
Redgrave is dressed in blue top, tracksuit bottoms and blue trainers. She is six foot tall, still an intimidating presence, but there is something frail about her. The heart attack took a lot out of her. Is it true that her lungs are shattered; that she only has 30% capacity? “I’ve no idea,” she says imperiously. “I’ve never said how much of my lungs have been destroyed and I’ve never been told myself, so I don’t know how you know.”
It’s been printed in the newspapers.
“And I’m saying to you, do you believe that?” (The 30% figure is a direct quote from an interview she gave to the London Evening Standard last September, five months after her heart attack.) Did she think she was going to die? “At the time? When I was in hospital I wanted to die,” she says gently. Why? “Because it was just getting too tiring.” Life or being ill?
“Trying to live was getting too tiring. I was with my daughter, and I said, ‘I’m sorry, I just think I’m going to have to give up,’ – knowing she’d be unhappy, of course. And she was wonderful.” How did Joely (yet another successful actor) encourage her to keep living? “By telling me I could. Her saying I could give up released me.”
I have never met somebody who can go from wilfully cantankerous to heartstoppingly tender so quickly; who can make me want to scream with frustration and move me to tears in the same sentence.
“I told her what I thought I had to do . . . just give up. But I had to tell her that because I guess it’s my psychology. I didn’t want to hurt her, but I knew it would hurt her.”
Left: In Tennessee Williams’s Orpheus Descending, directed by Peter Hall, at the Haymarket, London, with Jean-Marc Barr, 1989. (Photograph: Alastair Muir/Rex/Shutterstock)
I know it’s a strange question to ask a Marxist, I say, but do you have faith? She smiles, almost beatifically. “Yes, certainly I do. And the reason why I do is because I don’t consider science and religion two fixed opposites. Human beings have felt the need to explain things that they couldn’t explain, and acknowledge the existence of things they can’t explain but want to.” She is talking so slowly, so deliberately, she could be setting a dictation test.
Above: Vanessa Redgrave and her daughters Joely and Natasha Richardson on the set of Camelot (1967).
So religion and Marxism is another contradiction she is happy to embrace? “Yes, because if you’re not happy to embrace contradictions you’re not going to get very far in understanding anything.”
How does her faith express itself? “By reading, by inquiry, people I have discussions with, sometimes I go to church. It’s a Catholic church, because of the people I know.”
She says she has always had faith; always liked to go to church. As she talks, I can’t help wondering whether she wanted to die because she hoped to be reunited with loved ones that she has lost.
Before the question is out, she cuts me off. “No, don’t go there. Not at all. I just meant physically I felt I couldn’t go on trying to live. Not that life is too painful for me. Not at all. No.”
Right: As Cleopatra in Moving Theatre’s production – which she directed – of Antony and Cleopatra at the Riverside Studios, London, in 1995. (Photograph: Robbie Jack - Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images)
Over the past five years, Redgrave has done so much work – in films such as the comedy-drama Song for Marion, alongside Forest Whitaker in The Butler, with Steve Carell in the Oscar-nominated Foxcatcher, and on stage in New York alongside Jesse Eisenberg in The Revisionist and opposite James Earl Jones in the Old Vic’s Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Mark Rylance.
Above: Vanessa in 2007. (Photograph: Sang Tan/AP)
Does working make things easier? “Easier than what?” she snaps. Well, I say, if you have too much time to think, you can drown in grief. “Ah, well, now it seems to me that you are talking about someone who’s a workaholic, or unable to stop being an actor.”
I didn’t mean that, I say, but it’s interesting you take objection to it. “Well, I do. It’s very unlife-enhancing. Very.” But yes, she says, there have been times she has been addicted to work, just as she was to cigarettes.
“It can happen for any number of reasons,” she says. “One is called paying the rent. Or the mortgage.”
You become a slave to rent?
“No, you’re putting words into my mouth.”
And we’re off again. “I’m not putting words in your mouth,” I say.” ‘I’m asking a question.”
“You just have put words into my mouth.”
“No I haven’t. They are my words, my question. You’re very difficult to interview, aren’t you?”
“I don’t think so. I think I’m illuminating. Hahahaha!” She rocks her head back, laughing.
And she really is heaving with laughter so much that I’m now every bit as worried for this dyspeptic national treasure as I was when she was having her coughing fit. We seem to have reached a new understanding. The war is over.
Left: In The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, based on her memoir, directed by David Hare at the Booth theater, New York, in 2007. (Photograph: Brigitte Lacombe)
I’ve been watching a load of Redgrave films back to back. She started off as a sexy young thing, a symbol of the swinging 60s (in films such as Antonioni’s Blow Up and Morgan: A Suitable Case For Treatment) and gradually moved into ever more miserable territory. So often she seems to die for her politics (Julia) or be punished for her sins (Atonement and Ken Russell’s The Devils) or just be generally angst-ridden (Howards End and The Bostonians). Rarely do we see Redgrave laugh in cinema – and she’s got a lovely laugh.
You have a reputation for being serious, I say. “Well, I am a very serious person.” Has she ever felt she was too serious? “No! And I don’t care how many people in the press have said that. And there have been times when I couldn’t and didn’t laugh, but I think I’ve grown a bit stronger now.”
Has she always wanted her work to have a political purpose? “Not a political purpose. Everybody always jumps to that.” What does she mean? “Well I’ve just noticed, Simon, that people jump to political. Perhaps it’s because they’re talking to me. They know I have been very political. I am also and have been for a long time very not political. It doesn’t mean I don’t have any politics though.”
For a long time, Redgrave has said she is interested in human rights, not politics – and she does have a distinguished record as a human rights campaigner. But I’m not sure that I understand the distinction. She explains, with a devastating simplicity.
“Politics is about divisions. Wherever you come in on the subject there are divisions.” Does she regret the divisions it has caused in her life? “I can’t regret. I can only be thankful for the contribution that it made to my life.”
Is politics a negative word for her now? “It’s not a negative word, it’s negative. Period.”
Above: With Franco Nero in Joshua Logan's 1967 film Camelot.
Right: Franco and Vanessa in 2010.
In 2014 she made a documentary about Bosnian labour rights with her son Carlo Nero, whose father is Redgrave’s long-term partner, the Italian actor Franco Nero. She is now making a new film with him about refugees in Greece and Lebanon.
Human rights, she says, have always been at the heart of her life – politics just sidetracked her. She talks of Hitler’s genocide, and how Chamberlain refused visas for thousands of Jewish refugees right until the end of 1938. “I know this history like it’s my family history, though it’s not, really. But it has obsessed me, because I was a child of the Second World War and I wanted to know if what happened could happen again, how could we stop them.”
Above: Vanessa with her son Carlo in 2015.
How did she feel when she was labelled anti-semitic following The Palestinian? “That was absurd, calling me anti-semitic. Everybody has a right to think whatever they want about anybody, but since I so wasn’t and never have been, what can you do? You think, ‘OK time will pass on that one’.”
But it didn’t. In fact, it damaged her movie career just when she was set to be one of the great Hollywood stars. “Yes,” says Redgrave today, “but that’s not really important. What’s important is what’s crying out in our world for justice – the Israel-Palestine question.”
Looking back, does she wish she had been more careful with her words – that she had not said: “Zionist hoodlums”? “Oh no.” But then she stops and starts again. “Well, I mean I wish I’d written myself a better speech, but that’s not the point, either.” In the end, it comes down to one thing, she says – respect for human rights.
“I am practically at the very end of my life, so it’s a good thing I’m still worried and that I’ve not fallen back into my armchair where the old blues will get me. I’ve still got to do something to help, however tiny it is. I always think of the old Hebrew saying, which is translated roughly into: ‘He who saves one life saves the world’, because it’s pretty ghastly to think of all the people we’re not saving.”
Left: As Queen Margaret with Ralph Fiennes as Richard in Richard III at the Almeida, London, directed by Rupert Goold, in June 2016. "What a voice: low, assured, level. And utterly surprising," wrote Susannah Clapp in The Observer. "She is delivering curses that are usually roared and spat out. Redgrave drops them with deliberation as if she were merely describing the truth." (Photograph: Tristram Kenton for The Guardian)
She has to get back to rehearsals. It has been little more than an hour, but it feels as if we’ve been through a lot together. A lifetime. And that we’ve reached an understanding, of sorts. “I wasn’t looking forward to it, but thank you,” she says. “I don’t like giving interviews when I’m preparing something.”
“Oh, come off it,” I say. “You don’t like giving them, full stop.”
She smiles. “Well, I’m always hopeful, or I used to be always hopeful, that it turned out the journalist was somebody I respected.”
I tell her I’m glad she didn’t give up on life. “Thank you.” She smiles a lovely, warm smile. “Gosh, that’s really sweet of you.”
As she walks off, I ask if she lives in England all the time or part of the year in Italy. She has one last snap for old time’s sake. “In England. But I go to spend time with my husband in Italy, who you didn’t ask me about.”
I apologise, and ask her to tell me about her non-legally-binding marriage to Nero. But she’s halfway out of the door. “I won’t. Thank you, Simon, goodbye.” As she leaves, I shout after her: “Vanessa Redgrave, who is the love of your life?”
With her back to me, she shouts out: “One of the loves of my life is Franco Nero.” And the others? “My children, my relatives, my co-mates who I’m working with. Thank you very much, Simon. Goodbye. Hahaha!”
And now the formidable, forbidding Vanessa Redgrave is laughing like a schoolgirl. “That is the weirdest end to an interview I’ve ever had. Hahahahha!” And she shuts the door, and disappears.
To read Simon Hattenstone's interview with Vanessa Redgrave in its entirety, click here.
Above: Vanessa, photographed by Vicki Archer
– New York, 2009.
Related Off-site Links:
Vanessa Redgrave at 80: A Career on Stage – in Pictures – The Guardian (January 30, 2017).
Vanessa Redgrave Stars in Gucci Cruise 2017 – Mei Jing Goh (Elle, September 20, 2016).
79-Year-Old Vanessa Redgrave is the Face of the Coolest Fashion Brand – Kristine Solomon (Yahoo! Style, September 20, 2016).
Vanessa Redgrave Survives Severe Heart Attack Thanks to Answer Phone Message – Sarah Buchanan (Sunday Express, September 26, 2015).
The Greatest Living Actress: Author Dan Callahan on the Legacy of Vanessa Redgrave – Sheila O'Malley (RogerEbert.com, June 3, 2014).
A Review of Dan Callahan's Vanessa: The Life of Vanessa Redgrave – Lloyd Rose (The Washington Post, May 24, 2014).
Vanessa Redgrave: "I Want to Give People the Jolliest Time" – Michael Billington (The Guardian, April 11, 2012).
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
• Vanessa Redgrave: "Almost a Kind of Jungian Actress"
• Vanessa Redgrave: "She Has Greatness"
• Letting Them Sit By Me
• Vanessa Redgrave: Speaking Out