03 December 2015

Vanessa Redgrave

Vanessa Redgrave (1937) is one of the great actresses of her generation. She started her career in the late 1950s and went on to win the Oscar, Golden Globe, Emmy, and Tony awards. On screen, she has starred in more than 80 films; including such classics as Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966), Blowup (1966), Julia (1977), Prick Up Your Ears (1987) and Atonement (2007). On-screen and off, she represents forward-thinking women both, essaying non-conforming free-thinkers like dazzling modern dance pioneer Isadora Duncan in Isadora (1968) and a 19th century American feminist in The Bostonians (1984), while earning her share of controversy for her outspoken political activism.

Vanessa Redgrave
Romanian postcard by Casa Filmului Acin, no. 43 072.

Vanessa Redgrave
Italian postcard by Rotalcolor, no. 275.

Laertes Has A Daughter

Vanessa Redgrave was born in Greenwich, London in 1937 into an acting dynasty. Her grandparents were actor Roy Redgrave and actress Daisy Scudamore. Vanessa was the daughter of Sir Michael Redgrave and Rachel Kempson, and the older sister of Lynn Redgrave and Corin Redgrave. Laurence Olivier announced her birth in a curtain speech to the audience at a performance of Hamlet at the Old Vic: "Ladies and gentlemen, tonight a great actress has been born; Laertes (played by Michael Redgrave) has a daughter."

She was educated at The Alice Ottley School, Worcester and Queen's Gate School, London. In 1954 she started to train for the stage at the Central School for Speech and Drama in London. She first appeared in the West End in 1958, and a year later she became a member of the acclaimed Stratford-Upon-Avon Theatre Company.

In 1960, Redgrave had her first starring role in Robert Bolt's The Tiger and the Horse, in which she co-starred with her father. Redgrave rose to prominence in 1961 playing Rosalind in As You Like It with the Royal Shakespeare Company and has since made more than 35 appearances on London's West End and on Broadway, winning both the Tony and Olivier Awards.

She made her film debut in the old-fashioned hospital drama Behind the Mask (Brian Desmond Hurst, 1958), in which she played the onscreen daughter of Michael Redgrave. Redgrave would not venture into films again for another eight years, but in 1966 she became a key figure in the 1960s revolution in British film, appearing for New Wave directors, Karel Reisz and her husband, Tony Richardson. She had her first starring role in the seminal Swinging Sixties comedy Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (Karel Reisz, 1966) in which she played the long-suffering ex-wife of a half-mad eccentric artist (David Warner). For her role she earned an Oscar nomination, a Cannes award, a Golden Globe nomination and a BAFTA Film Award nomination.

Redgrave followed Morgan up by playing a mysterious, willowy model in the stylish Blowup (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966). TCM: “Both pictures helped solidify Redgrave's screen persona as a modern, intelligent woman whose cool and impassive exterior masked a range of conflicting emotions and passions.” For her husband, she starred in The Sailor from Gibraltar (Tony Richardson, 1967), the short and arty Red and Blue (Tony Richardson, 1967), and The Charge of the Light Brigade (Tony Richardson, 1968).

Other highlights of Redgrave's early film career include the role of Guinevere in the Hollywood adaptation of the Lerner and Loewe stage musical Camelot (Joshua Logan, 1967) with Richard Harris and Franco Nero, and her spirited portrayal of modern dance innovator Isadora Duncan in Isadora (Karel Reisz, 1968), for which she won a National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Actress, a second Prize for the Best Female Performance at the Cannes film festival, along with a Golden Globe and Oscar nomination in 1969.

She also appeared in various historical roles – ranging from Andromache in The Trojan Women (Mihalis Kakogiannis, 1971), to the tragic Mary Stuart in Mary, Queen of Scots (Charles Jarrott, 1971). She had also been offered the role of Margaret More in the Oscar-laden story of Sir Thomas More's defiance of Henry VIII, A Man for All Seasons (Fred Zinnemann, 1966), but she had to turn it down due to her stage commitments. She opted for the cameo role of Anne Boleyn instead, and refused to accept any money for this part. Susannah York was cast as Margaret More.

Vanessa Redgrave
East-German postcard by VEB Progress Filmvertrieb, Berlin, no. 1446, 1961. Retail price: 0,20 DM. Photo: publicity still for Behind the Mask (Brian Desmond-Hurst, 1958).

Source of Controversy

Both Vanessa Redgrave and her sister Lynn were nominated for the 1967 Best Actress Academy Award. Vanessa was nominated for Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966) and Lynn for Georgy Girl (Silvio Narizzano, 1966). They both lost to Elizabeth Taylor, who won for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Mike Nichols, 1966). That same year, Redgrave was awarded the C.B.E. (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) for her services to drama.

Thirty years later, she allegedly refused the D.B.E. (Dame of the order of the British Empire) in 1999. Since the 1960s, Redgrave has supported a range of political causes, including opposition to the Vietnam War, nuclear disarmament, aid for Bosnian Muslims and other victims of war, and freedom for Soviet Jews. In 1993 she was awarded the Sakharov medal by Sakharov's widow, Yelena Bonner).

In 1977, Redgrave funded and narrated a documentary film on the Palestinian people and the activities of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. That same year she starred in the film Julia (Fred Zinnemann, 1977), based on playwright Lillian Hellman's own friendship with a woman who later enlists her in a fight against the growing tide of Nazism in Europe. Her co-star in the film was Jane Fonda playing Hellman.

When Redgrave was nominated for an Oscar in 1978, for her role in Julia, members of the Jewish Defense League (JDL), led by Rabbi Meir Kahane, burned effigies of Redgrave and picketed the Academy Awards ceremony to protest against both Redgrave and her support of the Palestinian cause. Despite the protests Redgrave's performance in Julia garnered an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. However, the controversy had a chilling effect on her career.

In 1980, Redgrave made her American television debut in the Arthur Miller-scripted TV movie Playing for Time (Daniel Mann, 1980) as concentration camp survivor Fania Fénelon who during her internment participated in an all-female orchestra. The decision to cast Redgrave as Fénelon was, however, a source of controversy. In light of Redgrave's support for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), even Fénelon objected to her casting. However, Redgrave won the Emmy as Outstanding Lead Actress in 1981 for this part.

Her opposition to Stalinism led her to join the Workers' Revolutionary Party (WRP), which advocated the dissolution of capitalism and the British monarchy. She ran four times for a seat in the British Parliament as a candidate. In 2004, Vanessa Redgrave and her brother Corin launched the Peace and Progress Party, which campaigned against the Iraq War and for human rights. However, a year later Redgrave left the party.

Vanessa Redgrave
French postcard by Travelling Editions, Paris, no. CP 51, 1987.

More Impressive With Age

In the next decades Vanessa Redgrave balanced turns in big budget productions such as crime boss Max in Mission: Impossible (Brian de Palma, 1996) and a doomed earthling in the summer blockbuster Deep Impact (Mimi Leder, 1998) with stellar performances in smaller, independent films. These included suffragist Olive Chancellor in The Bostonians (James Ivory, 1984), a fourth Best Actress Academy Award nomination); transsexual tennis player Renée Richards in Second Serve (Anthony Page, 1986); and literary agent Peggy Ramsay in the Joe Orton biopic Prick Up Your Ears (Stephen Frears, 1987).

In the next decade followed roles as Mrs. Wilcox in Howards End (James Ivory, 1992); Oscar Wilde’s mother in Wilde (Brian Gilbert, 1997); Clarissa Dalloway in Mrs. Dalloway (Marleen Gorris, 1997); Dr. Sonia Wick in Girl, Interrupted (James Mangold, 1999); and a small part in the Friedrich Dürrenmatt adaptation The Pledge (Sean Penn, 2001). These roles proved that she has grown only more impressive with age.

Her performance as a lesbian grieving the loss of her longtime partner in the HBO series If These Walls Could Talk 2 (Jane Andersen a.o., 2000) earned her a Golden Globe, as well as an Emmy Award. In 2003 she won the Tony Award for her performance in the Broadway revival of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night. With this award, she became the sixteenth performer to win the Triple Crown of acting: the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in Julia (1977), the Tony for Best Actress-Play in Long Day's Journey into Night (2003), and two Emmys for Playing for Time (1980) and If These Walls Could Talk 2 (2000).

Vanessa Redgrave was also the first actress to win the Best Actress award twice at the Cannes Film Festival. She won for Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (Karel Reisz, 1966) and Isadora (Karel Reisz, 1968).

At IMDb, Dale O’Connor writes: “Her rich auburn hair was long, her physique lean, her countenance inscrutable. Three decades later a Redgrave who takes the pictures has hair that is short, the auburn shade muted. The physique is still lean and it is strong from the work it has taken to keep it that way. And the countenance is a lot easier to read. Add expertise with body language and a superb sense of timing and here is a comedienne who should still be carrying films when she is in her 90’s.”

Vanessa Redgrave
German postcard, no. 17026.


Vanessa Redgrave married twice. She was married to director Tony Richardson from 1962 till 1967, and they had two children, actresses Natasha Richardson and Joely Richardson. In her 1967 divorce from Richardson she named Jeanne Moreau as co-respondent on grounds of adultery.

Redgrave met the Italian actor Franco Nero during the shooting of Camelot (Joshua Logan, 1967). They had a son Carlo Gabriel Nero (né Carlo Sparanero), now a writer and film director. After filming Mary, Queen of Scots (Charles Jarrott, 1971), The Devils (Ken Russell, 1971) and The Trojan Women (Michael Cacoyannis, 1971), Vanessa Redgrave suffered a miscarriage. The boy would have been her and Franco Nero's second child. Redgrave and Nero separated.

She was then in a long-term relationship with former James Bond actor Timothy Dalton, with whom she had starred in Mary, Queen of Scots (Charles Jarrott, 1971). Since 2006 she is married to her old flame Franco Nero. Her daughter Natasha Richardson tragically passed away in 2009 as the result of a skiing accident at Mont Tremblant, Quebec. After the death of her daughter, Redgrave subsequently dropped out of Ridley Scott's Robin Hood (2010) in which she had a supporting role. Eileen Atkins replaced her.

In the space of just 14 months, she also lost her younger brother and sister, Corin Redgrave and Lynn Redgrave, who died within a month of one another. In October 2010 she returned to the Broadway stage to star in Driving Miss Daisy opposite James Earl Jones. The show received rave reviews. In a poll of ‘industry experts’ and readers conducted by the magazine The Stage in 2010, Redgrave was ranked as the ninth greatest stage actor of all time.

In the cinema she was seen in Letters to Juliet (Gary Winick, 2010) opposite her husband Franco Nero. She also had small roles in the Romanian film Eva (Adrian Popovici, 2010), Julian Schnabel's Palestinian drama Miral (2010), and the Bosnia-set political drama, The Whistleblower (Larysa Kondracki, 2010).

Redgrave played leading lady roles in two historical films, Ralph Fiennes' directorial debut of William Shakespeare's Coriolanus (Ralph Fiennes, 2010) in which Redgrave played Volumnia opposite Fiennes and Gerard Butler; and Anonymous (Roland Emmerich, 2011), a political thriller about who actually wrote the plays of William Shakespeare - Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford - set against the backdrop of the succession of Queen Elizabeth I (Redgrave), and the Essex Rebellion against her.

Recently, Vanessa Redgrave played supporting parts in such popular films as the American historical drama film The Butler (Lee Daniels, 2013) starring Forest Whitaker and grossing over $176 million worldwide, and the American biographical sports and true crime drama Foxcatcher (Bennett Miller, 2014) starring Steve Carell and Channing Tatum. At the moment of writing this post, her newest film The Secret Scripture (Jim Sheridan, 2016) about a woman keeping a diary of her extended stay at a mental hospital, is in post-production.

Trailer Blow-up (1966). Source: withlotsabutta (YouTube).

Trailer Julia (1977). Source: Wanessa Lima (YouTube).

Trailer Mrs Dalloway (1997). Source: mostern (YouTube).

Sources: Brian McFarlane (Encyclopaedia of British Cinema), Dale O'Connor (IMDb), TCM, Wikipedia and IMDb.

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