March 8, 1943– Lynn Redgrave has been a longtime favorite at this house. Even by the zany standards of her own talented family’s public profile & professional achievements, Redgrave, was an exceptional personality. Her death in 2010 seemed particularly cruel after the loss of both her niece, Natasha Richardson and her brother, Corin Redgrave, all within months of each other.
For much of her life, Redgrave was defined by who she was not. Her father, actor Michael Redgrave (who was gay), gave all his attention to his first two children, Vanessa and Corin, and asked for, and expected little, from his youngest child. When she found his diaries many years later and looked up the day of her birth, she found a lunch appointment and a note about his previous evening performance in a play, but nothing of her own arrival in this world.
Her mother, actor Rachel Kempson had a busy career, and her father was busy with a longtime affair with Noël Coward, and they both had little time or affection for their third child. She was a desperately shy child, not destined to follow the family trade and her parents offered her little encouragement.
Redgrave trained at the Central School of Speech And Drama. Whjen she was just 18 years old she was asked to be a company member of The Royal Court Theatre. She made her professional debut as Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by her soon to be brother-in-law Tony Richardson (also gay). Richardson cast her in his film Tom Jones (1963) in a role that consisted of a single scene where she screams: “Rape!”. But, she impressed Sir Laurence Olivier who invited her to be part of his new National Theatre Company where she played Ophelia opposite Peter O’Toole’s Hamlet and her father’s Polonius. In 1964 she played the featherbrained flapper Jackie in a famed production of Noël Coward’s Hay Fever. She won over audiences and impressed critics with her comedic flair. The cast included Edith Evans, Maggie Smith, Robert Stephens and Derek Jacobi. Coward: “That cast could play the Albanian telephone directory.”
Tall, with grey eyes and an attractive, intelligent face, Redgrave first made an impression as the plump, pathetic protagonist in the film Georgy Girl (1966) when she was 23 years old. Her sympathetic, but funny performance brought her an Academy Award nomination, a Golden Globe Award, plus a New York Film Critics Best Female Actor Award.
After her success in Georgy Girl, Redgrave made her Broadway debut in in Peter Shaffer‘s eccentric Black Comedy (1967). She adopted this country for living and for working. Less politically engaged than her older siblings, she was no less a remarkable talent.
During the first Gulf War on 1991, Redgrave and her sister Vanessa had a very public feud while they were performing on Broadway together in Chekov’s The Three Sisters, when Vanessa condemned the Americans as imperialist pigs, with Lynn claiming she could not cope with her sister’s views and was seriously considering changing her last name.
But they worked together again in a television remake of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1992) with Lynn and Vanessa in the Bette Davis and Joan Crawford roles. The remake was considered a gay sacrilege, but being a fan of the sisters, I thought it was pretty swell.
Redgrave’s legal battles and married life were the stuff of soap opera. In 1981 she sued Universal Television for wrongful dismissal, claiming she was not allowed to breast-feed her baby on set during the filming of the CBS sitcom House Calls. The litigation lasted 13 years. She lost the suit and declared bankruptcy.
In 2000, Redgrave divorced her longtime husband/manager John Clark after 32 years of marriage when he revealed that he had an affair with their personal assistant, and that her grandson Zachary was in fact Clark’s own son by the assistant, who later married and then divorced Clark and Redgrave’s son Benjamin. At the same time her daughter came out of the closet as gay. Could you follow that? A Hollywood script with such an entanglement would have been rejected as too absurd.
Redgrave battled with her weight for most of her life. She was a spokesperson for Weight Watchers in the 1980s.
Redgrave’s comic chops proved useful in Woody Allen‘s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid To Ask (1972), and in the title role in a low-budget version of Xaviera Hollander‘s The Happy Hooker (1975). One of her best starring screen roles was the jaded London hostess in Getting It Right (1989).
Redgrave gracefully moved to supporting roles in Shine (1996), and Gods And Monsters (1998), with Ian McKellen as gay film director James Whale. Her performance as Whale’s longtime housekeeper is my personal favorite of all her performances, and she was nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress. I thought she was also superb in David Cronenberg’s Spider (2002), Peter Pan (2003), and astonishingly moving in her 5 minute role in Kinsey (2004).
I have always held that Lynn was as great an actress as Vanessa. It just never really seemed like it.
Redgrave was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002. She had a mastectomy and produced a journal of her recovery with photographs by her daughter Annabel.
In 2005, while living with a second cancer, Redgrave appeared on Broadway at the same time as both her niece Natasha (in A Streetcar Named Desire) and Vanessa (in Hecuba), receiving the best reviews in the family, plus a Tony nomination for her performance in Somerset Maugham‘s The Constant Wife. Redgrave:
“Every night, for a couple of hours, I wasn’t a person with cancer. You almost feel like yourself when there’s so much evidence, mainly the mirror, to show you you aren’t. It was true ‘Doctor Theatre’.”
In May 2010, I cried with news that she had gone on to the great curtain call in the beyond, taken by a third visit from that damn cancer. Redgrave is missed.
“I suppose you mourn the loss or the death of what you thought your life was, even if you find your life is better after. You mourn the future that you thought you’d planned.”