”Integrity is so perishable in the summer months of success.”
In 2018, Redgrave starred at the Old Vic and on the West End in the gay-themed play The Inheritance by Matthew Lopez, inspired by novel Howards End (1910) by E. M. Forster. Last year, she played Mrs. Higgins in a revival of the musical My Fair Lady on the West End. She was 86 years old and hoofing it in a stage musical!
Seven decades working on stage, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1960) to Richard III with Ralph Fiennes (2016), Redgrave has also enchanted and enraged in more than 80 films, honored with six Academy Award nominations, with a win for Julia in 1977; plus she has a BAFTA, a Tony Award, an Olivier Award, a SAG, a Golden Globe, and a pair of Emmy Awards for her mantle.
Redgrave is many things to many people: actor, political activist, sister, mother, she has been proclaimed one of the “greatest living actors of our times” by Americans Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, and has starred in groundbreaking stage, film, and television roles.
In 2010-11, she was on Broadway in Driving Miss Daisy opposite James Earl Jones and, after each performance, would diligently sign each Playbill of her fans. Redgrave again starred opposite Jones in a production of Much Ado About Nothing at The Old Vic directed by Mark Rylance in 2013, when she was 75 years old and Jones was 81!
But yes, there are the controversies. In 1977, Redgrave funded and narrated a documentary film, The Palestinian, about the situation of the Palestinians and the activities of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). That same year, in the film Julia, she starred in the title role as a woman murdered by the Nazis in the years just prior to WW II for her anti-Fascist activism. Her co-star in the film Jane Fonda, playing writer Lillian Hellman, wrote in her memoir My Life So Far (2005):
“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.”
In 1978, when Redgrave was nominated for an Oscar for her performance in Julia, members of the Jewish Defense League (JDL) burned effigies of Redgrave and picketed the Oscar ceremony to protest against her involvement in The Palestinian.
She won the Oscar that evening, and accepting the award, Redgrave thanked Hollywood for:
“… having refused to be intimidated by the threats of a small bunch of Zionist hoodlums, whose behavior is an insult to the stature of Jews all over the world and to their great and heroic record of struggle against fascism and oppression.”
Her remarks brought on-stage, on-camera outrage from screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky, and a sparked controversy and backlash. The scandal of her awards speech and the negative press had a destructive effect on her acting opportunities that would last for years.
In 1961, Redgrave was an active member of the Committee of 100, a British anti-war group. With her brother Corin, they joined the Workers Revolutionary Party in the 1970s.
She made her American television debut as real-life concentration camp survivor Fania Fénelon in Arthur Miller’s Playing For Time (1980), winning an Emmy. The decision to cast Redgrave as Fénelon was, however, a source of great controversy. Because of Redgrave’s support for the PLO, Fénelon objected to her casting. Redgrave defended her stance saying: “the struggle against antisemitism and for the self-determination of the Palestinians form a single whole.”
In 1984, Redgrave sued the Boston Symphony Orchestra, claiming that the orchestra had fired her from a performance because of her support of the PLO. Hellman testified in court on Redgrave’s behalf. Redgrave won on a count of breach of contract but did not win on the claim that the orchestra had violated her civil rights by firing her.
In 2004, Redgrave and her brother launched the Peace and Progress Party, which wasn’t a party at all, but a campaign against the Iraq War and for Human Rights.
Redgrave has been an outspoken critic of the war on terrorism:
“Can there 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 techniques 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. I don’t know of a single government that abides by international human rights law, not one, including my own. In fact, they violate these laws in the most despicable and obscene ways.”
Okay, now on to the LGBTQ stuff: There is the gayness/bisexuality of her father, actor Michael Redgrave, and her first husband, director Tony Richardson. Observing their own struggles over their sexuality seems to have informed her work, particularly the projects where she has played LGBTQ characters.
She was nominated for an Oscar for her performance as the barely repressed lesbian Olive Chancellor in the film adaptation of Henry James’ novel The Bostonians (1984). It is a beautifully controlled, suggestive performance.
There is her groundbreaking performance as the transgender tennis star Renée Richards in Second Serve (1986), at a time when the struggles of transgender people were just starting to be understood, Redgrave harnessed all her immense imaginative power to portray Richards at all stages of her life with enormous empathy and sensitivity.
She plays real-life literary agent Peggy Ramsay in the biopic about gay playwright Joe Orton, Prick Up Your Ears (1987) where she slyly looks amused as she deals with the cheerful sexual promiscuity of her client Orton, played by Gary Oldman. Her acceptance of him, and her tender curiosity about his life are touching, especially for a story set in the 1960s.
In what at first seems like a bad idea, she is in a remake of What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? (1991) with her sister Lynn Radgrave. She helped make several smart changes to the original, particularly bringing Victor Buono character from the original movie out of the closet as an openly gay video clerk played by gay actor John Glover.
Redgrave appeared with her brother Corin in a production of Noël Coward’s A Song At Twilight in 1999, with a real example of her fearlessness. Playing opposite her own brother as a former lover who attempts to blackmail him about a gay affair in his past, was made even more bold because Coward was one of their father’s major lovers. Michael Redgrave spent the last night before he left to fight in World War II with Coward, which did not make her mother Rachel Kempson all that happy. Kempson knew better than most what it was like to be married to a bisexual. Michael Redgrave was one of the highest-regarded British actors of the last century, and he had been honest from the start of their marriage about his need for same-sex liaisons, experience which came in handy when Redgrave was married to her own bisexual husband, Tony Richardson.
Redgrave plays a lesbian who loses her lover and her home in the 1961 segment of If These Walls Could Talk 2 (2000), which she also produced, and which won her a second Emmy. She not only brings to life this one woman, but the lives of all LGBTQ people who have been shamed and discriminated against. There are many reasons why Redgrave should be a Gay Icon, but there is none more potent than this half hour master class in acting.
In the two-part BBC drama Man In An Orange Shirt (2017), the first part is set in the 1940s, when the starkest choices open to gay men included the prison of a straight marriage or an actual prison. Two soldiers fall in love during World War II. This was a time when being gay was illegal. After a sex filled sojourn in a secluded cottage, they end up living apart when one chooses to marry. His wife discovers the truth, and she too is condemned to spend a lifetime resenting being in a sham marriage. In the second part, 60 years later, the widowed wife, now played Redgrave, has a challenging relationship with her gay grandson.
“We can’t be silent. Because everything we are is not to be defined and categorized. And this film is a wonderful, oceanic wave carrying us through all that shit “
Other LGBTQ-themed Redgrave roles include Oscar Wilde’s mother in Wilde (1997); Clarissa Dalloway in Mrs. Dalloway (1997); and Sonia Wick in Girl, Interrupted (1999), and the nervous, nutty wrestling flick, Flycatcher (2014):
My favorite Redgrave performances, a list of 10:
Howards End (1992)
Prick Up Your Ears (1987)
Little Odessa (1994)
Blow Up (1966)