Nationality: British. Born: London, 30 January 1937; daughter of the actor Michael Redgrave and the actress Rachel Kempson; sister of the actress Lynn Redgrave and the actor Corin Redgrave. Education: Attended Queensgate School, London; Central School of Speech and Drama, London, 1954–57. Family: Married the director Tony Richardson, 1962 (divorced 1966), daughters: the actresses Natasha and Joely Richardson; one son, Carlo, by the actor Franco Nero. Career: Made London debut in A Touch of the Sun , 1958; made film debut in Behind the Mask , 1959; acted for a season with the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford upon Avon, 1959; appeared in the stage play The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie , 1966; later stage work included roles in Antony and Cleopatra , 1973, Macbeth , 1975, The Seagull , 1985, and Orpheus Descending , 1988; produced the film The Palestinian , 1977; successfully sued the Boston Symphony for cancelling her concert series for political reasons, 1983; appeared in the TV mini-series Peter the Great , 1986, and Young Catherine , 1991. Awards: Cannes Film Festival Best Actress, for Morgan! A Suitable Case for Treatment , 1966; Cannes Film Festival Best Actress, National Society of Film Critics Best Actress, for Isadora , 1969; Best Supporting Actress Academy Award, Los Angeles Film Critics Association
Behind the Mask (Hurst) (as Pamela Gray)
Morgan! A Suitable Case for Treatment (Reisz) (as Leonie Delt); Blow-Up (Antonioni) (as Jane)
Red and Blue (Richardson) (as Jacky); Camelot (Logan) (as Guinevere); A Man for All Seasons (Zinnemann) (as Anne Boleyn); The Sailor from Gibraltar (Richardson) (as Sheila); The Charge of the Light Brigade (Richardson) (as Clarissa)
Isadora (Reisz) (as Isadora Duncan); The Sea Gull (Lumet)(as Nina); Un tranquillo posto di campagna ( A Quiet Place in the Country ) (Petri) (as Flavia); Tonight Let's All Make Love in London (Whitehead) (as guest)
Oh! What a Lovely War (Attenborough) (as Sylvia Pankhurst); La vacanza ( The Vacation ; Dropout ) (Brass) (as Immacolata)
The Trojan Women (Cacoyannis) (as Andromache); The Devils (Russell) (as Sister Jeanne); Mary, Queen of Scots (Jarrott) (title role)
Murder on the Orient Express (Lumet) (as Mary Debenham)
Out of Season (Alan Bridges) (as Ann)
The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (Ross) (as Lola Deveraux)
Julia (Zinnemann) (title role); Agatha (Apted) (as Agatha Christie); The Palestinian (Battersby) (+ pr)
Yanks (Schlesinger) (as Helen); Bear Island (Sharp) (as Hedi Lindquist)
Playing for Time (Daniel Mann—for TV) (as Fania Fenelon)
My Body, My Child (Chomsky—for TV) (as Leenie Cabrezi)
Wagner (Palmer—for TV) (as Cosima)
The Bostonians (Ivory) (as Olive Chancellor)
Wetherby (Hare) (as Jean Travers); Steaming (Losey) (as Nancy); Three Sovereigns for Sarah (Leacock—for TV)(as Sarah Cloyce)
Second Serve (Page—for TV) (as Renee Richards); Comrades (Douglas) (as Mrs. Carlyle)
Prick Up Your Ears (Frears) (as Peggy Ramsay)
Consuming Passions (Foster) (as Mrs. Garza); A Man for All Seasons (Charlton Heston—for TV) (as Alice More)
Diceria dell'untore ( The Plague Sowers ) (Cino) (as SisterCrucifix); Romeo-Juliet (Acosta) (voice of Mother Capulet); A Breath of Life (Cino) (as Sister Crocifissa); Orpheus Descending (Hall—for TV) (as Lady Torrance)
Stalin's Funeral (Yevtuschenko); The Ballad of the Sad Café (Callow) (as Miss Amelia Evans); What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (Greene—for TV) (as Blanche Hudson); Behind the Mask (doc)
Howards End (Ivory) (as Ruth Wilcox)
Storia di una Capinera ( Sparrow ) (Zeffirelli) (as Sister Agata); The House of the Spirits (August) (as Nivea); Crime and Punishment (as Mrs. Raskolnikov); Un Muro de Silencio ( A Wall of Silence ) (Stantic) (as Kate Benson); They ( They Watch ) (Korty—for TV) (as Florence Latimer); Great Moments in Aviation (Kidron) (as Dr. Angela Bead)
Mother's Boys (Simoneau) (as Lydia); Little Odessa (Gray)(as Irina Shapira)
A Month by the Lake (Irvin) (as Miss Bentley); Down Came a Blackbird (Jonathan Sanger—for TV) (as Anna Lenke)
Mission Impossible (De Palma) (as Max); Looking for Richard (Pacino) (as herself)
Wilde (Gilbert) (as Speranza); Déjà Vu (Jaglom) (as Skelly); Smilla's Sense of Snow (August) (as Elsa Lubing); Mrs. Dalloway (Gorris) (as title role); Bella Mafia (Greene—mini for TV) (as Graziella Luciano)
Deep Impact (Leder) (as Robin Lerner); Lulu on the Bridge (Auster) (as Catherine Moore)
Uninvited (Carlo Gabriel Nero) (as Mrs. Ruttenburn); A Rumor of Angels (O'Fallon) (as Maddy); Mirka (Benhadj)(as Kalsan); Girl, Interrupted (as Dr. Wick) (Mangold); Cradle Will Rock (Robbins) (as Countess LaGrange)
If These Walls Could Talk 2 (Anderson, Coolidge, Heche—for TV) (as Edith Tree); The Pledge (Penn)
Vanessa Redgrave: An Autobiography , London, 1991.
Interview with B. Lewis, in Films and Filming (London), October 1986.
"A Woman of Conscience," interview with Nicholas Wroe, in New Statesman & Society , 4 October 1991.
"Mission: Possible," interview with W. Shawn, in Interview , April 1997.
Redgrave, Deirdre, with Danaë Brook, To Be a Redgrave , London, 1982.
Kempson, Rachel, A Family and Its Fortunes , London, 1986.
Hare, David, Writing Left-Handed , London, 1991.
Current Biography 1966 , New York, 1966.
Haustrate, G., and W. Chmait, "Cinéma et Palestine," and "Oscar et protestations," in Cinéma (Paris), May 1978.
Corliss, Richard, "Vanessa Redgrave," in The Movie Star , edited by Elisabeth Weis, New York, 1981.
Ivory, James, "The Trouble with Olive," in Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1985.
Henry, William A. III, "Vanessa Ascending: The Pre-eminent Actress of Her Time Returns to Broadway," in Time , 9 October 1989.
Raymond, Gerard, "Redgrave on Redgrave," in Advocate , 12 February 1991.
Schiff, Stephen, "Who's Afraid of Vanessa Redgrave," in Vanity Fair (New York), July 1991.
Mury, Cécile, "La scandaleuse de Londres," in Télérama (Paris), 21 June 1995.
Slide, A., "Who's the Best Actress in Hollywood?" in Movieline (Chicago), November 1996.
* * *
Disappointing is the first word that comes to mind with regard to Vanessa Redgrave's film career. But that perhaps says more about our expectations than her achievements. Being part of one of Britain's great theatrical families may have been more of a burden than an asset, so it is a credit to her persistence and intelligence that she has not given up on acting entirely, or sunk to the depths of a Hayley or Juliet Mills. Yet in virtually all of her films there remains a lingering sense of something great, of a performer of truly passionate intensity going to waste.
In some cases, this can be squarely blamed on the directors with whom she worked. During her marriage to Tony Richardson, enduring The Sailor from Gibraltar and The Charge of the Light Brigade can only have hastened the divorce proceedings. And how could any performer communicate through the chaotic gore of The Devils ? Redgrave almost succeeds in giving a startling performance, but is constantly thwarted by director Ken Russell's selfish grandiosity. Even her Academy Award-winning role in Julia , impressive as it is, cannot help but drown in the pale timidity of its surroundings, that Hollywood brand of liberal politics known as Zinnemannism. She demonstrably acts Jane Fonda off the screen; in fact, it is an embarrassingly one-sided contest—elegant intelligence versus radical pouting. But the film remains too pretty, too patronizing, and, crucially, too evasive about the women's relationship.
Many of Redgrave's films are limited by respectability, as if she were determined to prove her classical credentials. Hence she is adequately striking in The Sea Gull , lovingly embalmed by Sidney Lumet, and does what she can in the international stew of The Trojan Women. In Mary, Queen of Scots she succumbs to the tedious early 1970s vogue for Tudor costume drama, halfheartedly sparring with Glenda Jackson when they should be asking each other how they got into such a dull film in the first place.
In the 1960s Redgrave played female lead in two films central to the inflated ego of that decade— Blow-Up and Morgan. In both, she had to contend with a smothering male presence (Antonioni and David Warner respectively), but very nearly captures the hearts of the two films. Her Guinevere in Camelot is suitably beautiful but, not surprisingly, her intelligence rarely seems engaged by the text. Isadora at least put her in the epicenter of a film, giving Redgrave her best early career leading role as Isadora Duncan and offering her a substantial dramatic showcase.
It took considerable courage, given the hysterical misinterpretation of her political views in certain quarters of the United States, to take the lead role in the made-for-television drama Playing for Time , and her success in it is heartening. She is never less than moving in her role as concentration camp prisoner Fania Fenelon. But perhaps her finest film performance, though less celebrated than many, came in Yanks. It is one of the only straightforwardly romantic films she has appeared in, but it never equates romanticism with sloppiness. Redgrave's acting, free of the responsibilities of a crushing classical role or of the need to punch home political points, is the strong, subtle, emotional center of the text.
As she has aged, Redgrave has taken on an assortment of supporting character roles. She was a solid presence in two films in which her characters are at once dissimilar and alike: they may come from opposite classes, yet the fact that each is dying is a key element in the story. In Howards End , she is a highborn matriarch who wills her cherished estate to the character played by Emma Thompson; in Little Odessa , she is a nondescript Russian-Jewish woman whose husband has been unfaithful and whose oldest son has become a hitman. During the second half of the 1990s, Redgrave's highest-profile films have featured her in roles that virtually are cameos. In Girl, Interrupted , for example, she plays a very proper psychiatrist; in Cradle Will Rock , she is a wealthy, dizzy countess. She even appeared in a pair of mega-budget Hollywood actioners, adding a bit of humanity and depth to Deep Impact as the rejected mother of heroine Tea Leoni and quite a bit of pizzazz to Mission Impossible as a greedy, sexy information broker.
Meanwhile, Redgrave gave attractive star performances in two films that were far-less publicized. In A Month by the Lake , she is an amiable British woman who comes to Italy's Lake Como for a vacation prior to World War II and becomes intrigued by the idea of a romance with a stylish but impulsive, ultimately enigmatic middle-aged businessman. In Mrs. Dalloway , based on a novel by Virginia Woolf, Redgrave is especially fine as the title character, a moneyed middle-aged woman who comes off as stodgy and self-satisfied as she prepares to host an elegant party. She is contrasted to her youthful self in a series of flashbacks and, at this point in her life, it is noted that the vibrant young woman "could do so much, be so much." The story would be one-dimensional and predictable if the plight of its heroine made her nothing more than a victim of cruel sexism. What makes it so effective is that it is layered with emotion and nuance, and the fact that Clarissa Dalloway, as portrayed by Redgrave, is such a complex, fully developed character.
Her performances in films from Yanks through A Month by the Lake and Mrs. Dalloway are clear proof that if Redgrave's political commitments ever put an end to her acting career, it will be a significant loss. Yet even her political views, liked by few people and understood by fewer, seem somehow linked to the tenacity and conviction she has displayed in her films.
—Andy Medhurst, updated by Rob Edelman