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Biography of Vanessa Redgrave

Name: Vanessa Redgrave
Bith Date: January 30, 1937
Death Date:
Place of Birth: London, England
Nationality: English
Gender: Female
Occupations: actress, political activist
Vanessa Redgrave

The British actress Vanessa Redgrave (born 1937) has had a well-celebrated career as a theater, film, and television actress of substance. She is also a controversial, committed political activist.

Vanessa Redgrave has been described as the "crown princess of a trans-Atlantic show business royal family." Her father was the noted classical actor Sir Michael Redgrave; her mother was a respected actress who performed under the name Rachel Kempson. Lynn Redgrave, the popular stage, screen, and television actress, and Corin Redgrave, an actor better known for his radical politics, were her siblings.

Born in London on January 30, 1937, Vanessa Redgrave was educated there, attending Queensgate School and later, 1955 to 1957, the Central School of Speech and Drama. (She joined the board of governors of the latter in 1963). Her first love was the dance. She initially trained for a career in ballet, but her height (she is nearly six feet tall) caused her to choose the stage instead. After some roles in stock she made her London theatrical debut in 1958 as the daughter of a schoolmaster, played by her father. Redgrave was married from 1962 to 1967 to the director Tony Richardson; they had two daughters, Joely and Natasha, both of whom became actresses. Redgrave also had a son Carlo, born in 1969. The father was the Italian actor Franco Nero, with whom she had a long relationship. He played Lancelot to her Guinevere in the film of the musical Camelot (1967).

During her acting career she undertook a wide variety of roles, including important parts in George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara and Anton Chekov's The Seagull. She played leads in various Shakespeare plays, including The Taming of the Shrew, and was for a time a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. In 1966 she originated the title role in the well-received dramatization of Muriel Spark's novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. During the 1970s her stage roles included Polly Peachum in The Three Penny Opera and Gilda in Noel Coward's Design for Living as well as parts in various Shakespeare plays. In the 1980s she again appeared in The Seagull and The Taming of the Shrew as well as other plays, including a dramatization of Henry James' The Aspern Papers. She also appeared in productions of Eugene O'Neill's A Touch of the Poet and a spirited revival of Tennessee Williams' Orpheus Descending.

Her reviews were not always euphoric, but generally she has been well-received by the critics, such as considering her as possibly "the greatest actress of the English-speaking theater." Her stage performances won her numerous awards, including the prestigious English Evening Standard Drama Award as Actress of the Year (1961, 1967) and the Laurence Olivier Award (1984).

Her screen career was more uneven, but not without distinction. Her film debut came in 1958, but she did not receive her first important movie role until 1966, as the dazzling ex-wife in Morgan. It was followed by an enigmatic role in Antonioni's Blow-Up, a confused blend of fantasy and reality set in "swinging London." She did not always choose her screen roles wisely, and among her more than 25 movies were pot boilers like Bear Island (1980), a weak adaptation of an adventure novel; The Devils (1971), an overheated version of an Aldous Huxley work about the excesses of religion in 17th-century London; and Steaming (1985), a failed attempt by Joseph Losey to film a feminist play. But Redgrave also had to her credit such films as Julia (1977), in which she played the fiery anti-Fascist eponymous heroine; The Bostonians (1984), a version of the James novel in which she played a betrayed feminist; Prick Up Your Ears (1987), a fascinating film about the career and death of homosexual writer Joe Orton in which she played his literary agent; and The Ballad of the Sad Cafe (1991), based on the novella of Carson McCullers.

Many of her directors commented on her ability before the cameras; Fred Zinneman said she "is being rather than acting." Redgrave garnered various awards for her film roles, including Academy Award nominations for her performances in Morgan, Isadora, and The Bostonians; an Academy Award as best supporting actress for Julia; and New York Film Critics Award, best supporting actress, for Prick Up Your Ears. She twice won the Cannes Film Festival Best Actress Award (Morgan, Isadora).

Her television credits also cover a wide range of roles and won her various awards. She appeared as the Wicked Queen in a "Faerie Tale Theatre" version of Snow White (1985), in a three-part "American Playhouse" dramatization of the Salem witchcraft trials (Three Sovereigns for Sarah, 1985), and in 1986 the nine-part miniseries Peter the Great (as his sister, for which she received an Emmy Award nomination). Redgrave also received an Emmy nomination for her role as a transsexual tennis pro and doctor (Second Serve, 1986). She won an Emmy for her performance in Playing for Time (1980) as Fania Fenelon, a Jewish musician who survives Auschwitz.

Jewish groups strongly criticized the casting of Redgrave as Fenelon because of her outspoken pro-Palestinian sympathies. In 1977 she had produced and narrated a tough anti-Israeli film, The Palestinians, and she had made clear her support for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). A woman of definite political beliefs, Redgrave was also active in "ban-the-bomb" groups. A member of England's left Radical Workers Revolutionary Party, she stood as their candidate for Parliament from Moss Side in 1979. She described her "leisure interest" as "changing the status quo." Her politics led to a suit Redgrave filed in 1984 after the Boston Symphony Orchestra canceled her contract to narrate a performance of Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex. A jury awarded her $100,000 damages for breach of contract but rejected her charges that the dismissal was for political reasons.

Before her political notoriety surfaced she was made (1967) a Commander, Order of the British Empire (C.B.E.).

Her single-minded commitment to political causes was notorious. By Redgrave's account, her daughter Natasha once pleaded with her to stop traveling and spending time on political causes and spend more time at home. Redgrave said "I tried to explain that our political struggle was for her future and that all the children of her generation." Undaunted by her daughter's emotional plea, Redgrave continued to spend most of her time on activism. Her theater and movie career suffered from her controversial causes leading to lesser and smaller roles being offered. Other acting assignments included: Howards Way (1995) with Emma Thompson; Two Mothers for Zachary(1996), a made for TV movie based on a famous child custody case, with Balerie Bertinellia; and Smilla's Sense of Snow (1997), a cameo role in Danish author Peter Hoeg's best-thriller of the same name. She also appeared in Practical Magic (1998), Wilde (1998), Deja Vu (1998), Deep Impact (1998), Mrs. Dalloway (1998), and Girl, Interrupted (1999). On January 21, 2001, Redgrave was given a Golden Globe in the category for best supporting actress in a series, miniseries, or made-for-TV movie, for her work in If These Walls Could Talk 2. That same year, on March 11, she received a Screen Actors Guild award for best actress in a movie made for television or miniseries for her role in If These Walls Could Talk 2.

Redgrave demonstrated her vast theatrical talents, directing and acting in a 1997 Shakespearean mini-series, staged at the Alley Theater in Houston, Texas. However one may respond to her political zealousness, she remains an actress of distinction.

Further Reading

  • She is included in various editions of Who's Who, Who's Who in the Theatre, and Celebrity Register. See also Benedict Nightingale, New York Times (September 17, 1989) and Frank Bruni, New York Times Magazine (Februray 1997). Redgrave wrote an autobiography, Vanessa Redgrave: An Autobiography (1995).

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