|A SINGULAR PERSONALITY
|By MATT WINDMAN
It’s hard to believe that Vanessa: The Life of Vanessa Redgrave, written by Dan Callahan and published by Pegasus Books, marks the first biography of the much revered, much controversial stage and screen actress, who is now 77 years old. Redgrave came out with an autobiography 20 years ago, but you can hardly count on that to provide an objective viewpoint or analysis of her personal and professional life.
Redgrave has appeared onstage in New York quite a lot in recent years, including in the 2003 Broadway revival of A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, the Joan Didion solo drama The Year of Magical Thinking and the 2010 revival of Driving Miss Daisy with James Earl Jones. I even saw her in a 2009 one-night concert production of A Little Night Musicproduced by the Roundabout in which she was Madame Armfeldt and her daughter Natasha Richardson was Desiree. Had Richardson not suddenly died, perhaps Redgrave and Richardson would have co-starred in the Broadway revival ofNight Music that would be produced just a few months later.
In 2005, as a favor to an editor, I stood on the reporter line at the film premiere of The White Countess, which Redgrave appeared in with her daughter Natasha Richardson and sister Lynn Redgrave. My instructions were to ask Vanessa and Lynn what they were doing for Thanksgiving. When I did, Vanessa asked me, point blank, what on earth my question had to do with the film. Choked up by her humorless, merciless response to an innocent request for gossip, I was unable to tell her that no one had invited me to see the film. At least she didn’t call me a “Zionist hoodlum,” to borrow a phrase from her 1978 Oscar speech. In any case, it gave me a first-hand example of Redgrave’s intensity. I also had never realized how tall she is.
Last season, Redgrave appeared Off-Broadway in Jesse Eisenberg’s relatively forgettable drama The Revisionist. People wondered what appealed to Redgrave about the play and why someone of her stature was doing it at a small theater in the West Village. Of course, people have often questioned Redgrave’s choices both onstage and offstage. Before The Revisionist, Redgrave’s last Off-Broadway was a 1997 production of Anthony and Cleopatra at the Public Theater that she both starred in and directed. It turns out that Callahan was an acting student at the time and would see Redgrave pacing outside the Public Theater during rehearsals.
Although Redgrave has appeared in, at this point, more than 80 films and is considered by many to be the greatest living actress, most of her films haven’t been popular or critical successes. When was the last time you saw Julia (for which she won her only Oscar), The Bostonians or Mary, Queen of Scotts on cable? Turner Classic Movies is sure to broadcastCamelot once a year, but no one should have to endure that overwhelming catastrophe of a movie musical. (Callahan thinks Redgrave’s performance as Guenevere gives the film some redeeming value, but I can never get past her lack of singing ability in a role written for Julie Andrews. At present, Regrave continues to pop up in small roles in mainstream flicks like, most recently, The Butler. She even contributed her voice to Cars 2.
To Callahan, Redgrave is complicated, clueless, unpredictable, obstinate, unrealistic, dedicated and, on occasion, singularly brilliant. Callahan, who previously authored a bio on Barbara Stanwyck, has also written as a reviewer for Time Out New York and Slant. While Callahan is clearly admiring of Redgrave’s commitment to her work, he is never starry-eyed. He notes how Redgrave’s performances in A Long Day’s Journey and The Year of Magic Thinking were done in a monotonous style, leaving no room for variation or growth. Callahan often expresses befuddlement at Redgrave’s political activities. In fact, the book is just as dedicated to tracking Redgrave’s politics and volunteerism as her acting career. Still, Callahan admires the sincerity behind her opinions. And even when Redgrave’s performances are problematic, he admires her interesting and brave choices.
Redgrave was never personally interviewed by the New York-based Callahan. He apparently wrote a letter to Redgrave to inform her about the project and never heard back. The closest he got to Redgrave was to ask her a question on the street about an acting choice of hers from The Trojan Women after a performance of The Revisionist.
This will probably not be the definitive biography on Redgrave. Others are sure to come out in coming years by authors who are more familiar with Redgrave’s early stage career, politics and storied family history and can explore it all in much greater detail. Maybe they’ll even get to talk to Redgrave herself. One imagines that a bio by an English author would be, for better or worse, very different. That being said, Callahan’s 300-page book is an easy and enjoyable read. His general approach to Redgrave is admiring but skeptical. Perhaps owing to his background as a reviewer, Callahan provides a brief but lively review of each film and the effectiveness of Redgrave’s performance in each.
When Callahan was an acting student, he was assigned to watch all of Redgrave’s films. Personally, I don’t think I could bare that. Hell, I don’t think I could deal with watching Camelot ever again. But for those unfamiliar with her screen work, he does point out the ones worth seeking out, like Julia and the television movie Playing for Time. And if you can somehow find it, there’s the 1963 BBC film of her star-making turn as Rosalind in As You Like It.