Dan Callahan on the pains and joys of writing a book on Vanessa Redgrave
If one wanted to write a breezy study of a terrific actor, the last person to choose would be Vanessa Redgrave. Of the world’s master thespians, she’s the most problematic: While she has plenty of theatrical bona fides, her screen career is patchy, although sometimes brilliant. And then there’s her political activism, which has found her working with the shady Workers Revolutionary Party and enraging many with her defense of Palestine, among others.
But writer and critic Dan Callahan storms through anyway. “Vanessa: The Life of Vanessa Redgrave” is a critical study of the actress’ work that isn’t afraid to delve into her controversies, or to set certain misconceptions straight. (Her notorious comments as she accepted her Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 1978 for “Julia” weren’t targeting Israelis as “Zionist hoodlums” but the Jewish Defense League, who had been calling her, among other things, “Arafat’s whore.” She was just being vague.) At the same time, he’s not afraid to say she has bad ideas and lackluster performances, including her Tony-winning turn in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” in 2003.
You call her the greatest actress who ever lived, but you’re very critical of her work, and call some performances misjudged.
Her method is very erratic. She can only get as high up as she has because she doesn’t follow a straight line. She has all these bad ideas that people have to talk her out of. The trick is to have her go with the brilliant one no one else on earth would have thought of. All the great choices start to add up to and form the whole. I like this idea of intense fragments forming a whole at the end of a career, instead of seven or eight perfect films. Something about that kind of gives me the creeps. She’s never mediocre. I never feel with her that she isn’t interested.
She was also an early adopter of TV. You say her two best performances are TV movies from the ’80s: the Holocaust drama “Playing for Time” and “Second Serve,” in which she plays a male tennis player who becomes a woman.
[“Second Serve”] stimulated her. It gave her something that challenged her. And she played persecuted — she likes that too. If she’s playing persecuted, then she has to use her imagination. She has the most enormous imagination. Everything that’s in her, all of her gifts are activated by that film. “Playing for Time” is the same thing. I don’t think it’s too much to compare her to [Renee] Falconetti in “The Passion of Joan of Arc.” She had to have a wound on her lip, and she didn’t think it looked convincing. So she went to a doctor who put a safety pin through her lip. She’s willing to do that.
There are a lot of major roles she turned down for various reasons, but you don’t sweat over them.
I think Sidney Lumet wanted her for “Network,” and Paddy Chayefsky [the writer, who would later decry her on the Oscars for her speech] said no, because she was already doing her campaign for the PLO. But Vanessa in “Network”? I can’t even imagine that. I can imagine her in the ’80s in the Meryl Streep parts. But she was ten years older by then. She was a little too old for “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” or “Sophie’s Choice.”
You yourself have an acting background. This is in part a book about how to read into performances.
I feel a lot of the time critics don’t know how to judge acting. Practically everyone knows if someone’s giving a great performance or if it’s inept. Where it gets tricky is if someone’s giving a flashy performance that’s all surface and isn’t truly felt. Take Bryan Cranston in this LBJ play [“All the Way,” on Broadway]. He’s doing this big accent and he’s trying to turn himself into this man that he isn’t. It’s all external and it’s all flash. People see all the work he’s doing and they think it’s a great performance. In reality he’s miscast and it’s not fully felt. What he’s doing is indicating, a term that not many people know. It’s like mugging. You’re not actually feeling it but you’re playing the part. It’s bad acting, indicating. If terminology like that could work its way outside of acting classes and into general discourse, we would have a better way of judging what works and what doesn’t.
You aren’t kind to her 2003 Broadway turn in “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” But you really read deeply into the physical part of her performances.
In “If These Walks Could Talk 2” [in which she plays an older woman in the ’60s whose longtime female partner dies], she has this thing where she’s in her lover’s old chair, and she presses the arms on it, as if the arms are her lover. In a single gesture she’s able to give you an entire life. One gesture! Who else can do that? No other actor can do that as well as she can.
That film and “Second Serve” are two of several films with LGBT themes. She lived with this issue her whole life.
Her father Michael was gay and her first husband Tony [Richardson] was basically gay. These are two men she loved very much. I think she loved Tony Richardson most of all. He was her mentor, even as late as “The Ballad of the Sad Cafe” . [Actor] Simon Callow says she was on the phone asking him advice on how to do this and how to do that. It’s interesting that her great period as an actress on film coincides with Tony Richardson’s life [he died, of AIDS-related circumstances, in 1991].
You aren’t afraid to go into her political life, and you try to show that her acting and humanitarian work come from the same place: a compassion for people.
They do, unfortunately. That’s the great irony: the thing that makes her scale the heights of acting is what gets her into trouble in her political life. You can’t have one without the other with her. Part of the reason I wanted to write this book was her own autobiography from 20 years ago is very confusing and obscure about [her politics]. And she writes mainly about that and not her work. I wanted to write about her work, but I wanted to clarify this Workers Revolutionary Party period.
You also make her political work, at least to a point, fairly honorable. Many actors talk about helping people, but she really goes out and does it.
She’s obsessed with helping people. If there’s something bad going on in the world, she’s going to raise money for it, she’s going to do something about it. On the one hand, that’s very admirable. But on the other hand, it’s too much, and it has placed great burdens on the people in her life and the people she has worked with. She’s aware of that, but she can’t help it.
You say a recent book about her family, “The Redgraves,” doesn’t even mention Gerry Healy, the notorious head of the Workers Revolutionary Party. Does she mention him in her book?
Yes, and she goes on about how she doesn’t believe the 30 women, some of whom were underage, who claim he coerced and sexually abused them. But that was 1991. I think she knows now. How could she not at this point? I think she knows he was bad and she wants him expunged. But he was her guru for 20 years. I would love to not mention him either. I wish she’d never been involved with him. But she was. I say let’s face it and get on with the task of celebrating her work. Because you can’t not face him.
Today on screen, she mostly does bit parts.
I’m tired of these feature films like “The Butler” and “Foxcatcher.” It’s always cameos. There’s one scene where she has three lines and she has to make a big impression somehow — to be Vanessa. Give her a real part! She still does Shakespeare. She’s still a leading actress on-stage. It’s always been iffy with her on film. She still cares really deeply. She’s still a girl out of drama school. She could never be jaded, never be blase. She never tires of it. She keeps going. She cares deeply and passionately. And I find that, in the end, heroic.
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