Vanessa Redgrave, CBE (born 30 January 1937) is an English actress of stage, screen and television, as well as a political activist. She is a 2003 American Theatre Hall of Fame inductee, and received the 2010 BAFTA Fellowship.
Redgrave rose to prominence in 1961 playing Rosalind in As You Like It with the Royal Shakespeare Company and has since starred in more than 35 productions in London’s West End and on Broadway, winning the 1984 Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Revival for The Aspern Papers, and the 2003 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play for the revival of Long Day’s Journey Into Night. She also received Tony nominations for The Year of Magical Thinking and Driving Miss Daisy.
On screen, she has starred in more than 80 films and is a six-time Oscar nominee, winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for the title role in the 1977 film Julia. Her other nominations were for Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966), Isadora (1968), Mary, Queen of Scots (1971), The Bostonians (1984) and Howards End (1992). Her other well-known films include A Man for All Seasons (1966), Blowup (1966), Camelot (1967), The Devils (1971), Murder on the Orient Express (1974), Prick Up Your Ears (1987), Mission: Impossible (1996), Atonement (2007), Coriolanus (2011) and The Butler (2013). Redgrave was proclaimed by Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams as “the greatest living actress of our times”, and has won the Oscar, Emmy, Tony, BAFTA, Olivier, Cannes, Golden Globe, and the Screen Actors Guild awards.
A member of the Redgrave family of actors, she is the daughter of Sir Michael Redgrave and Lady Redgrave (the actress Rachel Kempson), the sister of Lynn Redgrave and Corin Redgrave, the mother of actresses Joely Richardson and Natasha Richardson, the aunt of British actress Jemma Redgrave, and the mother-in-law of actor Liam Neeson.
Redgrave was born in Greenwich, London, the daughter of actors Sir Michael Redgrave and Rachel Kempson. Laurence Olivier announced her birth to the audience at a performance of Hamlet at the Old Vic, when he said that Laertes (played by Sir Michael) had a daughter. She was educated at the Alice Ottley School, Worcester, and Queen’s Gate School, London, before “coming out” as a debutante. Her late siblings, Lynn Redgrave and Corin Redgrave, were also acclaimed actors.
Vanessa Redgrave entered the Central School of Speech and Drama in 1954. She first appeared in the West End, playing opposite her brother, in 1958.
In 1959, she appeared at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre under the direction of Peter Hall as Helena in A Midsummer’s Night Dream opposite Charles Laughton as Bottom and Coriolanus opposite Laurence Olivier (in the title role), Albert Finney and Edith Evans.
In 1960, Redgrave had her first starring role in Robert Bolt’s The Tiger and the Horse, in which she co-starred with her father. In 1961, she played Rosalind in As You Like It for the Royal Shakespeare Company. In 1962, she played Imogen in William Gaskill’s production of Cymbeline for the RSC. In 1966, Redgrave created the role of Jean Brodie in the Donald Albery production of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, adapted for the stage by Jay Presson Allen from the novel by Muriel Spark. She won four Evening Standard Awards for Best Actress in four decades. She was awarded the Laurence Olivier Award for Actress of the Year in a Revival in 1984 for The Aspern Papers
In the 1990s, her theatre work included Prospero in The Tempest at Shakespeare’s Globe in London. In 2003 she won a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play for her performance in the Broadway revival of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. In January 2006, Redgrave was presented the Ibsen Centennial Award for her “outstanding work in interpreting many of Henrik Ibsen’s works over the last decades”. Previous recipients of the award include Liv Ullmann, Glenda Jackson and Claire Bloom.
In 2007, Redgrave played Joan Didion in her Broadway stage adaptation of her 2005 book, The Year of Magical Thinking, which played 144 regular performances in a 24-week limited engagement at the Booth Theatre. For this, she won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding One-Person Show and was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play. She reprised the role at the Lyttelton Theatre at the Royal National Theatre in London to mixed reviews. She also spent a week performing the work at the Theatre Royal in Bath in September 2008. She once again performed the role of Joan Didion for a special benefit at New York’s Cathedral of Saint John the Divine on 26 October 2009. The performance was originally slated to debut on 27 April, but was pushed due to the death of Redgrave’s daughter Natasha. The proceeds for the benefit were donated to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). Both charities work to provide help for the children of Gaza.
In October 2010, she starred in the Broadway premiere of Driving Miss Daisy starring in the title role opposite James Earl Jones. The show premiered on 25 October 2010 at the John Golden Theatre in New York City to rave reviews. The production was originally scheduled to run to 29 January 2011 but due to a successful response and high box office sales, was extended to 9 April 2011. In May 2011, she was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play for the role of Daisy in Driving Miss Daisy. The play transferred to the Wyndham’s Theatre in London from 26 September to 17 December 2011.
In 2013, Redgrave starred alongside Jesse Eisenberg in Eisenberg’s The Revisionist. The New York production ran from 15 February to 27 April. Redgrave played a Polish holocaust survivor in the play. In September 2013, Redgrave once again starred opposite James Earl Jones in a production of Much Ado About Nothing at The Old Vic, London, directed by Mark Rylance.
In a poll of “industry experts” and readers conducted by The Stage in 2010, Redgrave was ranked as the ninth greatest stage actor/actress of all time.
Early film work
Highlights of Redgrave’s early film career include her first starring role in Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (for which she earned an Oscar nomination, a Cannes award, a Golden Globe nomination and a BAFTA Film Award nomination); her portrayal of a cool London swinger in 1966’s Blowup; her spirited portrayal of dancer Isadora Duncan in Isadora (for which she won a National Society of Film Critics’ Award for Best Actress, a second Prize for the Best Female Performance at the Cannes Film Festival, along with a Golden Globe and Oscar nomination in 1969); and various portrayals of historical figures – ranging from Andromache in The Trojan Women, to Mary, Queen of Scots in the film of the same name. She also played the role of Guinevere in the film Camelot with Richard Harris and Franco Nero, and briefly as Sylvia Pankhurst in Oh! What a Lovely War.
Julia, The Palestinian and the Oscar controversy
In 1977 Redgrave funded and narrated a documentary film, The Palestinian, about Palestinians and the activities of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. That same year she starred in the film Julia, about a woman murdered by the Nazi German regime in the years prior to World War II for her anti-Fascist activism. Her co-star in the film was Jane Fonda (playing writer Lillian Hellman), who, in her 2005 autobiography, noted that:
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.
When Redgrave was nominated for an Oscar in 1978 for her role in Julia, members of the Jewish Defense League (JDL), led by Rabbi Meir Kahane, burned effigies of Redgrave and picketed the Academy Awards ceremony to protest against her involvement in The Palestinian.
Redgrave’s performance in Julia garnered an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. 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.” Later in the show, Paddy Chayefsky prefaced his presentation by retorting: “I would like to say, personal opinion, of course, that I’m sick and tired of people exploiting the Academy Awards for the propagation of their own personal political propaganda. I would like to suggest to Ms. Redgrave that her winning an Academy Award is not a pivotal moment in history, does not require a proclamation, and a simple ‘thank you’ would have sufficed.”
Later film career
Later film roles of note include those of suffragist Olive Chancellor in The Bostonians (1984, a fourth Best Actress Academy Award nomination), transsexual tennis player Renée Richards in Second Serve (1986), Blanche Hudson in the 1991 television remake of 1962’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, Mrs. Wilcox in Howards End (1992, her sixth Academy Award nomination, this time in a supporting role); crime boss Max in Mission: Impossible (1996, when discussing the role of Max, DePalma and Cruise thought it would be fun to cast an actor like Redgrave; they then decided to go with the real thing); Oscar Wilde’s mother in Wilde (1997); Clarissa Dalloway in Mrs. Dalloway (1997); and Dr. Sonia Wick in Girl, Interrupted (1999). Many of these roles and others garnered her widespread accolades.
Her performance as a lesbian mourning the loss of her longtime partner in the HBO series If These Walls Could Talk 2 earned her a Golden Globe for “Best TV Series Supporting Actress” in 2000, as well as earning an Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a TV Film or Miniseries. This same performance also led to an “Excellence in Media Award” from the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). The award honours “a member of the entertainment community who has made a significant difference in promoting equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people”. In 2004, Redgrave joined the second season cast of the hit FX series Nip/Tuck, portraying Dr. Erica Noughton, the mother of Julia McNamara, who is played by her real-life daughter Joely Richardson. She also made appearances in the third and sixth seasons. In 2006, Redgrave starred opposite Peter O’Toole in the acclaimed film Venus. A year later, Redgrave starred in Evening and the acclaimed Atonement, in which she received a Broadcast Film Critics Association award nomination for a performance that took up only seven minutes of screen time. In 2008, Redgrave appeared as a narrator in an Arts Alliance production, id – Identity of the Soul. In 2009, Redgrave starred in the BBC remake of The Day of the Triffids, with her daughter Joely. In the midst of losing her daughter, Natasha Richardson, Redgrave signed on to play Eleanor of Aquitaine in Ridley Scott’s version of Robin Hood, which began filming shortly after Natasha’s death. Redgrave later withdrew from the film for personal reasons. The part was given to her Evening co-star Eileen Atkins. She was next seen in Letters to Juliet opposite her husband Franco Nero.
She had small roles in Eva, a Romanian drama film that premiered at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, as well as in Julian Schnabel’s Palestinian drama Miral, which was screened at the 67th Venice International Film Festival. She voiced the character of Winnie the Giant Tortoise in the 2010 environmental animated film Animals United, and played a supporting role in the Bosnia-set political drama, The Whistleblower, which premiered at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival. Both Miral and The Whistleblower were released theatrically in the U.S. in 2011. Redgrave also narrated Patrick Keiller’s semi-fictional 2010 documentary, Robinson in Ruins. Since 2012, Redgrave has narrated the BBC series Call the Midwife.
She also played leading roles in two 2011 historical films: Shakespeare’s Coriolanus (which marked actor Ralph Fiennes’ directorial debut), in which she plays Volumnia; and Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous, as Queen Elizabeth I.
More recently, she starred with Terence Stamp and Gemma Arterton in the British comedy-drama Song for Marion and with Forest Whittaker in The Butler, directed by Lee Daniels. She also appeared with Steve Carell and Channing Tatum in the drama Foxcatcher.
Redgrave was married to actor Tony Richardson from 1962 to 1967, and they have two daughters, actresses Natasha Richardson (1963-2009) and Joely Richardson (b. 1965). In 1967, the year Redgrave divorced Richardson, who left her for the French actress Jeanne Moreau, she became romantically involved with Italian actor Franco Nero when they met on the set of Camelot. In 1969, they had a son, Carlo Gabriel Redgrave Sparanero (known professionally as Carlo Gabriel Nero), a screenwriter and director. From 1971 to 1986, she had a long-term relationship with actor Timothy Dalton, with whom she had starred in the film Mary, Queen of Scots. Redgrave later reunited with Franco Nero, and they married on 31 December 2006. Nero directed Redgrave in the cinematic adaptation of Wallace Shawn’s play The Fever.
In 1967, Redgrave was made a Commander (CBE) of the Order of the British Empire. It was reported that she declined a damehood in 1999.
Within 14 months in 2009 and 2010, she lost both a daughter and her two younger siblings. Her daughter Natasha Richardson died on 18 March 2009 from a traumatic brain injury caused by a skiing accident. On 6 April 2010, her brother, Corin Redgrave, died, and on 2 May 2010, her sister, Lynn Redgrave, died.
Redgrave had a near-fatal heart attack in April 2015. In September 2015 she revealed that her lungs are only working at 30% capacity due to emphysema caused by years of smoking.
In 1961, Vanessa Redgrave was an active member of the Committee of 100 and its working group. Redgrave and her brother Corin joined the Workers Revolutionary Party in the 1970s. She ran for parliament several times as a party member but never received more than a few hundred votes.
In 1980, Redgrave made her American TV debut as concentration camp survivor Fania Fénelon in the Arthur Miller-scripted TV movie Playing for Time, a part for which she won an Emmy as Outstanding Lead Actress in 1981. The decision to cast Redgrave as Fénelon was, however, a source of controversy. In light of Redgrave’s support for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), even Fénelon objected to her casting. Redgrave was perplexed by such hostility, stating in her 1991 autobiography her long-held belief that “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. Lillian 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 Boston orchestra had violated her civil rights by firing her.
In 1995, Redgrave was elected to serve as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador.
In December 2002, Redgrave paid £50,000 bail for Chechen separatist Deputy Premier and special envoy Akhmed Zakayev, who had sought political asylum in the United Kingdom and was accused by the Russian government of aiding and abetting hostage-takings in the Moscow Hostage Crisis of 2002 and guerrilla warfare against Russia.
At a press conference Redgrave said she feared for Zakayev’s safety if he were extradited to Russia on terrorism charges. He would “die of a heart attack” or some other mysterious explanation offered by Russia, she said. On 13 November 2003, a London court rejected the Russian government’s request for Zakayev’s extradition. Instead, the court accepted a plea by lawyers for Zakayev that he would not get a fair trial, and could even face torture, in Russia. “It would be unjust and oppressive to return Mr Zakayev to Russia,” Judge Timothy Workman ruled.
In December 2003, it was revealed that Redgrave had declined the offer of being made a Dame from Tony Blair’s New Labour government.
In 2004, Vanessa Redgrave and her brother Corin Redgrave launched the Peace and Progress Party, which campaigned against the Iraq War and for human rights. However, in June 2005 Redgrave left the party.
Redgrave has been an outspoken critic of the “war on terrorism”. During a June 2005 interview on Larry King Live, Redgrave was challenged on this criticism and on her political views. In response she questioned whether there can 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.”
In March 2006, Redgrave remarked in an interview with US broadcast journalist Amy Goodman: “I don’t know of a single government that actually abides by international human rights law, not one, including my own. In fact, [they] violate these laws in the most despicable and obscene way, I would say.”
Goodman’s interview with Redgrave took place in the actress’s West London home on the evening of 7 March, and covered a range of subjects, particularly the cancellation by the New York Theater Workshop of the Alan Rickman production My Name is Rachel Corrie. Such a development, said Redgrave, was an “act of catastrophic cowardice” as “the essence of life and the essence of theatre is to communicate about lives, either lives that have ended or lives that are still alive, [and about] beliefs, and what is in those beliefs.”
In June 2006, she was awarded a lifetime achievement award from the Transilvania International Film Festival, one of whose sponsors is a mining company named Gabriel Resources. She dedicated the award to a community organisation from Ro?ia Montan?, Romania, which is campaigning against a gold mine that Gabriel Resources is seeking to build near the village. Gabriel Resources placed an “open letter” in The Guardian on 23 June 2006, attacking Redgrave, arguing the case for the mine, and exhibiting support for it among the inhabitants: the open letter is signed by 77 villagers.
In December 2007, Redgrave was named as one of the possible suretors who paid the £50,000 bail for Jamil al-Banna, one of three British residents arrested after landing back in the UK following four years’ captivity at Guantanamo Bay. Redgrave has declined to be specific about her financial involvement but said she was “very happy” to be of “some small assistance for Jamil and his wife”, adding, “It is a profound honour and I am glad to be alive to be able to do this. Guantanamo Bay (Gitmo) is a concentration camp.”
- Vanessa Redgrave at the Internet Broadway Database
- Vanessa Redgrave at the Internet Off-Broadway Database
- Vanessa Redgrave at the Internet Movie Database
- Vanessa Redgrave at the TCM Movie Database
- Vanessa Redgrave at the British Film Institute’s Screenonline
- Vanessa Redgrave: Actress and Campaigner
- “She’s Got Issues” – The Observer, 19 March 2006
- Lee Israel research files on Vanessa Redgrave, 1982-1987 Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library.