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The Greatest Living Actress: Author Dan Callahan on the Legacy of Vanessa Redgrave

Vanessa Redgrave, at age 77, has had such a lengthy career, with so many different phases, it may be difficult to get a handle on the woman often referred to as the "greatest living actress." She has been nominated for an Oscar six times, and won for Best Supporting Actress in 1977 for "Julia." Her theatre career has been just as rich as her film career, with Redgrave constantly going back to the stage, in both classical plays and new work. She is still working. The controversy she experienced because of her politics haunts her like a shadow, her Oscar acceptance speech being a notorious example. But the career continues. Despite the fact that she is known as a high watermark for the craft of acting, there hasn't been all that much written about her, until now. RogerEbert.com contributor Dan Callahan, one of the best writers on the craft of acting working today, has come out with a biography called "Vanessa: The Life of Vanessa Redgrave." (it is his second book, the first one being "Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman"). In it, he takes us through Redgrave's career, the extraordinary acting-dynasty of a family from which she sprung, her early years, her film career, and yes, her controversial politics and her involvement with the Workers Revolutionary Party and its cultish leader, Gerry Healy. Callahan respects and understands the craft of acting and his writing shimmers with acute and insightful observations, not only about what Vanessa is doing with a certain role, but how. Rogerebert.com posted an excerpt from Callahan's book, where Callahan takes on Ken Russell's notorious film "The Devils." Callahan writes:

"Judging from her other work, surely Redgrave would have preferred a more sober accounting of this woman’s cracked personality, but she enters into Russell’s engrained bad taste and vulgarity, using it when it is useful to her and discarding it entirely when she wants us to feel the depth of this woman’s depravity and pain. If "The Devils" is a major film, it is Redgrave who makes it so. No other actress of her time could have given such an extreme and dirty and comic performance while still remaining somehow immaculately pure and so sad at the core."

Callahan treats Redgrave even-handedly in the book, excavating some of the more esoteric Trotsky-esque motivations behind her political fervor in the 1970s, but he never forgets that why we really care about Redgrave is because of her glorious work. It is work that should be celebrated, and Callahan does.

I spoke with Callahan recently about his book. [Full disclosure: he quotes a piece I wrote about Redgrave's daughter, the late Natasha Richardson, in the book.]

One of the things I love so much about your writing, and about this book in particular, is that there's a mystery about why Vanessa Redgrave is so good, which I think is true of many great performers, and you tackle that, you set out to break it down for us: What it is she actually is doing and why she is so good.

The training that she had at the Central School of Speech and Drama was the most old-fashioned training in the world. She rebelled against that. But then when she went to the Actors Studio for a week and followed [Actors Studio founder/acting teacher Lee] Strasberg, she rejected [The Method] too. She was somewhat in the middle of the two traditions, and she would call on both of them, the most extreme versions of both methods. When I saw her in "The Revisionist" [a play by Jesse Eisenberg, at the Cherry Lane Theater in New York in 2013], she was doing these private moments, so private, so intimate, and yet she was pushing it out, calling on her early training. In a way, that stodgy British training gave her the backbone to use the most extreme version of Strasberg. As far as what her gift is, what she says about it is: There is no gap whatsoever between me and the part.

There's that quote from her where she says a chameleon doesn't have to think about changing color, it just does. She uses that as an analogy for her acting ability. I guess what we're really talking about is a sort of genius.

It isn't like she just shows up and is a genius, though. I mean, she puts everybody through the wringer in rehearsal.

And suddenly she's doing an Italian accent.

Or a Pakistani accent. And everyone says, "Wait a minute, WHAT is she doing?" Somebody said about Preston Sturges that he had 100 ideas every hour and one of those ideas was brilliant. Vanessa is very much like that. She's still like an acting student, in a way. She writes in her journals, and it's almost adolescent and romantic, still, the way she approaches things.

One of the anecdotes in your book that I thought was so fascinating was her early Rosalind [in "As You Like It" at Stratford in 1961] where she was trying to respectfully fit into the tradition of who had done the role before. The night before opening night, the director told her her performance wasn't working, try something new. And she had to go on cold with an entirely new interpretation of the role. Apparently she was phenomenal.

It was her big break-out. She needed to make that leap, because she wasn't giving that performance in rehearsals. She might have gotten good reviews with that original performance, but it wouldn't have become this big legendary thing if she hadn't made that leap. The audio of that performance is on YouTube, and even hearing it is enough to get a feel of what she must have been like in the role. She takes all these daring pauses. That's my favorite Shakespeare play, and she is the ultimate Rosalind. Only someone who has great resources can make a leap like that, because if it doesn't work, you are going to fall flat on your face. She is never cautious. She dares.

Would you say that she doesn't experience fear in the way other people do? Is fear just not a factor for her?

Vanessa doesn't say no to her impulses the way other performers do. And sometimes directors or other actors have to say no to her, and tell her, "That is a terrible idea." When you're a really special person, you don't have good ideas or okay ideas, you have either great ideas or really terrible ideas. Sometimes she can be very headstrong and stubborn about her terrible ideas and you have to talk her out of it. Like her ideas for "Camelot": she wanted to wear the same dress for the whole film, she wanted to sing one of the songs in French. [Director Joshua] Logan listened to her suggestions and then politely ignored them. But you asked about fear. I hadn't thought about that. I am sure that she does experience fear but you always have to remember that she is an English woman of a certain class and generation. There's that story of her having to go on in "As You Like It," and she was terrified to do it the way the director wanted her to do it, and the wardrobe woman said, "You have to get on with it, dear." It's an English thing. She doesn't allow herself that self-indulgence.

I read David Thomson's review of your book, and he said something that is spot-on about your writing on acting: "He knows what to look for." My next question is not just about Vanessa: What are your thoughts on writing about acting and why there is so little that is good?

This is very interesting. Dave Kehr is one of the very best writers on film, and he has said that he almost never writes about acting because it seems dead on the page for him. He focuses on the directors and the great auteurs. I write about acting, I studied acting. It's natural to me to talk about specific moments, or "oh, she's indicating there". The people who haven't had acting training, who are cinephiles, they either want to discount it entirely or they just seem to think, "It's magic." There is a magic element to acting, but there are nuts and bolts to it. If you just learn a few terms, and learn what to look for, you can judge it. Practically everyone can see that someone is giving a great performance or an inept performance. Where it gets tricky is when it's in between, or where someone is giving a flashy performance, but it's not connected emotionally. The concept of "indicating" is something that other critics don't have a read on. That's the trickiest part. But that is what I'm shooting for, to point out things like that.

This is your second book. I know your passion for Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn. What is it in Barbara Stanwyck and Vanessa Redgrave, besides their obvious greatness, that made you think This is going to be my next project.

Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn have many books written about them. They have written books themselves. They did all this colorful publicity and lots of interviews. Everyone said Barbara Stanwyck is the greatest actress and yet there was very little written about her. So I thought I should start with her. And with Redgrave, it is amazing to me all she has achieved in spite of the fact that she has had some of the worst press ever, the worst press that any human being has ever received, and that she has overcome the press that she has had. Glenda Jackson said to me, her work stands for itself. As far as who she is as a persona, or a star, I think people are uneasy about her. You have to watch the work. With her I decided: her work is glorious and I wanted to write about it and I'm obsessed. I could do it all over again I love her so much. But a secondary concern was her memoir from 20 years ago. In it, she talks a lot about the Workers Revolutionary Party and her political engagements. I read it at the time when I was a kid, and I read it again when I was going to start the book. And I couldn't make heads or tails of a lot of it. So I wanted to celebrate the glory of her work, and I also wanted to figure out what was going on. And not dwell on it, because you could really get lost in a lot of that stuff, but to make it as simple as possible and get some answers about some things that were obscure.

Her autobiography is pretty unhelpful in many ways, so I wanted to put out my book and be as honest as possible, and fair. Donald Spoto put out an authorized biography of the Redgrave family in 2012 and it's pretty good up to a point. It has some good things about Michael. But when it gets to 1970 … the name Gerry Healy isn't in the index at all. Gerry Healy was Vanessa's guru for 20 years and yet he has been struck from the record. Listen. I would love to strike Gerry Healy from the record. I wish she had never met him, I wish the whole thing had never happened. Unfortunately, it did. And I got through it as simply as possible but there was no way I could leave it out.

She seemed to not be aware of how much she was being used by the group for her fame and celebrity.

Her brother Corin got her involved with the Workers Revolutionary Party. What's nice is that towards the end of his life, Corin did finally come back to the stage and by all accounts gave some very fine performances. I put the quote in the book where he says to his daughter, Gemma: "Always stick by your rotten decisions." That's him. That's him. It certainly is a shame, though. Listen, this is a very talented family. Not just Vanessa, but also Lynn, and Natasha, and Michael, and Joely. There's no other family like this.

With the semi-break she had to take where she was blacklisted, it can seem like  her career is a little bit of a mess. It's all over the place.

I would say wayward. David Hare described that when you want her for a project, she has 4 or 5 other projects and she's kind of in a haze about it, and she says, "Well, I'll be in New York three years from now …" And then, boom, she's down with one project, and it may be the strangest choice. It's a long filmography. A lot of it is cameos, a lot of it is one scene. As an older woman, she's an emeritus figure. They're paying for her name to do the one scene. But even as a younger woman, she turned up in small parts. In "Blow-Up", which we just showed at the Museum of the Moving Image, she's not in it for very long, but she makes a powerful impression.

What was really interesting: the audience for "Blow-Up" was almost all older guys who had seen it [when it first came out]. And when I was signing books for them, they would say to me, "I remember her being naked in it, but you don't see her naked in it. Isn't she supposed to be naked?" She was, for men of a certain generation, briefly a queen London icon and sex symbol. Most of the audience were these guys who just wanted to see her again. And in that scene in "Blow-Up", she takes her shirt off, you never see her breasts, and for most of the scene she has her arms folded over them, and it's incredibly erotic. And she is capable of that. It's not part of her image now, but that sensuality is part of who she is.

There must be something in her that likes to make a powerful impression in 15 minutes. Whereas Stanwyck is the lead in all of her movies. Really the only Stanwyck movie that is similar to Vanessa's is "Executive Suite" where Stanwyck is in it for 15 minutes.

Vanessa's film career is wayward. The theatre career is less so. The theatre career is incredible, and I don't think people are as aware of how much she has done, and how much of the classic repertoire she has tackled. She's done it all practically. Shakespeare, Chekhov, Ibsen, Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward. As I say, I don't think Eugene O'Neill does much for her. She's stayed away from Edward Albee. I think, again, that's a temperament thing. She's wonderful for Tennessee Williams, she's wonderful for romantic material. Edward Albee is anti-romantic. So Maggie Smith would be great for Albee, not Vanessa.

When I mention "The Lady from the Sea", the Ibsen play she did on Broadway in the 1970s, people who saw it go on and on about it and say it was one of the greatest experiences they ever had in the theatre. There must have been something about that performance that was very special and that was in the midst of all the troubles with the Workers Revolutionary Party that she was giving this great performance.

From her vast filmography, if you had to pick a couple of roles that show Vanessa, what would they be?

"Second Serve." It is the most imaginative and the most intricate and beautiful. I think that and "Playing for Time". Both of which were television films. This really should be stressed: she was not getting hired at that period that much. Linda Yellen hired her for both of them, her two best performances. Linda Yellen hired her for both of them and had to put up with a lot of protests and nonsense because she hired Vanessa, and we owe her a lot for that. Those two roles are the best work she has ever done.  In the 1980s, she was in her 40s, she was very controversial. Meryl Streep was coming up, Jessica Lange, they were about 10 years younger, and they were getting all the lead parts in feature films. So Vanessa went to television. That's a golden period for her talent, from "Playing for Time" to "Howards End." You have "The Bostonians," "The Ballad of the Sad Cafe," you have her "Orpheus Descending" performance on stage. It was a very rich period.

Past "Howards End," past 1990—and you can see this in a lot of people's careers—the older actresses, if you look at Ellen Burstyn's filmography, or Gena Rowlands, or Vanessa—in the 80s, they were making one film a year, one film every two years, but then past 1990, they start making 4 or 5 films a year. You can make 5 films a year if you're on the set for only three days. Of course you have to be a very dedicated enthusiast to follow Vanessa point to point like that but it's very worthwhile to do that with her.

There's one recent film of hers that slipped through the cracks: "The Fever," which is based on a Wallace Shawn monologue that he has performed himself. It played very briefly on HBO in 2004. It was directed by her son Carlo Nero, and it's very personal for her. The way Wallace Shawn did it, the ironies were fully present and you can see the irony. What's wonderful about the way Vanessa did it is that the ironies actually come out stronger because she's not playing the irony. She plays it with total sincerity. Vanessa has been haunted all her life by altruism and by trying to be humble and that's what "The Fever" is about. There's a wonderful tension with this very rich text and it's very much worthwhile if you can find it.

I loved the comparison you made to Brando which was not immediately apparent to me, but it's totally obvious now. The imagination and risks they took as actors.

And they don't even see them as risks.

There's that great Stella Adler quote: "Sending Marlon Brando to acting class was like sending a tiger to jungle school."  They both had phenomenal instincts.

What's amazing about Brando and Redgrave is that they both started at such a high level. They left everybody else down on the earth as they shot right up. What's different about them, though, is that he got discouraged. She, heroically, has never gotten discouraged. Maybe in moments in her personal life she has, but it's never shown in her work. She is still doing great work. She may care too much sometimes, but that's the key: She still cares.

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