Roger Ebert Home

Book Excerpt: Vanessa: The Life of Vanessa Redgrave by Dan Callahan

The Devils regular contributor Dan Callahan has written a book about the legendary Vanessa Redgrave and was kind enough to share an excerpt in advance of its May 15th release date. Head over to to pre-order your copy and check out this history of Ken Russell's controversial "The Devils."

"The Devils" (1971) is clearly the best or at least most presentable film directed by the reliably outrageous Ken Russell, and Redgrave herself thinks highly of it, ranking it in her memoir with "The Charge of the Light Brigade" as the two chief works of genius in the postwar British cinema. That might say something about the postwar British cinema more than the relative merit of these two movies, but her view is understandable. Pregnant with a second child by Franco Nero, Redgrave took on the role of the hunchback Sister Jeanne, a nun who causes a wave of sexual hysteria in 1634 France. She accepted the part only after Russell’s usual star of this time, Glenda Jackson, turned him down because she didn’t want to go mad and take off her clothes again for Ken so soon after their labors on "The Music Lovers" (1971), a sensationally vulgar attempt on the life of Tchaikovsky. "The Devils" would not be as potent a film if Jackson had played Sister Jeanne in her usual hard-bitten style.

Redgrave brings the role a romantic obsessiveness as well as a quite unexpected wicked humor, both of which she somehow manages to keep in perfect balance.

“I wrote the script,” Russell said. “John Whiting wrote the play The Devils, which was done with Robert Johnson and Dorothy Tutin. There was a book by Aldous Huxley, Grey Eminence, a study of Richelieu’s adviser Pere Joseph. Both were inspirations, especially the book. The background of all the events was so well-documented. The dialogue in the play was also excellent. So I amalgamated the two.”

"The Devils" is certainly the best-written of all Russell’s films, the most disciplined, the only one that can claim a real horror at how twisted human beings can become. He makes a few mistakes, especially in falsely portraying Louis XIII (Graham Armitage) as a woman-hating homosexual who, in the first scene, does a “Venus on the Half-Shell” routine for Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue), but Russell seems inspired by Derek Jarman’s extremely suggestive sets, especially the convent, which resembles a vast black-and-white bathhouse.

“I know originally they had them looking for medieval times in France, to shoot on location,” said Redgrave. “And I remember vividly that when I heard we’d be shooting in Pinewood studios, I had a sinking stomach and thought, ‘Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.’ But of course, when I saw Derek Jarman’s designs I knew that we were into something really extraordinary because Ken and he obviously had a very, very marvelous synthesis going between the links with the white tiles that meld with the meticulous costumes of the court and so on.”

“All detail is sacrificed to scale as I want the sets as large as possible, and as forceful as the sets from an old silent,” wrote Jarman in his journal "Dancing Edge." “We started filming after months of preparation. The great white city is nearly complete on the lot and has become a tourist attraction. You could almost pay for it with visitors’ fees. It cost £97,000.

“Rushes are like bingo,” Jarman wrote. “Each of us votes for a favorite—one, two, three, four, or whatever. Ken sits at the back with the lighting cameraman, [David] Watkin, who usually gets his way. Watkin, who always wears plimsolls, reminds me of a bad-tempered sportsmaster. One expects him to take out a whistle and blow it. He doesn’t like me very much, probably because everyone calls me ‘the artist,’ and the sets, rather than his lighting, are the continual topic of conversation.” During a row about the sets, Jarman thought that Russell was like “the mad empress from some B-movie—waving his cane, his long hair flowing, wearing a smock and enormous rings on every finger.”

“Why have you left your devotions?” asks Redgrave’s Sister Jeanne of her fellow nuns, making her first entrance into the film with her head crooked to the right as she schleps into view. Redgrave chooses to let out a high, completely disconnected laugh in between some of Sister Jeanne’s orders to her charges, and this feels very Off-Off-Broadway, or like something from a comic sketch, yet she is able to pull you right back into the seriousness of this woman’s demented, feverish existence. Sister Jeanne speaks ill of “sen-soo-al delights,” with Redgrave caressing the first word (for she is the most sensual of actresses), and then naughtily fondling a key. She makes for a highly disturbing and funny madwoman.

This nun is the very picture of disbelieving cynicism when she receives Madeleine (Gemma Jones) behind the bars of the convent’s front door. “You have the face of a virgin martyr in a picture book, very pious,” Redgrave sneers, making the “p” in “picture” land with contemptuous force. “Downcast eyes,” she continues, gazing at the girl with a hard, amused expression on her face. “Hiding what? Virtue, or lechery?”

Redgrave is certainly one of the least cynical people possible in her public life, but she is able to imagine a kind of cynicism unto madness for this wretched and lethal Mother Superior. She keeps this woman’s opposing qualities in play without once descending into caricature or one-note satire. Sister Jeanne tells Madeleine that most of the women in the order are only there because they are unmarriageable girls. This is the one scene where Sister Jeanne seems fully aware of her situation and fully able to laugh at it, in her habitual way, as if she’s sneering at the God who gave her a pretty face and a hump on her back to go with it.

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.

“God bless you,” Sister Jeanne says to Madeleine as the girl goes. Uttering just these three words, Redgrave rapidly gives them a contemptuous feeling, as if Sister Jeanne is following a familiar impulse for derision, but then she dims the contempt within a split second until we see and hear Sister Jeanne’s disappointment, and even her wish that she might believe these words. The kaleidoscopic quality of this woman’s madness allows Redgrave to give virtuosically blended line readings like this. Not one choice followed by another, as another highly skilled actress might have managed, but several choices all at once expressing the roiling mess of this woman’s mind and soul.

Redgrave had a miscarriage of her second child by Nero during the filming of "The Devils." It would have been a boy. In one of the most touching sections of her autobiography, she wrote that she buried the dead baby under a bush that would flower in the spring. And then she went back to the set to enact her character’s huge anger and even larger longing. Sister Jeanne stares at her beloved priest Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed) and then has a hallucination where her wimple is off so that we see her long red hair as she cleans his feet with her tongue. He discovers her hump, and she screams, “Don’t look at me! Don’t look at me!” and then, “I’m beautiful! I’m beautiful!” What could be merely a camp sneer at her character, as it might have been in just about any other Russell movie, comes across as upsetting and deeply humiliating because Redgrave is so in touch with her own inner freak and so empathizes with Sister Jeanne’s cursed freakishness. In scenes like this, Redgrave is very close to Katharine Hepburn at her best, and she’s even more lyrical in the midst of the kind of bold, filthy, sexual material that Hepburn would never have touched in her time.

Speaking of the film’s blasphemous imagery, persistent Russell critic Alexander Walker said, “It looked like the masturbation fantasies of a Roman Catholic boyhood.” Walker was later bopped on the head with a newspaper by Russell on TV after the critic unfavorably reviewed the film. “Where is love?” asks Reed’s pregnant mistress as he casts her aside, and it’s a question that haunts "The Devils," a vision of hell on earth that Russell does not spoil with his usual boy-like need to shock and go too far. “It’s about the degradation of religious principles,” Russell said of the film. “And about a sinner who becomes a saint.” He films heaps of human corpses and barbaric medical remedies with an austere kind of outrage much removed from the relentless jokiness of his other work.

"The Devils" almost has an air of Hermann Hesse’s best novels as it opens a barely stylized window on a particular time and place. Working on the film, Redgrave said, “It was fairly exhausting, but it had its moments of hilarity.” Especially amusing to her was the scene where she had to spew “endless mouthfuls of Heinz vegetable soup” out of her mouth when Sister Jeanne is made to vomit out her devils. She spoke up for her character with sharp psychological acuity. “It’s only my own opinion, but I think that it was a sort of continually changing texture and combination of contradictions running through her. I’m sure the wet dreams that she must have had made her feel intensely guilty, and she probably went into denial and placed her own longings onto the other, outside herself. It’s a very common mechanism that happens in those kinds of situations.”

Sister Jeanne leads the sisters in prayer and has another hallucination about Grandier where he comes down off the cross as a substitute for Christ. When she learns that Grandier has married Madeleine, Sister Jeanne bites down hard on her crucifix and lashes out at Madeleine when she returns to the convent gate. Meanwhile, Richelieu wants to pull down the town’s fortifications to quell Protestant rebellion and Grandier rails against this. Sister Jeanne’s embittered talk of devils possessing her through Grandier’s form are eventually taken up by Richelieu as a political ploy, and her confused accusations against Grandier are capitalized on by the insane Father Pierre Barre (played by an actor named Michael Gothard, who might have been cast by Russell for his name alone).

Everyone laughs at Sister Jeanne when she is asked about her possession in front of a crowd of onlookers, and Redgrave is not able to hold on to our feelings in the sequence where Russell runs her nun through a gauntlet of sexual abuse at the hands of Barre and his minions. The “oh boy!” nastiness of the tone here feels too close to Russell’s worst impulses for sensationalism, but Redgrave’s sensuality is at its height when she describes bathing with her imagined lover “in a sea of stars” while stretching her body out on the ground of Jarman’s infernal lavatory set.

Russell is back to the more severe tone of the earlier scenes when Louis XIII enters and says that he can cure Sister Jeanne and her order with a box that supposedly contains a vial of Christ’s blood. After Sister Jeanne and the other nuns claim they have been cured by exposure to the box, Louis opens it up and reveals that it is empty, which makes Sister Jeanne laugh her most cynical laugh. It might be said that Redgrave’s outstanding performance in "The Devils" is a catalogue of Sister Jeanne’s laughter, which she cannot control and which exposes her in all her multi-leveled and violent humanity, in both her meanness and her suffering, which are sometimes intertwined and sometimes not.

The American release of "The Devils" saw the loss of the so-called “Rape of Christ” sequence, when the nuns defile a statue of Jesus. “In the end, Warners went bonkers and cut it,” Russell said. “They said I’d changed the script. I went through it line for line and it was exactly as I’d written it.” But what he had put on the screen was too disturbing for the studio brass.

The “Rape of Christ” sequence has never been shown in a complete cut of "The Devils," and it can only be glimpsed in documentaries about the making of the film. Sister Jeanne looks on as the nuns take down a statue of Christ, her face hard and suspicious as she licks the face of a man lying underneath her. The mad naked nuns dry-hump the statue in many inventive ways, and their cavorting is intercut with shots of Grandier taking communion. This juxtaposition is meant to show the contrast of Grandier’s growing faith with the utter depravity of the religious order. “They’ve been exploited to the point of absolute, total blasphemy of their religion,” said Russell, “and that’s what the authorities wanted, that’s what eventually led to the destruction of the city.”

Some of the girls who were extras really put themselves on the line. They were given the script and instructed to read the nude nun hysteria scenes, and if they felt unable to do them, they were told not to accept the job. Russell tried to lighten things up with naughty-boy antics. “Ken’s attitude to naked women is one of joy,” said actor Dudley Sutton. “They were dancing around naked in the rain and it was very cold, and Ken gave me a hairdryer and said, ‘Warm their tits when they come off!’” But a few of the girls just weren’t prepared for these scenes. Extra Lee Fyles said, “Some of the younger girls got rather upset with all that frenzy and all the things that were going on. Some of the men extras got carried away and they were pawed rather a bit, and I do remember a couple of them coming out crying.”

“A lot of the cut scenes were important to explain the trauma—especially the torment of Sister Jeanne in the convent,” Russell said. “There’s a scene where she pushes her deformed body through a tiny window to watch out for her fantasy lover. So much of the film is gone now that it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Every scene was important to balance the rest of the film.”

“The wilder scenes in the film are fueled with champagne, which sometimes arrives with breakfast,” wrote Jarman. “In the cathedral, Ken has a drum kit brought in and drums away loudly to whip up fervor.” Jarman disapproved of the “flip jokes” that sometime intrude on "The Devils" and all but dominate Russell’s other films. Before shooting the scene where the walls of the town are blown up, Russell inadvertently set off the explosives while the camera wasn’t running, and they had to wait ten days to rebuild the set and get the shot.

Reed often said that he never gave a better performance than as Grandier, especially in the final scenes, where he defends himself eloquently in court and gets his head shaved. The bullish actor really does outdo himself here, and he never had better lines to speak. After Grandier tells Sister Jeanne that her soul will be damned if she continues with her lying, the nun looks apprehensive, but when she tries to recant, Barre holds her in check with the promise of sex.

As Grandier is being driven to be burned at the stake, he sees Sister Jeanne one more time, a woman he barely knows, a woman who has condemned him to death, but a woman for whom he has a kind of compassion, even kinship, for he is as complicated as she is. He tries to reach out to her, but she just cries, “Devil! Devil!” This is the moment when "The Devils" attains a real tragic power.

Reed said that he had a hard time recovering from making "The Devils": “You see the film and it lasts for an hour and thirty minutes, but we were working on it for four months.” When Grandier came to be burned at the stake, Russell went for absolute realism. “The direction of the wind changed,” said Reed, “and Russell kept throwing petrol on the fire, and I really almost burned!”

Reed defended the film’s subject. “We weren’t trying to afford anybody proper niceties, any proper little entertainment,” he said. “We were showing them the bigotry that goes on and all that humanity is capable of. This is the way it happened—those nuns were used for political ends, toted around France as a side show for a year,” he said.

In her last scene, Sister Jeanne prays and seems tired-out after all the commotion. Given a bone from Grandier’s body, she uses it to masturbate, a scene that is also missing from the American cut of the film. The bone is made to look very much like a dildo, and Sister Jeanne lovingly kisses what look like the bone’s balls before stretching out on the floor and consummating her lust for Grandier with the last physical trace of his body.

“It’s a very, very terrifying sequence as written and naturally as filmed,” said Redgrave. “I don’t think it was done in anything that wasn’t simply an accounting of the pitiful, terrifying fact that Sister Jeanne took this bone and she was . . . fucking herself with it. I was quite frightened of the sequence, but at the same time I thought that it expresses in the most pitiful way the depths of her dementia and the depths of her need for . . . humanity.” The scene makes for a daring last note of perhaps the most daring performance from this most daring of actors.

“The Devils is my favorite amongst my feature films,” Russell said. “I think it has a lot more to say than the others, which were more or less just biographies. The Devils was about brainwashing, the manipulation of the masses and all that.”

Redgrave spoke out against the censorship of the finished work. “I think every director should have the right to show their film in the way they want it to be seen,” she said. “A film can’t be special without the conception of the story and the conception of the cinematography, the camera set-ups, the lighting of the environment, without it all coming together to make a single whole. And sometimes, even with wonderful people, they sometimes don’t succeed in making a single whole. And in the case of The Devils, I think all the people who took part in it around Ken, including the actors, did contribute to making a single whole, a masterpiece.” It was not a financial success in America in its cut version, but it has become a cult film that still creates controversy wherever it is shown, in whatever watered-down edit.

Redgrave realized that Russell had his ups and downs as a director. “The films Ken made were the work of a genius,” Redgrave insisted. “Sometimes his films were much less than genius. You can’t be a genius unless you’re tops and bottoms, I think.” As a risk-taker, she responded with alacrity to his terminal outrageousness.

Seeing the film again after forty years at a Lincoln Center screening during a Russell retrospective, Redgrave spoke afterwards with Russell on stage. “I am even more astonished now,” she said. “It’s like you took cinema into another world.” She then made reference to the movie’s “extraordinary images of the kind of brutal chaos that certainly happened at that time, and is still happening in other times.” Russell said in response, “That’s why I wanted to make it. I mean, I thought it was a tale that needed retelling every few years, because nothing changes.”

At the end of this first flurry of movie work, Redgrave won a third Best Actress Oscar nomination for "Mary, Queen of Scots" (1971), an unexceptional costume picture. The film pits Redgrave’s loose, lyrical Mary against Glenda Jackson’s tense, biting Elizabeth I, and it moves at a fast pace. In many ways this is Jackson’s movie, for Elizabeth is always the better part in this story, and when she is missing from the middle of the narrative her absence is keenly felt.

Jackson had just played Elizabeth to rave reviews in a TV series, "Elizabeth R." “I shot Mary, Queen of Scots after Elizabeth R,” says Jackson. “There was no link between them. The series was factual. They never met, Elizabeth and Mary Stuart never met. The series and the film weren’t comparable in that way, if you see what I mean.

“I think the reason I did it was the opportunity to work with Vanessa,” says Jackson. “She’s terribly shortsighted, so I don’t think she ever actually sees the people she’s working with, which makes it a fascinating process, actually, and it’s one of the reasons why I think she’s so marvelous. She is so concentrated, and that concentration and that energy she has, both people can use it. I had met her before, though not working with her. We were in the same studio, though on different films, in the past.”

Asked if she can define what makes Redgrave special, the no-nonsense Jackson demurs. “Oh, that’s an impossible question to answer,” she says. “I mean, obviously, talent. I mean, how do you define it? She’s just great. No, no, come on, I did one scene with her in a crappy film, you know, so no, you can’t make assessments like that. Her record is her work and the quality of her work.”

Redgrave had broken with Nero after a quarrel over taking Carlo to visit Tony Richardson with her daughters. “The Redgraves were quite an imposing family,” Nero said. “But our relationship was damaged by her friends; they were enemies to me.” Nero at that time wanted an Italian housewife like his own mother, and Redgrave was certainly not going to be that for any man. But there were other problems, too. “You are a fanatic in your politics, and you are ruining your life!” Nero told her.

Timothy Dalton, who played the sybaritic, bisexual Lord Darnley with Redgrave in "Mary, Queen of Scots," soon made a tempestuous match with her off-screen. He was a severe critic of her work, but she knew that if he ever paid her a compliment it really meant something.

One of their first arguments was a five-to-six-hour marathon on what Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech might mean. Dalton provoked and challenged her, and she responded to that. They would fight and break up and get back together again for most of the 1970s and 1980s.

In "Mary, Queen of Scots," Redgrave makes sure that we can feel how flighty and pampered Mary is, and the role suits her out-of-it queenliness. In 1936, Katharine Hepburn had been stuck in this part in John Ford’s "Mary of Scotland," and she was as well cast as Redgrave, but both actresses, fine as they are, can do nothing to add much interest to a woman who always seems muddleheaded in any telling of this oft-told tale. “I never cared for Mary,” wrote Hepburn in her autobiography. “I thought she was a bit of an ass.”

Late in life, Redgrave said, “I loved playing Mary, Queen of Scots, because she was a historical heroine of mine and I loved learning a song that she wrote. I learnt to play the mandolin just for that. You could read Mary like your hand. She was very open. Mary led from the heart and Elizabeth was forced by circumstances to lead from her head, at a great cost to herself. But Elizabeth managed, for her country, to survive under great difficulties.” Redgrave’s mind seems to be elsewhere a lot of the time in this film, and Mary’s wavering motivations sometimes feel foggy because clearer acting choices haven’t been made in some scenes. "Mary, Queen of Scots" marked a break in her film work.

“I had continued to act because I didn’t know what else to do and I had to earn my living,” Redgrave said. “To continue to act without being able to make a decision about the political way forward was useless. I became to a certain extent paralyzed in trying to fight to find some political answers.” Her activism against the Vietnam War had won her many enemies who sent her nasty letters. “The minute you realize it is a poison pen letter, put it down immediately,” she told her sister-in-law Deirdre. “If you read on, the disgusting threats and abuse somehow stick in your mind, no matter how crazy you know the people are who wrote them.”

In the autumn of 1971, while in Los Angeles for a brief run of Berlioz’s "Béatrice et Bénédict" with the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra, Redgrave helped to organize a GI antiwar newspaper called PEACE and gave her support to striking schoolteachers. Due to her protests against the Vietnam War, she was unable to get a multiple-entry visa to the US and was branded a member of the Communist Party. “I wouldn’t be a Communist for the world,” she said at the time. “If there was a decent Communist party, I’d be in it—but there isn’t one.”

Charlton Heston was able to get Redgrave a work visa to play with him in LA in "Macbeth" in 1974, and Tony Richardson got her one to play in New York in "The Lady from the Sea" in 1976, but Redgrave was not able to get a multiple-entry visa to the US until 1985, the same year, coincidentally or not, that the Workers Revolutionary Party fell apart.

“I’d known of the Workers Revolutionary Party, because even before I’d been an MP I’d been engaged in the political life of my country and also the politics of my union, Equity,” says Glenda Jackson. “So we all knew about the WRP. They were hardly hiding their views. I was never as far to the left as they were.”

Dan Callahan

Dan Callahan is the author of "Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman" and "Vanessa: The Life of Vanessa Redgrave." He has written for "New York Magazine," "Film Comment," "Sight and Sound," "Time Out New York," "The L Magazine," and many other publications. Read his answers to our Movie Love Questionnaire here.

Latest blog posts

Latest reviews

Inside Out 2
Ultraman: Rising
Just the Two of Us


comments powered by Disqus