BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Redgraves’

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By Donald Spoto
Crown Archetype, $26, 361 pages, illustrated

Near the end of his comprehensive look at one of Britain’s great acting clans, Donald Spoto quotes its most famous — or notorious — member, Vanessa Redgrave, speaking with characteristic plainness:

“Interviewers continue to ask about the Redgrave dynasty. ‘But we are not a dynasty,’ Vanessa replies quietly. ‘We are a family.’”

As Mr. Spoto demonstrates, they are very much both, and his family saga is nicely balanced between their achievements on stage and screen and their private lives, many of which in their way are as extraordinary as the familial talent for drama. But even as he is himself echoing Vanessa’s denial of their dynastic status, he is affirming it:

“Daisy Scudamore married Roy Redgrave; Michael Redgrave married Rachel Kempson; Vanessa Redgrave married Tony Richardson and later Franco Nero; Corin Redgrave married Kika Markham; Lynn Redgrave married John Clark; Natasha Richardson married Robert Fox and later Liam Neeson; Joely Richardson married Tim Bevan; Carlo Nero married Jennifer Wiltsie.”

If you add the missing begats amid all those marriages, you see that progressive enrichment of DNA through affinity for dramatic talents when it came to spouses produced so stellar a family group that perhaps only that fraught word quite fits the bill.

Anyone who has seen the members of this family do their family thing of acting will know the varied yet always unique qualities they bring to their roles. Mr. Spoto, who has written many theatrical biographies, has a deep appreciation for what they have achieved in their professional lives. In addition, he was fortunate enough, in the course of researching earlier books, to make the acquaintance of Rachel Kempson, Lady Redgrave, considerably more understated than her husband or progeny but a fine actress nonetheless. She also seems to be the one member of the tribe most of us would like to know.

Mr. Spoto reminds us that when it comes to acting, even such firebrand activists as Corin and Vanessa, strident as they were in their political activities, were not just amazingly talented but quietly professional in their method. He quotes director Fred Zinnemann, notoriously difficult to please on set, who directed Vanessa in her Oscar-winning performance in “Julia”:

“’Vanessa is not the kind of actor who withdraws into some mystic trance and wanders off looking for inspiration before a scene,’ said Zinnemann, who had directed her cameo as Anne Boleyn in ‘A Man for All Seasons.’ ‘She simply comes onto the set when the camera is ready and plays the scene, and you don’t even know she is acting — she is simply BEING this other person. I have rarely worked with anyone so gifted.’”

It is salutary to be reminded of the sheer talent that makes her worthy of her celebrity amid all the cacophony surrounding her political controversies.

As befits a work like this, Mr. Spoto generally avoids being outright judgmental in his discussion of Corin’s and Vanessa’s left-wing pronouncements and activities, choosing instead simply to chronicle them and the reactions they elicited. He tries to set apart from her pro-Palestinian stance her notorious outburst at the Academy Awards against “Zionist hoodlums,” intimating the slur was directed at specific protesters. In view of what he himself presents about her attitudes, this is questionable. There is no doubt as to the consequences of her action, however:

“‘Hollywood turned its back on her,’ said Meryl Streep . ‘And the repercussions to her career were catastrophic.’”

Yet she had some surprising champions:

“Charlton Heston, for one, sprang to her defense: ‘Vanessa is openly blacklisted because of her anti-Zionist connections. The film and theatre communities should be ashamed of that.’”

Mr. Spoto’s transparent method of letting others speak works well, but he also has subtle ways of getting his own views through, as in his account of the origin of “Julia.” Here his use of the word “story” to describe the work by Lillian Hellman on which it is based is amplified by a dry but unmistakable account of Hellman’s dishonest appropriation of another woman’s life. Similarly, his sympathetic account of Michael Redgrave’s and Tony Richardson’s divided sexual orientation nonetheless leaves no doubt as to the anguish this caused both themselves and their families.

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