The New Direction Of Vanessa Redgrave
On the day she was born, her father, renowned actor Michael Redgrave, was appearing on stage in Shakespeare's "Hamlet." During the curtain call, the show's lead, Laurence Olivier proclaimed "tonight a great actress has been born."
Well, Vanessa Redgrave has certainly lived up to that great expectation. She has won many awards, including two Emmys, a Tony and an Oscar. But when 60 Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace first profiled her in 1979, she was just as famous, or infamous, for her politics. Her vocal anti-Zionism and fervent support of the Palestinian cause nearly wrecked her career. That was almost 30 years ago.
Redgrave is 70 years old now and she seems busier than ever. She is starring on Broadway in a one-woman play called "The Year of Magical Thinking."
It is the story of how author-turned-playwright Joan Didion tried to cope with the unthinkable – the deaths of her grown daughter and her husband.
On opening night, there was a standing ovation for the star and the playwright, a far cry from a different opening nearly 30 years ago.
At a Los Angeles movie theater, in 1978, there was a bombing and protests. The furor was sparked by a documentary called "The Palestinian," a film produced and bankrolled by Vanessa Redgrave.
"Many people were outraged. You remember what your reaction was?" Wallace asks.
"I didn't know why people were outraged to see a film about the Palestinians," she replies.
Perhaps it was a scene where she danced, wielding a Kalashnikov rifle. Fueling the controversy were her frequent, inflammatory remarks in support of the PLO, and her condemnation of Israel and Zionism.
"Zionism is a brutal, racist ideology. And it is a brutal racist regime," Redgrave said.
Comments like that outraged Jewish groups and left a deep impression which, in some circles, dogs her to this day and prompted this exchange:
"When I tell various New Yorkers that I'm gonna be sitting down with you, you would be fascinated by the various reactions. 'You're gonna be sitting down with Vanessa Redgrave.' Or 'That woman who hates Jews?'" Wallace remarks.
"I don't believe anyone said that to you. 'Cause even those who wouldn't agree with my views wouldn't say that of me," she replies.
"Why not?" Wallace asks.
"Because they know it's a million miles from the truth," Redgrave says.
That surely would have been a tough sell back then.
In 1979 she appeared in a different film, "Julia," in which she played an anti-fascist helping Jews escape the Nazi regime. But when she was nominated for an Academy Award, some Jewish groups demanded her nomination be dropped. On Oscar night, there were more protests. But Redgrave won the award and made some controversial remarks.
"At the Academy Awards in 1978 you know what you said. Let me repeat it, if I may. 'You should be very proud that in the last few weeks you stood firm and you have 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.'
Remember saying it?" Wallace asks Redgrave.
"Yeah. Do you remember what I added to it, also?" she says.
"Please tell me," Wallace says.
"Well, I said that. And I pledged myself to fight anti-Semitism and fascism for the rest of my life," Redgrave says. "And I think I have."
The Palestinian cause was just one focus of her various political beliefs. She marched with unemployed workers in Italy, and back home in Britain she played a leading role in the leftist, militant Worker's Revolutionary Party.
She ran for a seat in Parliament, and on election night the numbers told the story. Her Labour Party opponent, George Martin Morton, had 12,556 votes; Redgrave 394.
Despite the loss, the revolutionary Vanessa Redgrave marched on.
"Do you see the Worker's Revolutionary Power coming to power barring armed insurrection? Truly?" Wallace asked back in 1979.
"Barring armed insurrection?" Redgrave replies.
"Without," Wallace says.
"Well, it isn't the Worker's Revolutionary Party that comes to power, it's the working class that takes power. It needs an instrument for that," Redgrave says.
"Do you see that happening barring, without armed insurrection?" Wallace asks.
"No," Redgrave replies. "The working class is going to have to take power through armed insurrection."
Wallace follows up today, and asks "And did they?".
"Yes. I would say that happened in 1989 when the wall in Berlin was torn down and millions went out into the streets all over Europe. That was workers. That was all kinds of people," she says.
"You have lost a few roles, I understand. Have had several theatrical engagements cancelled…found yourself in financial straits even, because of your politics, because of your activism. Was it worth it?" Wallace asks.
"I think that it's always worth to stand by some basic principles," says Redgrave. "So if I've lost some roles because somebody, some distributor didn't like my politics, that's par for the course, as they used to say."
She went on to make dozens of what she calls "lovely" films, like the period drama "Howard's End," but she did not appear in any Hollywood blockbusters for years, until 1996, when she was cast in "Mission Impossible."
"I played a British arms dealer, which I was delighted to do," Redgrave says.
Asked why, Redgrave says, "Because it broke the convention that only shady foreign types go in for arms dealing. …So I was very pleased to play a rather wicked lady who was an arms dealer and British."
Here in New York, Wallace and Redgrave talked for a long time, and they took a few breaks. During one of the breaks, Redgrave stopped to smoke a cigarette.
Wallace questions her about it: "Why you, damn fool?"
"'Cause I'm an addict, that's why," she replies, laughing. "But I try to cut it out. And I don't when I'm around places."
"How much do you smoke?" Wallace asks.
"That's my business. I smoke a lot," Redgrave says. "But I cut down when I'm working. So it's my problem. Big problem."
Candor is one of Redgrave's virtues, patience another. Take the case of her nearly half-century romance with Italian actor Franco Nero. They married just five months ago, on New Year's Eve.
"Why bother?" Wallace asks.
"Well, we've known each other for about 40 years," Redgrave says. "We've loved each other. He's been calling me his wife. I always liked that."
"It was a ceremony of respect and love with the family and some very close friends and dancing and grandchildren. It was wonderful," she says.
"To look at your face, it's quite apparent you feel that way still," Wallace remarks.
"I think after 40 years you know who you love and respect. And I do love and respect him very, very much," she says.
Love, marriage and children. Between them, she and Franco have three children: their son, Carlo, a director, and her two daughters from a previous marriage, Joely and Natasha Richardson, both actresses.
And then there is Vanessa's sister, actress Lynn Redgrave. They've had public disagreements in the past, mostly over Vanessa's politics. Here's what Lynn Redgrave told Wallace back then:
"When her revolution comes, if it does, if I were in her way I'm sure she'd walk right over me, much as she might love me," she said. "It would upset her, I think, but, you know, onwards brothers, to the final goal. I think. That wouldn't surprise me at all."
Today, Lynn Redgrave says, "I regret now, not that I felt the way I did because I think I was justified at the time in feeling that way. What I regret is speaking about it."
"The two of you have been at odds from time to time," Wallace remarks to Vanessa Redgrave.
"No, years ago we are at odds," Vanessa Redgrave replies, laughing. "We've never been at odds since the last, I don't know, ten years."
In that time Lynn survived a battle with breast cancer.
"Did your illness bring you closer?" Wallace asks Lynn Redgrave.
"Incredibly close, you know? It's as sisters, I can't describe it except to tell it warms my heart. It warms my soul, and I love every minute with her," she replies.
"She's an immensely giving and generous person. I'm very lucky to have her as a sister," Vanessa Redgrave tells Wallace.
"And she, too, for you," Wallace remarks.
"I think she feels the same way, yes," says Redgrave.
"Ah…That's lovely," Lynn Redgrave reacts. "It is as good as it gets. And I know how lucky I am because – sisters aren't always so close, at any time in their life let alone at this later point."
At this later point, Vanessa Redgrave shows no signs of slowing down. She's up for another Tony Award for her role in "The Year of Magical Thinking." But one role you will not see her play anytime soon is that of retiree. Why?
"Because I can't afford to," she says.
"What do you mean you can't afford to?" Wallace asks.
"I mean I can't afford to," she replies. "How do I pay my mortgage?"
Redgrave has spent much of her own money on projects in which she truly believes. She made a film for UNICEF, for which she serves as a Goodwill Ambassador.
Age has not quieted her convictions, just given them new direction. No, Vanessa Redgrave has not given up on trying to change the world.
"I came to see that human rights and human rights law is the only basis for creating a world that my children, your children, our grandchildren can live in," she says.
Produced By Warren Lustig, Diane Beasley and Jeanne Langley
for more features.