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Vanessa Redgrave

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Were she not such a famous actor, were she not such a striking beauty, had she not come from such esteemed theatrical stock, Vanessa Redgrave would be diagnosed as one of those dotty English ladies of indeterminate age who wears cardigan sweaters sagging under the weight of accumulated protest buttons, lives in a ramshackle house pasted over with political stickers, and raises thousands of pounds each year for eccentric pet projects such as schools that teach very young children how to swim.

As it happens, though, Redgrave — the daughter of actors Michael Redgrave and Rachel Kempson, the sister of actor Lynn Redgrave, the mother of actors Natasha and Joely Richardson, the luminous performer from Blowup, Morgan, Camelot, Isadora, Howards End, and Julia (for which she won an Oscar in 1978) — is a star dotty English lady. She’s also a noisy and passionate one, a controversial and indefatigable one, at times a bloody foolish and annoying one. All of which, God bless freedom of speech, is her inalienable right. What’s unforgivable about Vanessa Redgrave, however, is that in writing her autobiography primarily to defend her political opinions, this fiery student of radicalism — a Socialist Labour League member who hates Zionism, loves Yasir Arafat and the PLO, and has, over the past 30-some years, agitated about Hungary, Kenya, Suez, Cuba, Vietnam, Israel, Lebanon, Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union, Ireland, Iran, Iraq, and Bosnia — this firebrand keeps hammering us with her politics, strident and unsmiling, until the less than committed reader wants to cry Curtain!

Don’t. Stick with it, bear up under sentences that go ”Cuba showed how the rest of the Caribbean and Latin America might liberate millions from the starvation and poverty of the ‘free market’ system, controlled and policed from the giant skyscrapers of Wall Street, the domes of Washington, and the sprawling military bases.” You can just catch sight of a steely, idiosyncratic woman whose then husband (the late director Tony Richardson) fell out of love with her and in love with Jeanne Moreau; whose children (including Carlo Nero, her son with Italian actor Franco Nero) cried with loneliness as their mother zigzagged the world with political delegations; and who at times was quite / distant from her sister and her parents (but close to her brother, Corin, who shares her activism). Squint, and you can just make out the private woman beneath the public agitator who, in her Oscar acceptance speech, horrified many by denouncing the ”Zionist hoodlums” who, she claimed, were protesting her appearance. Study the text closely, and you’ll learn just why Redgrave is such a big fan of schools that teach very young children to swim.

But don’t squint too closely. Perfectly willing to analyze and intellectualize (she spends a fair number of pages describing the evolution of her acting theories and techniques), Redgrave shies from revealing any emotions about her personal life nearly as intense as those she feels for, say, Palestinians. Here, for instance, she describes the thrill of seeing a uterine scan of her first grandchild-to-be, Joely’s daughter, Daisy: ”Today…scientists and engineers create extraordinary technology to guide and preserve the development of the human species. Meanwhile governments pursue policies that have already led to a worldwide economic disaster, with catastrophic social and ecological consequences.” And mazel tov to you, too, Mrs. Richardson.

One of the admirable qualities of dotty English ladies is that they don’t give a hoot what you think about them. It is to Redgrave’s credit (and talent) that she continues to mix outstanding professional work with unceasing activism in causes she believes in, even at the price of popularity. I’ll continue to seek out her performances. But please, please, don’t make me buy one of her lapel pins. C