Vanessa Redgrave tells all in new book

January 01, 1995|By New York Times News Service

In the 30 years since Vanessa Redgrave first dazzled Americans as the loopy rich girl ditching an impossible husband in "Morgan!", this English actress often seemed to be living at cross-purposes. She would win raves for her performances, then lose jobs with her support for unpopular causes.

In the late 1980s, she became a shadow in newspapers and magazines by demanding that reporters agree not to ask her about politics, as if there were two Vanessa Redgraves whose passions remained strangers, perhaps enemies.

But in her recent "Vanessa Redgrave: An Autobiography" (Random House), Ms. Redgrave says she has come to see her commitments as a river that does not so much divide as nourish her.

"I thought long ago that life was more categorized, more compartmentalized, and that was wrong," she said in a recent interview in New York that began over lunch and continued at her dressing room in the Union Square Theater, where she is appearing with Eileen Atkins in "Vita and Virginia."

At 57, Ms. Redgrave remains intriguing. Daughter of the actors Sir Michael Redgrave and Rachel Kempson, sister of Lynn Redgrave and mother of Natasha and Joely Richardson, she was hailed as "the greatest actress of the English-speaking theater" by Tennessee Williams.

Others have praised the originality and raw truth of her performances, whether she is portraying the hump-backed 17th-century Ursuline nun of smoldering, frustrated hungers in Ken Russell's film "The Devils," or the insecure wife of a Southern bigot in Tennessee Williams' "Orpheus Descending."

As much as she has been praised for her acting, Ms. Redgrave has been scorned for her radical politics. She has run for Parliament several times as a Trotskyist, never gathering more than a few hundred votes, on a platform that included nationalization of major industries without compensation and that warned that a Conservative victory in the 1970s would lead bTC to dictatorship and concentration camps in England.

But it has been her fervent anti- Zionism that has done the most to keep her off American stages.

In 1977, she sold both her houses to finance a documentary about the Palestine Liberation Organization in Lebanon, which showed her dancing with a Kalashnikov rifle.

Later, she sought a cultural boycott that would have banned British actors from performing in the Jewish state or having their work shown there. As the war in the Persian Gulf erupted, she made yet more enemies by calling the unsettled Arab dispute with Israel -- then enduring the Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's repeated Scud attacks without retaliation -- the source of "all conflicts in the Middle East."

Ms. Redgrave's book suggests an evolution in her priorities and some of her positions that coincides with major progress in struggles with which she has identified in the past. Among these, she counts the end of apartheid in South Africa, the peace talks on Northern Ireland and the start of an accord between Palestinians and Israelis.

She said she wrote the book in part because she received too much mail to answer personally, from students and aspiring actors seeking advice.

The book is a patchwork of snippets from her private life and recollections about different roles she has played, which give way to lengthy passages about her political sense and involvement in different causes.

In a sense, it is as if the actress took E.M. Forster's plea -- "only connect" -- to heart, and the two words eclipsed all other possible views of the world around her.

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