‘I’d considered what needed to be said,’ says acting’s Pasionaria; ‘I wouldn’t retract a word’
Vanessa Redgrave, 41, won this year’s Marlon Brando Award for Most Inappropriate Oscar Acceptance Speech (and enlivened an otherwise ponderous 50th Academy Awards ceremony) with two words—”Zionist hoodlums.” Her dialectical immaterial-ism puzzled a worldwide audience of over 200 million viewers who were unaware of the effigy-burning Jewish Defense League demonstration outside. The characterization also offended screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky (“a simple thank-you would have sufficed,” he told the same audience), Israel’s supporters and many of her peers who despite political pressures had voted Redgrave Best Supporting Actress for Julia. Henry Winkler, Jack Nicholson, Debbie Reynolds and others later defended her right to have her say, but many, including Charlton Heston, Shirley MacLaine and Richard Dreyfuss thought she was out of line.
“An actor has a public responsibility to speak the truth,” declares Redgrave, unrepentant, although last fall she had asserted, “It makes nonsense of both to mix movies with politics.” It was just that volatile combination that led to the protest in the first place: her tendentious, two-and-a-half-hour documentary, The Palestinians, that Redgrave had helped finance by selling her house and moving to a smaller one.
That film was not up for an Oscar, and after walking off stage with the statuette she did earn, Vanessa bravely (or blithely) table-hopped at the Academy banquet. Then within 48 hours she was back in London stumping for a fellow Trotskyite, her younger (39) brother Corin in his race for Parliament on the Workers Revolutionary ticket. Vanessa herself has run twice and lost handily. On the soapbox for Corin she made her Oscar remarks seem restrained, labeling Israel a “racist state” founded on “exploitation and elimination of every basic right of Arabs and Oriental Jews.” Despite her recent notoriety, only 40-odd working-class supporters showed up in the large hall, and they were not exactly turned on by the Redgraves’ concentration on ideology to the exclusion of bread-and-butter issues. A collection at the end took in less than $16.
The family was political long before Vanessa. Their father, Sir Michael (at 70 now a titan of the theatrical establishment), was banned by the BBC briefly for support of the Red-leaning People’s Convention four decades ago. Her mother, actress Rachel Kempson, 67, says her own father, as headmaster of the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth, blew his chance for knighthood because of such egalitarian reforms as admitting working-class boys. At 14 Vanessa espoused Communism in school debates because it “seemed to be the most interesting party.” (Only kid sister Lynn, 35, who now performs out of New York, is apolitical.) Powerfully affected by the Hungarian and Suez crises in 1956, Vanessa had become a prominent activist by the ban-the-bomb and anti-Vietnam rallies of the ’60s. Her movie and Royal Shakespearean stage careers bloomed at the same time.
Vanessa’s romantic style is similarly unconventional. She married director Tony Richardson, made movies like The Sailor from Gibraltar with him, divorced him on the grounds of his adultery with Jeanne (Jules and Jim) Moreau after five years of marriage and two daughters—and then continued to work with him. In 1969 she simultaneously announced that she was pregnant with Italian actor Franco Nero’s child and was disinclined to marry. She lost a fourth child, also Nero’s, in 1970. “Either somebody’s nice to live with or they’re not,” says Vanessa, who’s lately found a series of younger men nice.
She and her three children dwell in a modest semidetached townhouse, with a tiny front garden, in a bourgeois west London neighborhood. Daughters Natasha, 14, and Joely Kim, 13, attend private school—counter to Trotskyite creed—and have inherited the acting bug. Carlo, 8, is leaning toward archeology, and Mum sometimes takes him to museums and excavation sites. The children spend vacations with their dads. Redgrave is currently filming a World War II romance, Yanks. (“I thought about firing her when I heard what she said,” observes producer Lester Persky, “but that would be suppression of free speech.”)
Her mother, quashing stories that Vanessa is in the family doghouse, declares: “It’s rather wonderful to have beliefs. I wish my own were stronger. Vanessa does sometimes get lost,” Mum adds, “but it’s because she’s a woman and so passionate.” Is Vanessa content, amid all this turmoil? Lady Redgrave cites her daughter’s reassurance: “You musn’t worry. I am happy because I have a purpose and I believe in it.”