An evening with Vanessa Redgrave and the Academy
LONDON - There was no shortage of stirring testaments from industry luminaries at last night’s vastly entertaining Academy salute to British acting titan Vanessa Redgrave at London’s Curzon Soho cinema, yet the moment that stopped my heart came long after the audience had filed out of the auditorium following the nearly three-hour presentation.
Nipping out to the foyer to catch some air, I was met with the sight of Redgrave herself, imperiously elegant in a pale gray dressmaker’s coat, purposefully raiding the ground floor café to find a chair for a rather special guest – legendary 98-year-old cinematographer Douglas Slocombe.
Returning with a stool, she eased the blind, crutch-dependent but still pin-sharp veteran of Ealing comedies and Indiana Jones films alike into his seat, crouching beside him and murmuring affectionately into his ear as we all waited for his car to arrive. Watching these two very different warhorses of British cinema sharing such an intimately mundane moment, 34 years after they worked together on “Julia,” was as moving a reflection of a passing cinematic generation as any of the night’s more formal AMPAS tributes.
Failing eyesight has prevented Slocombe doing any work since “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” in 1989 – not that he hadn’t already earned a restful retirement by then. Redgrave, of course, is as busy as she’s ever been. This year alone has seen her name adorn the credits of four releases, the last and best of which, Ralph Fiennes’s “Coriolanus,” will surely land the actress her seventh Oscar nomination come January – and quite possibly a second win too. Not content with that, she’s currently treading the West End boards eight times a week in a role than won an older British vet, Jessica Tandy, an Oscar over 20 years ago: cantankerous Southern widow Daisy Werthan in Alfred Uhry’s “Driving Miss Daisy.”
That Redgrave’s co-star in that revival, one James Earl Jones, was among the guest speakers, just one night after winning a Governors Award from the Academy that he couldn’t be in Los Angeles to accept, lent a nice sense of community to an already cosy evening: I was one of few journalists on hand for a night that was more about AMPAS celebrating their own than showing off to the wider world.
Just in case we needed a reminder who was staging this evening, a brief introduction was provided by former AMPAS president Sid Ganis – a face I confess I’m more used to seeing drawn and bleary-eyed on my TV screen for many an Oscar nomination morning, now looking as chipper as anyone who hasn’t been running the Academy this past week might well do.
From there on, however, the occasion wasn’t about anyone but Redgrave, as playwright, filmmaker and Oscar-nominated screenwriter David Hare took the reins with an individually selected series of clips from her filmography of over 100 titles, segueing to a loosely chatty onstage Q&A with the lady herself, before Meryl Streep, Ralph Fiennes, Jones, her daughter Joely Richardson and Eileen Atkins took to the podium in turn to offer wide-ranging personal reflections on the actress. (Jane Fonda and Redgrave’s son-in-law Liam Neeson offered video tributes.)
Hare’s selection of clips was unapologetically subjective (“They were chosen with a simple organizing principle: the ones I like most,” he grinned) and even a little self-serving: no “Isadora,” no “Howards End,” no vivid cameo in “Atonement,” though there was space for such oddities as “The Pledge” and “The Fever,” not to mention a lengthy and not especially Redgrave-focused extract from Hare’s own “Wetherby.”
Still, some of the more surprising clips proved effective exhibits in context: I’ve always loathed “Camelot,” but seeing her irony-inflected, thin-voiced rendition of “The Lusty Month of May” alongside the enigmatic sexual charisma she projected in Antonioni’s “Blow-Up” (“a human question mark,” as Hare aptly stated) brought home her defining modernity as a performer: beyond her status as a middle link in one of history’s great acting dynasties, Redgrave was a key figure in the transition between, and sometime marriage of, stage-oriented classicism and spiky New British Cinema. Small wonder, then, that she’s so at home in Fiennes’s assertively revisionist, but traditionally performed, take on Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus” – her Volumnia is a performance that encapsulates the stylistic malleability of her talents. “If a character is familiar, you can be sure Vanessa’s made her strange,” said Hare.
The Q&A and verbal testimonies were so spry and free-flowing that my transcription could hardly replicate the pleasure of listening to it, but a few gems made it into my notebook. I loved Redgrave’s admission that Cecil B. DeMille’s gloriously trashy Biblical epic “Samson and Delilah” was her chief inspiration in her youth, as she spent the money given her for ballet lessons on seeing the film six times in a row instead.
Similarly disarming was her memory of begging Michelangelo Antonioni to let her “be blonde like Monica Vitti” for “Blow-Up” to no avail. The striking star’s unconventional patrician beauty was clearly a source of professional insecurity early in her career; on working with director Joshua Logan on “Camelot,” her chief recollection was, “The fact that he’d directed Marilyn [Monroe, in “Bus Stop”] made me kind of worship him.” (Later, Eileen Atkins recalled Redgrave plaintively asking her, 50 years ago, “Why aren’t we film stars?” Atkins’s pithy response: “Because we have no tits.”)
Redgrave proved a delightful presence in person: warm, open, a touch diffident (“Are you as nervous as I am?” she interjected at one point with Hare, earning a round of applause) and knowingly daffy, with a bawdy side that few might expect. (It’s not every acting dame who’ll casually drop ruminations on her possible bisexuality into this kind of occasionally starchy event.) The political firebrand instincts that aroused so much ire around the time of her Oscar win in 1978 (search YouTube for her classic “Zionist hoodlums” speech) have long since mellowed into more modest forms of humanitarianism; she’ll be an engaging figure on the awards track this year.
As, of course, will Streep, who made her screen debut in “Julia” and whose hilarious, off-the-cuff speech to Redgrave proved once more that she has this kind of gig down to a fine art. Fluffy anecdotes about working with the older icon on that film (“You were talking about Trotsky, and I was concerned with how my hair looked in the movie”) and, three decades later, on the ill-fated “Evening” (offering the pleasing mental image of the two actresses smoking up a storm and downing a pitcher of margaritas, as anyone on that wretched film should have done), were balanced with more heartfelt pledges of professional reverence.
“Our privilege as actors,” Streep said, “is that we get to love each other and get paid for it, like prostitutes. But when Vanessa won the Oscar, and caused a cataclysm with her speech, that was a little lesson in bravery. Fame is not just a commodity, you can use it to make a difference.”
It was, admittedly, a little unfair putting Streep up first, as none of the following speakers could quite top her for simultaneous wit and grace – though it’s hard not to melt a bit when hearing James Earl Jones’s matchless voice silkily enthuse, “I love this woman. My wife understands.” And it seemed everyone in the room got something in their eye when Richardson offered a simple, wry dedication to her mother, speaking also for her sister, the late Natasha.
It was a poignant, not-too-pointed reminder of the personal hardships Redgrave has endured in the last two years, losing a daughter, a sister and a brother in cruelly quick succession – which makes her continued professional resilience all the more extraordinary. One senses this Academy tribute is merely kicking off a season of repeated honors for one of our greatest living actors, for a brilliant career as well as one of its single best performances. She’s clearly touched by the attention, but watching her sit in the emptying cinema foyer, chatting to a frail, devoted associate in Douglas Slocombe, made it clear that her profession has been her reward all along.