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Vanessa Redgrave: 'Blow-Up' And 'Camelot' Star, Then And Now

Entertainment | January 30, 2021

English actress Vanessa Redgrave, UK, January 1968. (Photo by Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Vanessa Redgrave is known to American audiences for such films as Blow-Up (1966), Camelot (1967), Murder On The Orient Express (1974), Julia (1977), and Howards End (1992). She's been nominated for six Oscars (winning once), 13 Golden Globes (winning twice) and six Emmys (won two of those as well). She is a force of nature on stage and screen, yet at the same time, she's carrying on the family business. The Redgraves are an acting dynasty in the United Kingdom, with glamorous Vanessa being the most celebrated. Her late siblings Lynn and Corin both acted, as did her late daughter Natasha Richardson and as does another daughter, Joely Richardson. Like her father, Michael Redgrave, Vanessa Redgrave attained the title CBE, or Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.

Vanessa Redgrave Has Lived A Colorful Life In The Spotlight

Vanessa Redgrave in Cannes, France, promoting 'Blow-Up.' Source: IMDB

Heritage and tradition often come across as stuffy and pretentious. Vanessa Redgrave shines as a beacon of both. The Redgrave family's acting roots stretch back to Vanessa's grandparents, Roy Redgrave and Daisy Scudamore, who were both actors. Their son Michael Redgrave and his wife Rachel Kempson (Vanessa's mom) were both wildly successful actors. One might assume that because the Redgraves represent the blue blood of acting that they exemplify tried and conventions, but you’d be decidedly mistaken.

Vanessa’s father was bisexual as was her first husband, Tony Richardson. The six-time Oscar-nominated actress also delivered, maybe, the most politically-charged acceptance speech in Academy Awards history. Naturally, such nonconformity draws headlines but the fiery actress has never let other people’s opinions affect her. This is Vanessa Redgrave, then and now. 

Famous People Tend To Have Famous Friends

Vanessa Redgrave and David Hemmings in 'Blow-Up.' Source: Heritage Auctions

Vanessa got her introduction to her future husband and acting royalty at an early age. Her mother was working with her future partner, Tony Richardson, as was she as an understudy. As she put it,

Tony was an iconoclast. And I happened to be an extremely conservative young woman. So, I was both astounded and delighted by his iconoclasm. I soon became much less conservative. 

As her world opened up, she rubbed elbows with the likes of Charles Laughton, Laurence Olivier, and Paul Robeson. Tennessee Williams, who wrote A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, would call Redgrave the "greatest actress of our time."

Redgrave's First Performance In A Leading Role Drew An Oscar Nomination

Like so many British actors of a certain vintage -- Richard Burton, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Peter O'Toole, Oliver Reed, Ian Holm -- Vanessa Redgrave's early career was spent mastering the craft of stage acting, often in Shakespearean plays. In 1961, she played Rosalind in the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of the Bard's As You Like It, and she has alternated between stage acting and the silver screen throughout her career. She has played a lead role in at least 35 productions in London's West End.

Vanessa Redgrave made her screen debut with a small part in Behind the Mask (1958), which was also headlined by her father. Her first starring role in a film came in the 1966 comedy Morgan! (also known as Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment), and the performance was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Actress category.

Immediate Success

Redgrave as Guenevere in 'Camelot' (1967). Source: IMDB

Oddly enough, the triple crown winning actress originally wanted to be a dancer. "I wanted that more than anything, but it became clear it wouldn't work, that I would be too tall." Her film career took a quantum leap with her performance in Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up (1966), which made her a household name. Redgrave wasn't necessarily responsible for the film's success -- she was good, as she is in everything. But Blow-Up was one of those movies that captures a time and a place, and to this day it remains a testament to the magic of what was called Swinging London.

Nevertheless, her favorite film was Josh Logan's musical version of Camelot the year after. “I was thrilled to bits to get that role. It was a huge thing for me.” In England, she is held up as a national treasure on the level of Judi Dench and Ian McKellen. 

Life After 'Camelot'

Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero in 'A Quiet Place In The Country.' Source: IMDB

From 1962-67, Redgrave was married to director Tony Richardson, the father of Natasha Richardson and Joely Richardson. On the set of Camelot, she met Italian actor Franco Nero, with whom she would have a relationship and a son, Carlo Gabriel Redgrave Nero. She didn't marry Franco until 2006, and spent the '70s and early '80s in a relationship with actor Timothy Dalton.

Following Camelot, she made A Quiet Place In The Country (1968) with Nero, as well as Isadora (1968), which told the story of Isadora Duncan, and earned Redgrave her second Best Actress Academy Award nomination. She joined an all-star cast -- Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, Jacqueline Bisset, Anthony Perkins and more -- under the guidance of American director Sidney Lumet in Murder On The Orient Express (1974), 

Unapologetically Outspoken

Vanessa Redgrave and her daughter Joely Richardson, continue the line of Redgrave acting greatness. (irishnews)

Redgrave, who has lived in the spotlight her entire life, has never shied from taking unpopular stances and speaking out on injustices in the world. She demonstrated against the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, ran for political office as a member of the Trotskyist Workers Revolutionary Party, and made multiple documentaries about refugees all over the world.

However, by far her most candid and outspoken position came at the ‘78 Oscars. Redgrave had just won an Oscar for Julia, about an anti-Nazi operative in WWII. During the filming of the movie, which received 11 nominations, Redgrave produced a film called The Palestinian, which was made by two Palestinian students Redgrave lived with during the shooting of Julia.

The Most Political Speech In Oscars History

Redgrave with her longtime partner Francis Nero. (stuff.co.nz)

The Jewish Defense League rose up in arms, threatening 20th Century Fox and burning an effigy of Vanessa in front of the Oscars. The controversy became so embroiled that snipers were put on the roof of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The following words of Redgrave’s acceptance speech became headline news and hurt her career for years.

You should be very proud that in the last few weeks you have 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, and to their great and heroic record of struggle against fascism and oppression.

As editor Tom O’Neil put it, “Her career survived because of her stature in the industry, and people ultimately realized she was being pro-Palestinian and not anti-Israeli. But her speech just came across so badly — it’s a cautionary tale of the dangers of the Oscars.” It’s worth noting that two months later a member of the Jewish Defense League set off a bomb at the screening of The Palestinian.

Tags: Blow-Up | Camelot | Ladies | Then And Now | Vanessa Redgrave

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Kellar Ellsworth

Writer

Kellar Ellsworth was born and raised in Hawaii. He is an avid traveler, surfer and lover of NBA basketball. He wishes he could have grown up in the free love era!