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Redgrave, Vanessa (1937-)


Main image of Redgrave, Vanessa (1937-)

One of the great actresses of her generation, Vanessa Redgrave, born into an acting dynasty and Central School-trained, gave some dazzling displays in star film roles, though her height made her difficult casting as conventional leading ladies, and then, from the 1980s on, became a remarkable character actress.

Her London stage debut and her first film both belong to 1958, and in both she played daughter to her real-life father, Michael Redgrave: on stage in A Touch of the Sun and on screen in a hospital drama, Behind the Mask (d. Brian Desmond Hurst, 1958), old-fashioned even then.

After this latter dispiriting experience she concentrated on the theatre and had a couple of dazzling Stratford seasons (in major roles, famously as Rosalind in As You Like It, 1961-62) before returning to the screen.

She is a key figure in the 1960s revolution in British film, appearing for New Wave directors, Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson, whom she married.

For Reisz, she played an upper-class young woman married to a half-mad eccentric in Morgan...(1966, Oscar-nominated) and made a gallant stab at the title role of legendary dancer Isadora (1968, Oscar-nominated), though Reisz said in 1992 that he thought the film failed.

For Richardson, she starred in The Sailor from Gibraltar (1967), the short and arty Red and Blue (1967), and The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968), as sexually willing Mrs Codrington.

She worked several times in US films, notably as a glowing Guenevere in Camelot (d. Joshua Logan, 1967), and in later years, as a sought-after character player, she has filmed ubiquitously.

She has grown only more impressive with age, as such roles as celebrity agent Peggy Ramsay in Prick Up Your Ears (d. Stephen Frears, 1986) and gentle, doomed Mrs Wilcox (Oscar-nominated) in Howards End (d. James Ivory, 1992) attest.

If she never acted again, her sublime Mrs Dalloway (UK/Netherlands/US, d. Marleen Gorris, 1997) would stand as a fitting monument to the subtlety of her craft, to its informing passion, and to the beauty, only mellowed, not diminished by the years.

Add to this that she has continued to do remarkable stage and TV work, winning an Emmy for Playing for Time (US, d. Daniel Mann, 1980), controversially cast as a Jewish concentration camp victim, and has been nominated six times for Oscars, winning (Supporting Actress) as Julia (US, d. Fred Zinnemann, 1977), and twice for BAFTAs, and it is hard to think of anyone who can match her record.

Her marriage to Richardson ended in divorce, but produced actress daughters Joely and Natasha Richardson. There were also widely publicised relationships with Franco Nero and Timothy Dalton; and her political views - pro-Palestinian; the Workers' Revolutionary Party - have also brought her to public notice.

Autobiography: Vanessa Redgrave (1991).

Brian McFarlane, Encyclopaedia of British Cinema

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Comrades (1986)Comrades (1986)

Bill Douglas' epic portrayal of the lives of the Tolpuddle Martyrs

Thumbnail image of Devils, The (1971)Devils, The (1971)

Ken Russell's controversial film about the political abuse of religious faith

Thumbnail image of Man for All Seasons, A (1966)Man for All Seasons, A (1966)

Oscar-laden story of Sir Thomas More's defiance of Henry VIII

Thumbnail image of Morgan - A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966)Morgan - A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966)

Seminal Swinging Sixties comedy about an artist and his problems

Thumbnail image of Murder on the Orient Express (1974)Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

Star-studded adaptation of the Agatha Christie mystery

Thumbnail image of No Arks (1969)No Arks (1969)

Animated and politicised retelling of the story of Noah's Ark

Thumbnail image of Prick Up Your Ears (1987)Prick Up Your Ears (1987)

Alan Bennett-scripted biopic of 1960s playwright Joe Orton

Thumbnail image of Tonite Let's All Make Love in London (1967)Tonite Let's All Make Love in London (1967)

Vivid, memorable doc examining the 'swinging' London phenomenon

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Related people and organisations

Thumbnail image of Redgrave, Lynn (1943-)Redgrave, Lynn (1943-)


Thumbnail image of Redgrave, Michael (1908-1985)Redgrave, Michael (1908-1985)


Thumbnail image of Richardson, Joely (1965-)Richardson, Joely (1965-)


Thumbnail image of Richardson, Natasha (1963-2009)Richardson, Natasha (1963-2009)


Thumbnail image of Richardson, Tony (1928-1991)Richardson, Tony (1928-1991)

Director, Producer, Writer