Accessibility options

Vanessa Redgrave - Biography

TalkTalk have created this exclusive biography of Vanessa Redgrave - we believe it to be the most comprehensive on the web

Vanessa Redgrave

Personal details

Name: Vanessa Redgrave
Born: 30 January 1937 (Age: 78)
Where: London, England
Height: 5'11"
Awards: 1 Golden Globe and 1 Oscar

All about this star


Like Dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, Vanessa Redgrave has for decades been one of the UK's finest actresses. And, also like them, she is still feted worldwide as she passes through middle-age, bringing to screen and TV roles an authority and gravitas that younger actresses simply cannot match. First Oscar-nominated back in 1967, she'd still be winning major prizes 35 years later. Ever burning with energy and righteous anger, she continues to dedicate herself to the theatre and cinema, as well as the social causes for which she long fought - causes that have made her, alongside her American counterpart Jane Fonda, the most controversial actress of the modern era. Which probably explains why, unlike Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, she isn't yet a Dame.

Redgrave's present status was prophesied on the day of her birth by no less a luminary than Sir Laurence Olivier. On January 30th, 1937, during the curtain call of a performance at London's Old Vic Theatre, he announced to the audience "Ladies and gentlemen, tonight a great actress has been born. Laertes has a daughter!" (Laertes being the character played that night by Vanessa's father, the renowned Michael Redgrave). It really wasn't such a wild guess on Olivier's part. Michael was already an esteemed member of the thespian establishment. His father, Roy, starred in many of the first silent films to come out of Australia, while his wife and Vanessa's mother was another famed performer, Rachel Kempson, who'd debuted as Juliet at Stratford in 1932 (she'd met Michael during Liverpool Rep's production of Flowers Of The Forest in 1935 and married him that same year). Indeed, the Redgrave tradition would continue even beyond Vanessa. Vanessa's sister, Lynn, would be Oscar nominated, while her brother Corin would become a prime mover in British theatre. Beyond this, Vanessa's own children - Natasha and Joely Richardson - would become famous actresses, as would her niece, Corin's daughter, Jemma Redgrave.

As said, Michael Redgrave was already an accomplished stage actor at the time of Vanessa's birth. Soon he'd also be a screen star, starring in Thunder Rock and Dead Of Night and being Oscar-nominated in 1947 for Mourning Becomes Electra. The 1950s would see him in The Browning Version, The Dambusters and 1984, while during his decade-long stint with the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford he'd win rave reviews as Richard II, Marc Antony, Hamlet and King Lear. Young Vanessa would be marked for life by her father's achievements and attitude, as she saw the efforts of actors to contribute during war-time and also the sacrifices necessary to reach the very highest standards in the profession.

She decided to take to the stage while in her teens. Attending the all-girls Queensgate School in South Kensington, a quick walk from London's finest museums and parks, her first love had been dance, and she attended the Ballet Rambert School for some eight years. Sadly, she grew too tall to cut it (though her dancing would be employed to great effect in her film career). But persistence was a strong trait in Redgrave. At 16, though gawky, sporting thick spectacles and being riddled with acne, she determined to follow her idol Audrey Hepburn into acting. Despite being told by her mentors that her height would also be held against her in the theatre and she wouldn't be offered a decent part till she reached her thirties, she persisted in learning the craft, in 1954 moving from Queensgate to the Central School of Speech and Drama. Here, though nicknamed Big Van for her gait, she proved an immense success, graduating in 1957 as one of only two winners of the Sybil Thorndike Prize. Olivier was already being proven correct.

On leaving the Central School, Redgrave would move directly to the Frinton Summer Theatre, in July appearing in The Reluctant Debutante. Come September she'd be playing Mrs Spottsworth in Come On at the Cambridge Arts Theatre. Her major debut would come in the January of 1958 when, as Caroline Lester in A Touch Of The Sun, she played alongside her father at the Saville. This was an invaluable but tortured experience, Michael proving to be a severe critic, forever handing her notes on how to improve her performance. She'd later describe the process as "agonising", yet it was a vital masterclass.

The rest of the year was busy. She'd be Sarah Undershaft in Major Barbara at the Royal Court, and enjoy a spot of panto when cross-dressing as Principal Boy in Mother Goose at Leatherhead. She'd also make her screen debut, as her father's screen daughter, in Behind The Mask, a hospital drama concerning the deadly rivalry between two surgeons. Considering Vanessa's later career, it was apt that she should first appear in a groundbreaking and controversial work, the movie giving the public its first glimpse of open-heart surgery.

Behind The Mask was not a happy experience for Redgrave and she would not return to screen work (aside from filmed theatre performances) for some eight years. Her destiny, it seemed, was to follow Michael to stage greatness, and she took a massive step towards this in 1959 when she joined Stratford's Memorial Theatre Company. Here she'd appear in Tony Richardson's Othello and Tyrone Guthrie's All's Well That Ends Well, as well as Peter Hall's A Midsummer Night's Dream (as Helena) and Laurence Olivier's famous Coriolanus (as Valeria). Big Van was certainly driving ahead, impressing everyone. Having spent 1960 in Look On Tempests at the Comedy Theatre and The Tiger And The Horse and The Lady From The Sea at the Queen's, she'd be asked by Peter Hall to join the fledgling Royal Shakespeare Company, there joining an extraordinary generation of actresses including Dorothy Tutin, Diana Rigg and Judi Dench.

It was in fact due to Tutin's illness that Redgrave scored the part of Rosalind in Michael Elliott's As You Like It, performances that earned her rave reviews and a reputation as perhaps the best of that feted generation. Also much lauded would be her efforts as Kate in The Taming Of The Shrew and, in 1962, as Imogen in Cymbeline. By now, though, Redgrave's life was not just about acting. She'd been seeing Tony Richardson (they'd marry in 1962), who'd directed her in Othello and also made a huge name for himself by bringing two John Osborne plays to the screen - Look Back In Anger and The Entertainer, starring Richard Burton and Laurence Olivier respectively. They were a glamorous, glittering couple. Redgrave's family name and her own thespian reputation coupled with the bisexual Richardson's place at the cutting edge of contemporary drama made them an embodiment of English style and cool as London led the way into the Swinging Sixties. And already Redgrave was challenging the conservative Establishment, in '62 becoming one of the first celebrities to visit communist Cuba. Already reviled as an active member of the Workers' Revolutionary Party she would now face rumours that she'd had an affair with Fidel Castro. She'd been heavily politival for many years already, having in her teens collected money for Hungarian refugees on the streets of London.

Having given birth to daughter Natasha in 1963, Redgrave would make a triumphant return to the London stage the next year in as Nina in The Seagull, directed by her husband and once more at the Queen's. She'd then bear a second daughter, Joely, before making a second sparkling return when taking the title role in The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie at the Wyndham Theatre. By now, though, despite the extra time-pressures of motherhood, she had four screen appearances in the can, all of them released in 1966. First would come a TV miniseries take on Hemingway's WWI drama A Farewell To Arms, where George Hamilton would play the Hemingway character and Redgrave the nurse with whom he conducts both an affair and a hair-raising escape to Switzerland. Next would come Morgan: A Suitable Case For Treatment, a funky satire and wild fantasy where David Warner would play a working-class artist obsessed with gorillas who tries to stop posh ex-wife Vanessa from marrying fellow toff Robert Stephens. Gradually losing his mind, he attempts kidnapping and terrorism and is eventually sent to an asylum, where he becomes a Communist. It was a prime slice of Swinging London and would see Redgrave Oscar-nominated, being joined at the Academy Awards by Michael Caine and Vivien Merchant for their work in Alfie. Amazingly, one of Redgrave's rivals for Best Actress would be her own sister, Lynn, for Georgy Girl. Only once before had sisters vied for the big prize - back in 1941 when Joan Fontaine edged out sibling Olivia de Havilland.

Redgrave's next outing would also be well-represented at that Oscar ceremony. This was Fred Zinnemann's A Man For All Seasons, where Robert Shaw's Henry VIII would attempt to force Paul Schofield's Thomas More to accept his religious shenanigans, divorce and remarriage to Vanessa's flighty, flirty Anne Boleyn. Also featuring Orson Welles, John Hurt and Redgrave's brother Corin, the movie would rake in six Oscars. And there'd be yet more nominations for her final picture of 1966, Antonioni's Blow-Up, where groovy London photographer David Hemmings witnessed Redgrave in some kind of trouble in the park - was it a murder? Investigating the mystery, he becomes involved in fascinating detective work as well as orgies and all manner of decadence, the movie being so controversial and so appealing to the young that it became both a symbol of the age and the highest-grossing art film to date. Redgrave, placed at the centre of world-dominating London cool by Morgan and Blow-Up while at the same time boosting her serious thespian reputation with A Man For All Seasons and The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, seemed untouchable, the ultimate mid-Sixties golden girl. What a year.

For now concentrating entirely on screen-work, Redgrave would begin 1967 with Red And Blue, a 36-minute short directed by Tony Richardson. Influenced by Jacques Brel and Michel Legrand and entirely sung, this would see Vanessa as a chanteuse engaging in unhappy affairs with the wildly varying likes of Michael York and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. She'd then stay with Richardson for The Sailor From Gibraltar, an arty piece where Ian Bannen would dump his mistress Vanessa, a cultured woman who keeps dragging him along to galleries and museums, and takes off with mysterious Jeanne Moreau, a crazy romantic sailing from port to port in search of a mariner she'd loved years before (Orson Welles would also make an appearance).

Though Redgrave's first two releases of 1967 were both directed by her husband, they had in fact already split up, Richardson having taken off for Paris to be with Jeanne Moreau. So, when Vanessa came to her next project, Camelot, she was free to fall for her co-star, Franco Nero, five years her junior. At their first meeting, where Redgrave arrived with no makeup and straggly hair, Nero later recalled thinking "She is ugly. How can she play Guinevere?" Then she invited him to dinner and prepared herself righteously. He was won over by the transformation, as well as by the perfect Italian she'd spoken since being sent to study in Florence at the age of 14. In turn, she loved the fact that the outrageously handsome Nero, a former peasant boy, was utterly contemptuous of wealth and had given as many as ten different cars to his friends, just because they said they liked them.

Camelot had been a big Broadway success for Richard Burton and Julie Andrews but, with Richard Harris and Redgrave taking over the leads (Nero and David Hemmings would play Lancelot and Mordred respectively), it lost its light-heartedness in its adaptation to film. For her part, Vanessa threw herself into her role, playing Guinevere as a mischievous sprite as she belted through the likes of The Lusty Month Of May in a style not unlike Rex Harrison's. Her efforts would win her a Golden Globe nomination.

The next year would bring a trio of high quality releases. First would come The Charge Of The Light Brigade, again directed by Tony Richardson and co-starring David Hemmings (there'd also be appearances by mum Rachel Kempson and kids Joely and Natasha). It was epic stuff, attacking the ineptitude and macho stupidity of the British commanders in the Crimea but Vanessa, playing the wife of Hemmings' friend and brother-in-arms and having an affair with Hemmings, was not challenged, or indeed necessary. More impressive would be Sidney Lumet's adaptation of Chekhov's The Seagull where Redgrave, infatuated by James Mason's older writer, breaks the heart of young writer David Warner (her co-star in Morgan), leading to the inevitable Russian tragedy. Then would come Isadora where, directed by her Morgan helmsman Karel Reisz, she headlined as Isadora Duncan, the dancer who revolutionised ballet in the 1920s and scandalised society with her rampant exhibitionism. Redgrave, after those years at Ballet Rambert, would perform all her own freeform dancing, including one where she bared her breasts, as the movie followed her through marriage to Jason Robards, the death of her children, conversion to Marxism in post-Revolutionary Russia and consequent bedlam in America. It's easy to see why Redgrave, a hardcore left-winger and increasingly daring sexual politician, would want to play this role. She had so much in common with Duncan, which surely helped her to a second Oscar nomination and a win as Best Actress at Cannes (she'd earlier won for Morgan). Sadly, she would soon also share some of Duncan's familial pain.

1969 would see Redgrave take another pop at the lunacy of armed conflict when she took a brief role alongside most of Britain's other stage greats, playing a suffragette in Richard Attenborough's Oh! What A Lovely War. She'd then join her lover Franco Nero in A Quiet Place In The Country, an Italian psychological horror movie. Here'd she'd play the mistress-turned-assistant of artist Nero who moves into a country mansion to work and finds himself haunted by the ghost of a murdered nymphomaniac. She'd return to the theatre as Gwendolen in Daniel Deronda at the University Theatre, Manchester and, now pregnant with son Carlo, she'd immortalise his gestation by appearing in the 7-minute short A Mother With Two Children Expecting Her Third, directed by Bo Widerberg, who'd found fame in 1967 with Elvira Madigan. This was yet another challenge thrown down to the establishment by Redgrave, as pregnant women were expected to cover up and stay out of sight. She was, indeed, an extremely challenging character, taking out a full-page ad denouncing American involvement in Vietnam, getting jailed for her part in a sit-down anti-nuclear protest in Trafalgar Square and (later) running for election in Newham as a candidate for the Workers' Revolutionary Party.

Since 1967 she'd been ensconced with Nero in a flat she'd chosen for them overlooking St Peter's Basilica in Rome. They'd had a son, Carlo. With her political activism increasing and work schedules also keeping them apart, they endeavoured to work together wherever possible. The next fruit of this would be Drop-Out, directed by maverick Tinto Brass. Redgrave and Nero had viewed a special screening of Brass's L'Urlo, banned in England, and, naturally anti-censorship, they determined to work with him, pre-selling distribution rights, using their own finances and shooting on 16mm to save money. In Drop-Out, Redgrave would play a disillusioned banker's wife who's abducted by Nero, just escaped from Broadmoor. On the run she falls for him as they meet all manner of dolies, druggies and drag queens, anarchists and alkies, seeking a witness to prove Nero's sanity. It was an underground movie about the underground, a real rarity, but visitors to the filming reported that the tempestuous Redgrave-Nero relationship was now at an all-time low.

The relationship would very soon collapse. Nero wanted Redgrave to be more of a traditional housewife, yet had picked perhaps the worst woman in the world for the task. Her active support for political causes demanded that she travel, as did her acting. The pressure between them grew. Then, in late 1970, while filming Ken Russell's The Devils, Redgrave miscarried, a terrible blow. She and Nero would argue violently over a trip to see former husband Tony Richardson. It had to end, Nero taking off for Paris and former lover Nathalie Delon. Redgrave would not be alone for long.

Her next project - Mary, Queen Of Scots - would see her as a warm, womanly, vulnerable and impetuous Mary up against Glenda Jackson's cold and manly Elizabeth I as this historical epic ran through marriage, sex, court intrigue, conspiracy, betrayals, bombings and horrible murders. Once again she'd be Oscar-nominated, an accolade she deserved but could never have received for her next performance, in the spectacularly controversial The Devils. Set in 1631 this saw Oliver Reed's libidinous priest attempt to save the city of Loudon from the clutches of Cardinal Richelieu and be stitched up with fake accusations of witchcraft. Redgrave, a hump-backed Ursuline nun sexually obsessed with Reed, would be his chief accusor, and her crazy fantasies of blasphemous sex and crushing humilation brought a film already packed with brutality and decadence to shocking new levels. When it came to freedom of speech within the arts, Redgrave really truly put herself on the line for her beliefs.

As said, after the split with Franco Nero, Redgrave was not single for long. On the set of Mary, Queen Of Scots she'd meet Timothy Dalton, a former RADA student and, at 25, some eight years her junior. He'd play Darnely to her Mary and they'd begin a stormy relationship with a 6-hour argument over the meaning of Hamlet's To Be Or Not To Be speech (Dalton would very soon become a star with the RSC). All over the world they'd fish together, work together, play together, their on-off thing lasting till 1986 - just before Dalton began his short run as James Bond.

Onscreen, 1971 would see the release of Redgrave's final (final for now) collaboration with Franco Nero. This was La Vacanza, another Tinto Brass effort and again financed by Redgrave and Nero. Once again it would stir controversy as Redgrave was sectioned, sold and seduced, suffering terrible outrages at the hands of the establishment in mediaeval times. She'd move on to an all-star adaptation of Euripides' The Trojan Women where she'd play Andromache, wife of the slain Hector, who carries her husband's armour around on a chariot and must cope with her impending forced marriage to a Greek and the execution of her son.

Perhaps enthused by Dalton's thespian ambitions, she'd now return to the stage in earnest, over the next three years appearing in London productions of Cato Street, The Threepenny Opera, Twelfth Night, Design For Living and as a commanding Cleopatra, as well as taking Macbeth to Los Angeles. Her screenwork was thus less prolific. 1973 would bring only a TV miniseries of the life of bisexual writer Katherine Mansfield, and 1974 only the star-studded Murder On The Orient Express (directed by her Seagull collaborator Sidney Lumet), where she'd play the constant companion of Sean Connery, a British officer returning from India.

At this time Redgrave was becoming ever-more involved in politics, particularly workers' rights and the plight of the Palestinians (she actually make a documentary about this). She'd also built and equipped a nursery for poor children in London, and lectured on Marxism in Hollywood (in Hollywood!) in order to fund a Marxist school in london. She didn't take herself absolutely seriously - as a famous appearance on the Morecambe & Wise Christmas Show proved - but she was very committed, to the extent that she split from Dalton for a time rather than stop attending what she considered to be vital meetings.

1975 would bring only one screen appearance, in Out Of Season, a small but once more challenging piece where Redgrave and daughter Susan George would run a remote island hotel. Up turns Cliff Robertson, who had an affair with Redgrave some 20 years before, and the flames are rekindled. Passion is also kindled in George, who may well be their daughter, as the three wind up in a strange, tense and possibly illegal love triangle. The next year would bring yet more perversity with The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, a charming, funny and really quite deep Sherlock Holmes story where Nicol Williamson's Holmes is addicted to cocaine and Robert Duvall's Watson tricks him into visiting Sigmund Freud for a cure. Meanwhile we're treated to some Holmes-eye paranoid fantasy and introduced to Laurence Olivier's Moriarty and Redgrave's Lola Deveraux, a famous actress cured by Freud but now kidnapped and forced back onto drugs. Or is she?

Redgrave was now making movies less than once a year. However, the work she chose to take on would consistently keep her in the public eye. A good example of this would be 1977's Julia, a reunion with director Fred Zinnemann and co-star Jason Robards, and a fascinating collaboration with Jane Fonda. Fonda, of course, also came from an acting dynasty, had shocked viewers with her sexual libertarianism and was known and often loathed for her left-wing political activism. The pair were like peas in a pod. Some controversy had to arise from this mix - and it did.

Julia, which also gave a debut to Meryl Streep, would see Fonda star as writer Lillian Hellman as she conducted a long affair with Robards' Dashiell Hammett and rose to prominence on Broadway. But this was no simple romance or rags to riches tale as Hellman was lifelong friends with Redgrave's Julia, a luminous and mysterious beauty, who brings danger and darkness into her life by asking her to secretly carry money into pre-WW2 Germany so Julia can buy the freedom of hundreds of Jews and other persecuted people. This is a thrill for Hellman, but life and death to Julia, her beauty and passion increasing as she bravely faces the horror of the Nazis. Such a film would always stir up emotions, but Redgrave would up the ante further when, having won an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress, she chose to use her acceptance speech to denounce the "Zionist hoodlums" maltreating the Palestinians. Though roundly booed by the Hollywood establishment, she spoke on, risking her own cinematic career to make her point. This was Redgrave summed up in a 2-minute event. While being publicly lauded for her thespian brilliance, her instinct demanded that she stand up for the oppressed, whatever the cost to herself. Agree or disagree with her politics - you couldn't deny her courage. And she needed to be brave as the Jewish lobby, considering her to be virulently anti-semitic, went crazy. She was burned in effigy outside the CBS offices in Los Angeles and Philadelphia, with protestors going so far as to fire bullets through the windows. Many roles were lost to her through fear of further reactions, and a Boston Symphony Orchestra production of Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex, where Vanessa was to be the narrator, was cancelled.

Following this controversy, Redgrave would not return to the screen for two years, preferring instead to appear as Ellida in The Lady From The Sea at Manchester, then London. When she did return, it was with Dustin Hoffman and Timothy Dalton in 1979's Agatha. This would follow novelist Agatha Christie's mysterious 11-day disappearance in 1926, forwarding the theory that, distraught after hubbie Dalton has requested a divorce, she booked into a seaside health spa under the name of his mistress. Here American journalist Hoffman tracks her down, uncovers a secret plot and begins an oddball courtship, Redgrave playing the great crime writer as solemn, troubled and ever so slightly mad. Next up would come Yanks, concerning American troops stationed in the UK during WW2. As culture clashes abound and issues of racism arise, Richard Gere and Lisa Eichhorn would provide the youthful romance, further depth being added by a slow-burning affair between Redgrave's upper-class Red Cross volunteer and William Devane's US officer. It was classy stuff, unlike Redgrave's final effort of the 1970s, Bear Island. Though it reunited her with Donald Sutherland for the first time since A Farewell To Arms, it was a dull arctic-set thriller involving lost gold and Nazi U-Boats, Redgrave being little more than a love interest for Sutherland.

The 1980s would begin with a bang as Redgrave approached the Nazi terror in a far more serious manner. Based on Fania Fenelon's autobiography, The Musicians Of Auschwitz, and adapted for television by Arthur Miller, Playing For Time took Redgrave into the concentration camps as one of a group of female musicians who must perform for their captors in order to escape death. Though Redgrave's pro-Palestinian views made her a controversial choice to play a Jewish heroine, she of course excelled in the role and duly won an Emmy. Now maturing as a medium, television was beginning to deal in both historical epics and hard-hitting pieces dealing with social, political and sexual injustice. It would provide fertile territory for the still-burning Redgrave.

Immediate proof of this came in 1982 with My Body, My Child, a fraught drama where Redgrave played an American Italian who, after three children, believes she's pregnant again. Her doctor disagrees and gives her drugs that not only make her suicidal but severely damages the child that is, in fact, within her. Now Redgrave, already troubled by accusations that her father mercy-killed her mother, must make a horrible choice - to abort or raise a deformed child. It was perhaps encumbered by its many issues, but it was a clear sign of Redgrave's continuing interest in social problems, particulalry those of women. Interestingly, it also featured both Cynthia Nixon and Sarah Jessica Parker, who'd later hit big together in the fabulously flippant Sex And The City.

Having popped up playing the Queen (many would have considered this utterly outrageous) in the wacky Italian comedy Sing Sing, Redgrave would move on to the massive, 8-hour miniseries Wagner, once more reuniting with Franco Nero and Laurence Olivier. With Richard Burton in the title role, this was a sumptuous, panoramic and often visually challenging exploration of the great composer's life, with Redgrave playing Cosima von Bulow, at first the wife of one of Wagner's friends, then married to Wagner.

Next Redgrave would deliver Olivier-winning performances in The Aspern Papers, written by Henry James and adapted by her father, at Guildford and the Haymarket. She'd stick with James for her next film outing, too - a Merchant/Ivory adaptation of The Bostonians. Here she'd play a firebrand suffragette who falls for young Madeleine Potter and promotes the girl's career in order to be close to her. Enter lawyer Christopher Reeve who also wants Potter, so a subtle battle for her affections begins that, due to the mores of the time, no one can openly discuss. Once more Redgrave would be brilliant, tragically confused by her own feelings, and would be Oscar-nominated for the fifth time.

After she'd camped it up as the evil queen taunted by a mirror voiced by Vincent Price in a Faerie Tale Theatre adaptation of Snow White, Redgrave would move on to David Hare's Wetherby. Here she'd play a small-town teacher still pining for a boy who died many years before. When a dinner guest no one knows commits suicide, everyone in the town is driven to re-examine their lives, Redgrave being played in flashback by her own daughter Joely. Following this would come another major TV production, Three Sovereigns For Sarah. Here, years after the Salem Witch Trials, Redgrave would attempt to clear the names of her executed sisters, in the process clearly explaining the madness of the time. Many critics considered it to be the most accurate portrayal yet of those terrible events. Very different would be Steaming, which teamed Redgrave with the renowned British director Joseph Losey. This would feature a diverse group of English women on their weekly visits to a Turkish bath in London and would explore female camaraderie, lost love, the loneliness of marriage, all the women's failings and triumphs. Alongside Sarah Miles and Diana Dors, Redgrave would play a traumatised wife whose husband has left after 17 years.

Following an award-winning production of The Seagull at the Queen's and Chekhov's Women at the Lyric, Redgrave would return to the historical epic with the 6-hour miniseries Peter The Great, the first foreign TV production ever to be filmed inside the Soviet Union. Maximilian Schell, her co-star in Julia, would play Peter as he built St Petersburg, warred with Sweden and dragged Russia into the 18th Century, with Redgrave as his scheming sister Sophia, constantly conspiring against him. Olivier was also on the bill. Redgrave's other release of 1986 could not have been more different. In line with Redgrave's earlier challenging of sexual boundaries, this was Second Serve where she play Richard Radley, a naval officer who, in 1975, underwent a sex change and, as Renee Richards, turned tennis pro and endured a long struggle with the US Tennis Association. Refusing to sensationalize Richards' plight, the TV movie was a major success, with Redgrave being nominated for a Golden Globe and (with her part in Peter The Great also being considered) an Emmy.

Onstage, having played in Ibsen's Ghosts at the Young Vic and in Norway, Redgrave would join Timothy Dalton in The Taming Of The Shrew and Antony And Cleopatra at the Theatre Clwyd and Theatre Royal. These were successful productions but emotionally problematic as her relationship with Dalton had reached what she described as "a natural pause". They would reunite two years later, taking A Touch Of The Poet to the Young Vic, Brighton and the Comedy Theatre, but the sadness and tension was too much. Their long, stormy, stimulating affair was over.

1987 would bring yet more intriguing releases. First would come Comrades, the final film by Bill Douglas, which over three hours would cover the tale of the Tolpuddle Martyrs - poorly paid farm labourers transported to Australia for forming a union. It was compassionate, angry and artistic stuff, but sadly pulled from cinemas very quickly and never given the respect due. Stephen Frears' Prick Up Your Ears, on the other hand, would be richly lauded. In flashback, this covered the short life and violent death of controversial playwwright Joe Orton, brilliantly played by Gary Oldman, with Redgrave adding an authentic taste of the Sixties as his smart, cynical and mini-skirted literary agent, who stole his blood-spattered diaries from the scene of the crime. Once again she'd be nominated for a Golden Globe.

Continung to vary her parts, Redgrave would begin 1988 by returning to an earlier triumph with Charlton Heston's re-adaption of A Man For All Seasons, this time playing Sir Thomas More's wife Alice - outwardly flighty, but inside a cauldron of emotion - winning another Golden Globe nomination for her efforts. Following this would come the comedy Consuming Passions, written by Monty Python veterans Michael Palin and Terry Jones. Here a failing chocolate factory enjoys a change of fortune when people fall into the vats and an inadvertently cannibalistic public snaps up the resulting candy bars. Redgrave would deliver a hilarious turn as the lusty wife of one of the dead men, wanting to sue but keeping quiet as long as the young fellow sent to buy her silence continues to service her sexually. Goading him on in a bizarre Eastern European accent and beating a tambourine as he performs, she really had a field day.

1988 would also bring a return to the theatre when Redgrave joined Peter Hall's new company for a production of Tennessee Williams' Orpheus Descending which would move from London to Broadway and later be filmed for cable TV. Here she'd shine yet again as Lady Torrance, an Italian immigrant running a small-town store for her dying yet still manipulative husband and becoming painfully over-enamoured with a young drifter passing through. Having arranged for two Russian companies to play a season in London, she moved on to A Madhouse In Goa at the Lyric, then returned to the screen with the inventive Romeo-Juliet, where the classic romance was played out by cats to a Prokofiev soundtrack. Next would come Stalin's Funeral, concerning the social and emotional turrmoil in Russia after the dictator's death, and warning that such tyranny might arise again.

For the first time in nearly 20 years, Redgrave would now return to Italian cinema and Franco Nero with Breath Of Life, where Italian WW2 veterans would have their physical and emotional wounds tended to in a sanitarium. She'd then stick with Nero for another TV epic and more Russian history with Young Catherine, where Julia Ormond would star as the teenage bride who becomes one of the nation's great rulers. Redgrave would be in formidable form, yet again Emmy-nominated as the Empress Elizabeth, using intrigue and force to produce a royal heir. This would be followed by a TV remake of Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? where, at last, Redgrave would co-star onscreen with her sister Lynn, Vanessa taking the Joan Crawford role as the stoic and crippled Blanche, tortured by Lynn's demented former child star.

Next would come The Ballad Of The Sad Cafe, with Redgrave proud, sad and passionate as Miss Amelia, flogging moonshine and natural remedies and mourning the disappearance of husband Keith Carradine - until he returns, and confrontation is on the cards. Onstage there'd be more action, too. 1990 had seen her appear with her sister Lynn and niece Jemma in Three Sisters at the Queen's. The next year she'd revisit the character of Isadora Duncan in When She Danced at the Globe, then join former Man For All Seasons co-star Paul Schofield and Felicity Kendal in George Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House at the Theatre Royal.

1992 would bring yet more glory. Having appeared as Elizabeth Hurley's mother in an episode of the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (not such an odd choice as the episode concerned the suffragette movement), she reunited with the Merchant/Ivory team for Howard's End. Here, married to Anthony Hopkins, she'd own the country pile of the title and, as she approached her death, would bequeath it to young musician Emma Thompson, causes all manner of ructions in the family as the iniquities of the class system were laid bare. It was a hugely successful production, with Thompson winning an Oscar and Redgrave her sixth nomination.

Redgrave would now return to sexual politics with Jeanette Winterson's Great Moments In Aviation, which carried the bizarre alternative title Shades Of Fear. This was a mix of romance and thriller set on an ocean liner, where Redgrave appeared alongside her former RSC colleague Dorothy Tutin as women who've been in love for 32 years but never told one another, their secrets finally being revealed. There'd be more left-wing politics, too, with A Wall Of Silence where she played a British film-maker in Argentina making a documentary about the "disappeared". She'd then take a further pop at South American despots with Isabel Allende's House Of The Spirits, her first appearance with Meryl Streep since Julia. Here she'd play Streep's rich liberal mother, attempting to contain her daughter's embarrassing psychic gifts.

Along with a turn in Maybe at Manchester's Royal Exchange, 1993 would also bring a return to Italy with Franco Zeffirelli's Sparrow, where a Sicilian family tried to destroy a young girl's love affair and send her into a nunnery, Redgrave playing a nun driven mad by similar cruelty years before. Then there'd be Rudyard Kipling's decidedly spooky They where she was a blind psychic seemingly in touch with architect Patrick Bergin's dead daughter. Next Mother's Boys would have Jamie Lee Curtis abandon her family then return three years later and make psychotic efforts to break up her husband's new relationship with Joanne Whalley-Kilmer. Redgrave would play Curtis's mother, attempting to calm her daughter and thus walking into danger herself. Little Odessa would keep her in America, this time playing the dying mother of Tim Roth, a hit-man returning to his Brighton Beach neighbourhood for a messy job. In terms of theatre, Redgrave would now try production, forming Moving Theatre with brother Corin and putting on The Flag and Brecht In Hollywood at Battersea. She'd also return to New York to join Eileen Atkins in Vita And Virginia at the Union Theatre, and travel to Sarajevo to put on a play concerning survival during war-time. Soon she'd be in Macedonia arranging benefit concerts for suffering children.

1995 would be another big year. Having taken on the role of Cleopatra once again at the Riverside, she'd appear alongside Edward Fox and Uma Thurman in A Month By The Lake (her son Carlo Nero would serve as Third Assistant Director). This was a subtle rom-com, set by Lake Como in 1937, with Redgrave as a spinster trying to charm fusty Fox while he in turn is infatuated with flirty nanny Thurman. It was a fine comedy of manners, with all true feelings hidden, Redgrave being particularly amusing when trying not to thrash her would-be paramour at tennis. Very different would be Down Came A Blackbird, where Redgrave returned to the themes of the Holocaust and South American brutality. Here Laura Dern would play a journalist, recovering after her abduction and torture in Central America and agreeing to write a story about Holocaust survivor Redgrave's therapy clinic. Redgrave, though, comes to treat her less like a researcher than a patient.

Having yet again teamed up with Paul Schofield, this time in John Gabriel Borkman at the Lyttelton, and added gravitas to Al Pacino's Shakespearan drama-documentary Looking For Richard, Redgrave would suddenly be welcomed back into the Hollywood fold - nearly 20 years after her Oscar ceremony outburst. Her return would come in perhaps the biggest film of 1996, Mission: Impossible where Tom Cruise tried to prevent the theft of a file containing the names of all American double agents. Redgrave would shine as an enemy operative, coming on to Cruise and seeming to find it absolutely hilarious that her sophisticated character might fall for such a beefcake. Seldom had Cruise been so dominated onscreen.

Of course, being Redgrave she would not, could not remain in the mainstream for long. Immediately she moved on to Two Mothers For Zachary, a TV movie concerning gay rights, where she played a well-meaing but prejudiced woman who attempts to take custody of her grandson due to her own daughter's "lesbian lifestyle". Next would come Smilla's Sense Of Snow, a reunion with both Julia Ormond and her House Of The Spirits director Bille August. Here Ormond would investigate the death of a little boy and discover a conspiracy within the mining industry, Redgrave playing a former company secretary who may carry key information.

The same year, 1997, would bring a major run of classy releases. First would be Wilde where she'd play the Irish radical poetess mother of Stephen Fry's title character, supporting her son when society's knives were out. Next she'd re-enter feminist and sexual politics with Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway, having commissioned a script from her friend Eileen Atkins. Here she'd play the title role, at a party looking back over choices not made, love not requited, lesbianism denied. Then would come Deja Vu, a Henry Jaglom indie, where Redgrave would be the emotional catalyst, encouraging a married guy and engaged girl to submit to the extreme passion they feel for each other. And there'd be Bella Mafia, featuring both Franco Nero and a strong female cast including Nastassja Kinski, Jennifer Tilly and Illeana Douglas. When the ladies' mobster husbands are assassinated, Redgrave would lead them on a trail of bloody vengeance between Palermo and New York. It was intensely silly stuff. Nevertheless, Redgrave would be yet again nominated for a Golden Globe.

Despite her onscreen ubiquity, Redgrave had also been busy in the theatre. In 1996, she'd taken productions of Antony And Cleopatra and Julius Caesar to Houston, then the next year had directed the former at New York's Public Theater. Here Marc Antony would be played by David Harewood, the first black actor ever to take the lead in a National Theatre production of Othello. Naturally, there would be rumours of an affair, Redgrave's sexy rep sticking with her even as she entered her sixties, and she'd need Scotland Yard's protection from the racist group Combat 18. She'd stay with directing in 1998, producing and co-directing the lost Tennessee Williams' play Not About Nightingales at the National Theatre. Then she'd take Sarah Bernhardt Comes To Town around various American festivals, aided by her mother Rachel Kempson (who'd recently appeared with her in Deja Vu). For a long while Redgrave would live with Kempson, who sadly died in 2003.

1998 would also see Redgrave step back into the Hollywood mainstream with Deep Impact (no doubt the notion of a woman - Mimi Leder - directing a blockbuster appealed to her). Playing the mother of news reporter heroine Tea Leone and reluctantly divorced from Maximilian Schell (so often her co-star), she'd be touchingly upset, but eventually all the characters' feelings were dwarfed by the enormity of a comet hitting the Earth. Very different would be the arty tragedy Lulu On The Bridge - part Kafka, part magical realism - where cynical Harvey Keitel falls for waitress/actress Mira Sorvino and introduces her to Redgrave's mature, wistful film director, who in turn gives Sorvino the lead in her production of Pandora's Box.

1999 would be another big year. Having tried her hand at directing, Redgrave felt the need to test herself further and so took the lead in the oratorio Eleonora at the San Carlo Opera House in Naples. She'd then return to London's Gielgud Theatre to join brother Corin and his wife Kika Markham in A Song At Twilight, written by Noel Coward (one of father Michael's former lovers). Onscreen she'd lend support to a new generation of thespian radicals by joining the cast of Tim Robbins' Cradle Will Rock, concerning the attempts by her former co-star Orson Welles to put on a pro-union play in the Depression. As a wealthy dilettante promoting Paul Giamatti's aspiring Italian opera singer, both socialism and art were hobbies to her, and she made fun of herself mercilessly.

Not one to miss a chance to promote the feminist cause, Redgave would now appear as the compassionate head psychiatrist, pushing Winona Ryder to confront and cure herself in Girl, Interrupted. She'd also join Franco Nero in lending parental support to son Carlo as he directed Uninvited where she'd play the severe school teacher of a kid who kills the husband of the girl he loves and then, jailed, starts a pen pal relationship with an unhappily married woman.

As said, Redgrave was now past 60 and showing every sign of wanting to experience everything before running out of time, the new millennium seeing her defy sexual boundaries to play Prospero in The Tempest at the Globe. She'd also join Trevor Nunn for The Cherry Orchard at the Cottesloe. Next would come another big success with If These Walls Could Talk 2, an HBO movie which followed three different lesbian couples living in the same house in three different decades. Redgrave would star with Marian Seldes in the segment set in 1961, the pair playing retired school teachers who've co-habited for years. When Seldes dies, though, Redgrave must both deal with her own grief and hide any trace of a relationship when Seldes' family comes to take her belongings away. It was heartbreaking stuff and deservedly won Redgrave her both an Emmy and a Golden Globe. She'd move on to join Franco Nero and Gerard Depardieu in Mirka, a tale of superstition and racism, then pop up in A Rumor Of Angels, where she'd play the wise neighbour of a young boy who's lost his mother. Having earlier lost her own son, she helps him through his ordeal.

It was a sign of Redgrave's standing among Hollywood's mavericks and politicos that she was now invited to join the weighty cast of Sean Penn's The Pledge (where she'd join that other thespian sexual revolutionary Helen Mirren). Here Jack Nicholson would play a cop on the verge of retirement who swears to catch the killer of a little girl, engaging in extremely powerful scenes with Redgrave as the kid's grieving grandmother. The next year, 2002, would bring another rush of releases. Having reunited with director Peter Hall and daughter Joely in Lady Windermere's Fan at the Theatre Royal, she'd co-star in The Gathering Storm, playing Clementine to Albert Finney's Churchill as Hitler draws Europe towards war (for this she'd be nominated yet again for an Emmy and a Golden Globe). Next she'd play the fraught, suffering mother of Crispin Glover's Raskolnikov in Crime And Punishment then, in The Locket, play a bitter resident of a posh nursing home, grieving over her failed love affairs but helping a new male nurse deal with his own troubled affair, the loss of his mother and accusations of drug-theft and murder.

2003 would bring more triumph when,. alongside Brian Dennehy and Philip Seymour Hoffman, she played Mary Tyrone in A Long Day's Journey Into Night on Broadway, winning a Tony award. She'd then pop up as Lady Melbourne in the TV two-parter Byron, trying to save Jonny Lee Miller's title character from self-destruction. Having lent her voice to alien dog comedy Good Boy!, she'd star in son Carlo's next project, The Fever, a political tract featuring Redgrave's Girl, Interrupted co-star Angelina Jolie. Onstage, she'd appear in Toronto in The Hollow Crown.

Having begun a stint as daughter Joely's demanding mother in the hit TV series Nip/Tuck, she'd take a small part in The Keeper, exploring Omar Khayyam's Rubaiyat and the loss of the story-telling tradition, then another in Irish movie Short Order where she'd play yet another wise older woman imparting much-needed knowledge in a comic tale of lust, betrayal and cooking. Far meatier would be The White Countess, the final Merchant/Ivory production where daughter Natasha would play a Russian whore in 1930s Shanghai, chosen by blind Brit diplomat Ralph Fiennes to host his new nightclub on the cusp of a Japanese invasion. Vanessa would join her sister Lynn as members of Natasha's exiled aristocrat family, living off her immoral earnings yet still taunting her for the way she makes her money. Beyond this, though the production was briefly delayed when she fell victim to kidney stones, she'd make a glorious return to the RSC, in Hecuba at the Albery, 43 years after she'd last trod the boards for them.

Showing no sign of letting up as she approached her seventies, Redgrave would make three more screen appearances in 2006. First she'd play a demented nun (now where had we seen that before?) in kids' movie The Thief Lord, where two orphans and a gang of prepubescent crooks were pursued across Venice. Next there'd be Rosamunde Pilcher's The Shell Seekers, where a family would reunite at a country house, Redgrave trying to make sense of her Bohemian life and her relationship with her artist father. Then would come Venus where the relationship between aging actor friends Peter O'Toole and Leslie Phillips is wrecked when both fall for a young girl. Redgrave would shine briefly as O'Toole's ex-wife, on crutches but massively dignified. Amazingly, though they were both brilliant newcomers in the 1950s, big stars in the '60s and hugely well-respected in later years, this was the first time Redgrave and O'Toole had appeared together onscreen.

2007 would bring another raft of releases. First would come The Riddle where a hitherto-lost Dickens novel seems to contain details of a unsolved murder that may help explain a series of present-day killings. Also, there'd be Atonement, where Redgrave would play the older version of a girl whose lies destroy the life of sister Keira Knightley in the period before WW2.

Tennessee Williams called Vanessa Redgrave "the greatest actress of our time" and she has the CV to prove it. She's won Evening Standard awards in four separate decades. She's won Oliviers and Tonys, been Best Actress at Cannes twice. She's been Oscar-nominated six times, Emmy-nominated five times, Golden Globe-nominated no fewer than 13 times. Beyond this she's president of International Artists Against Racism and UNICEF's Special Ambassador for the Performing Arts, and a CBE. Still vocal whenever she perceives injustice to have been done, in 2004 she founded the Peace And Progress Party with her brother Corin. This was entirely in keeping with her public demands for an end to the Gulf War back in 1991 (which saw her dropped from a US tour of Lettuce And Lovage produced by her own son-in-law), her attacks on Vladimir Putin over Chechnia and her lambasting of Tony Blair's Labour government over their failure to support the Arts. Redgrave has lived up to Laurence Olivier's grand claims and gone much further. We can only assume she will continue for many years to come.

Dominic Wills


Search our film biographies.

Advertisement starts


Advertisement ends

Travel offers

Fantastic Iceland break with tours

Fantastic Iceland break with tours

CenterHotel Plaza, Reykjavik - save 33%

Advertisement starts


Advertisement ends