Vanessa Redgrave speaks to a far window, as if addressing some hidden audience beyond the confines of her hotel suite. There is a minimum of eye contact and her voice--except when talking about 21-year-old daughter Natasha--is a barely audible monotone. Even a line from Shakespeare falls flat.
The diction is, of course, exquisite, with dull-sounding words like process, as in "the acting process," coming out a soft, rippling pro- cess. Her light-blue eyes dominate a stone-chiseled face. The Redgrave bearing--she's 5-foot-11 "without soles" and favors three-inch heels--is nothing short of regal.
At 48, with but one Oscar as best-supporting actress ("Julia," 1977) and one Emmy ("Playing for Time," 1980) to her credit, Redgrave is recognized as one of the world's consummate performers. Witness that tortured scene of friendship in the restaurant playing Julia opposite Jane Fonda as the young Lillian Hellman in Nazi Germany, or as a bald Fania Fenelon, a Parisian half-Jew in Auschwitz, eyes blazing, slowly nibbling at a piece of sausage.
Redgrave, in a two-hour interview at Le Bel Age in West Hollywood, is discussing "climbing mountains," stretching as an actress. She talks, with varying degrees of caution, about her life, her art, her family and--for the most part--clams up on the subject of her politics. "It's in theater that you really stretch," she says between cigarettes, "because you have to sustain and re-create for an audience, communicate each night. All actors who want to develop as actors will turn to the classics as musicians (do). . . . "
Presumably Redgrave will get a chance to stretch at the Ahmanson in October as Karen in "The Children's Hour," the season opener. "Lillian (Hellman) and I wanted, since we got to know each other, she wanted me to do it. . . You find me getting rather quiet because it means an awful lot to me."
But her Everest is Cleopatra. "I want to climb 'Antony and Cleopatra' again because I never got there. I did a production in 1973 . . . Well, I fell so far short of Cleopatra, I'm embarrassed to say it out loud. It was a beginning, a beginning"--her voice descends into a mumble--"not much more than that. It was a sketch. . . .
"That and 'King Lear' and 'Hamlet,' incontestably the three great plays. The only part of that stature Shakespeare wrote for a woman was Cleopatra, so I've got to do it. I don't think there's any actress who hasn't felt absolutely daunted by what's said about Cleopatra in the play. If you read Enobarbus' speech: 'Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.' "
One gathers that Vanessa Redgrave would want that said about herself. Whatever else one might think, she is a woman of infinite variety, a lightning rod in her own right. Controversy follows her like a spotlight--whether it's bearing an out-of-wedlock son, her third child, 15 years ago to dashing Franco Nero (who had played Lancelot to her Guinevere), or holding a gun aloft in a kind of triumphal war dance before Yasser Arafat and a circle of PLO admirers in "The Palestinians," a 1978 documentary she narrated and financed.
Ask her which is more important, her politics or her art, and she replies, "I'm not rebuking you for asking . . . but I keep that separate." But did she not mix the two with "The Palestinians"? "I'm happy talking about that film when I talk about that film."
She has come to Los Angeles to promote "The Bostonians," her 24th or so movie. After a fast trip home to London to touch base with family, she will return for the Academy Awards Monday night. She had gone to take her father, Sir Michael Redgrave (ailing with Parkinson's disease) to catch Natasha at the Young Vic playing Ophelia in "Hamlet." (Natasha and Joely, 20, are the daughters of her five-year marriage to director Tony Richardson.)
Redgrave has received an Oscar nomination, her fifth, for her role as the strong-willed Olive Chancellor, a leader of the suffragette movement, in "The Bostonians." The movie, based on Henry James' novel, opened for its regular run at the Mann Fine Arts in Beverly Hills Friday. "Redgrave's cold-fever performance," Newsweek said, "is a wonder to behold."
The Oscar appearance will be her first since 1978--when pro-Israel demonstrators, incensed by "The Palestinians," picketed her. Accepting her award for her performance in the title role of "Julia" (a member of the anti-Nazi underground in Germany at the outbreak of World War II), Redgrave called the protesters "Zionist hoodlums."
How does it feel to return to the scene of that controversy?
"Then is then, and now is now," Redgrave replies mellifluously.
"I haven't heard that anybody's protesting that I've been nominated for 'The Bostonians.' " Later she adds a proviso: "For all I know there might be, that the worst thing that happened is that women won the vote."