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Critic At Large : Redgrave Rallies In Favor Of Tv

February 22, 1986|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

From across the poolside dining area at her hotel, she is not at first sight identifiable. An inch-high crew cut, severe gold granny glasses and a kind of unisex jacket and trousers obscure for a few yards at least one of the most regally beautiful actresses of our day.

Vanessa Redgrave had just finished playing a man-become-woman in a film for CBS television called "Second Serve." It is drawn from the autobiography of the ophthalmological surgeon Dr. Richard Raskind who, after Yale, medical school, marriage and fatherhood, confronted his lifelong transsexuality, underwent a sex-change operation and became Renee Richards, surgeon and women's tennis tour competitor. The film, produced by Linda Geller and directed by Anthony Page, is expected to air in April.

After the years when her controversial political stands often overshadowed the excellence and variety of her work, Redgrave has made the ground rule for her interviews that there be no political questions, a condition that is probably mutually relieving.

She is outspoken all the same, and in her views on artistic and career matters you can hear something of the same heady individuality and strong, positive social concern that have carried her into unpopular political areas.

Having earned very good personal reviews in the recent miniseries "Peter the Great," pitted as it was against the Joan Collins "Sins," she says, "I thought 'Sins' was much closer to real life than 'Peter.' It was said to have been melodramatic; well, my grandparents were in melodrama, and what did that mean except that it was larger than life.

"Everything in 'Sins' has happened; surely we have little trouble believing that. No, I considered it very seriously. It reminded me in its own popularized way of Zola and De Maupassant. It was all there--corruption, greed, murder. Excellent in every way."

Redgrave is quick to add that there was much to be said for "Peter the Great" as well. "It was a chance to learn about that fantastic piece of history. I didn't know anything about Peter the Great. They didn't teach a thing about him in school, not in my schools. But television can bring such a freshness to things."

She has, in fact, no doubt of television's power. "For me, there is no difference in terms of the work," she says, "and I'd choose always to work in television. It's now the more important of the two forms. Television is doing subjects you could trot around to film offices for three years and not find financing for."

"Second Serve" might be a case in point, Redgrave says. She had at first not wanted to do it, worrying that the subject might seem exploitive. Then she read Dr. Richards' book, published by Stein and Day in 1983, and found a difficult life treated with calm high seriousness and flashes of wry humor.

("My early life is strewn with unsubtle touches that beg to be seen as reasons for my sexual confusion," Richards wrote. "If they aren't the true cause, they ought to be.")

For Redgrave, the compelling interest in the story is that it involves not only the most dramatic personal change of all, but a wider and more gradual change in social attitudes.

Richards took some of the raillery and abuse that Christine Jorgensen had faced as the first and therefore most notorious sex-change subject. There were strong attempts to keep Richards off the women's tennis tour.

"Renee is a very courageous woman," Redgrave says. "And the story is not about transsexualism but about all the social problems she had to face. The press witch-hunted her, but it only increased the admiration and warmth people felt for her."

The political fires Redgrave stirred up did conceal for a time the persisting fact that she is first and last a deeply serious actress, very conscious of her family theatrical heritage.

Her daughters, Natasha and Jolie, are now both actresses, and Jolie played with her in "The Sea Gull," in the role Vanessa had played with her mother, Rachel Kempson, in a 1962 production. Vanessa occupied the dressing room her father, Michael Redgrave, had had when she acted with him in a Robert Bolt play, "The Tiger and the Horse."

"I'm conscious, in a sense, of my daughters standing on my shoulders as I stood on my parents' shoulders," Redgrave says. "As I grow older, I'm more and more aware of people's work that has gone into my work and that, through my work, will go on into other people. I'm fantastically lucky for the experience that was passed on to me through my father, and not only in a family sense. My father insisted that I see American actors, whom he hugely admired."

When her father was performing in "Tiger at the Gates" in New York, he brought his daughter, still in school, to New York for the Christmas holidays, and arranged that she was at the theater every available matinee and night and auditing at the Actors Studio the rest of the time.

"I watched Marlon and Tony Franciosa, Eli Wallach, Anne Jackson, so many others. What I've learned from American actors is incorporated in me. Paul Muni, Shirley Booth, Uta Hagen, so many, many more. No one may know it's there, but I do."

And now, Vanessa Redgrave says, "I'm lucky. When there's a difficult mountain to climb, I sometimes get chosen to make the climb. Growing up with Shakespeare, as I had to, you lived with the challenge of what drama can mean as a social experience for people, how important it can be. Oh, yes, I'm very lucky."

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