VANESSA REDGRAVE STILL SEEKS THE ACTING PEAKS

Times Staff Writer

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."

Does she expect to win? "You must know better than to ask that of anybody," she laughs. "You can't know what people think . . . These are all extraordinarily good films, and the competition is first-class."

Her competitors' movies are "at the top of my list, along with 'The Killing Fields' to see . . . I don't believe I've seen any at all, except the special effects for 'Indiana Jones' and I take my hat off."

Meanwhile, back in Boston, there simmers the latest Redgrave controversy: her $1-million federal suit against the Boston Symphony Orchestra, claiming a violation of her civil rights for canceling her narration of Stravinsky's "Oedipus Rex" in a 1982 concert series. The orchestra said it received threats of violence. Her lawyer asserted that the "blacklisting" cost her months of work. (In Boston she also filmed "Three Sovereigns for Sarah," a public-TV series on the Salem witch hunts, scheduled to air in May.)

Last month, U.S. District Judge Robert Keeton threw out a $100,000 jury award ruling that the orchestra was not liable for damages to her career that occurred after the cancellation and awarded her $27,500, slightly less than she would have received. She was also ordered to pay the orchestra's court costs.

Redgrave says she will appeal: "It must be appealed. Definitely."

And who is Vanessa Redgrave, offstage, off a platform? What's her everyday life like--is there one?

"I'm still alive," she responds coolly. "Usually pretty busy. I get on with my own things. It depends on whether I'm working or whatever."

She says she likes to do "everything. I mean I really mean everything. I don't know what I don't like doing."

Cooking? "Yes, I like to cook. I'm a good cook."

What do you cook?

"Lunch, breakfast, tea, supper."

Her house, in Hammersmith in West London, is "a nice house. You want it brick by brick?"

She talks about her children more readily: "You just think of all the best words you can say about anybody and write them down for Natasha. She's got very long fairish-brown hair, warm brown eyes, tallish to medium height . . . Joely's fair, has blue eyes, and is as tall as me. I don't know who she looks like, really."

In her first major role, in "Wetherby," a soon-to-be-released British movie," Joely Richardson plays Jean Travers, a Yorkshire schoolteacher as a young woman. Vanessa Redgrave stars as Travers.

Carlo is "as tall as me and he's 15. He's got blue eyes and darkening hair, and doesn't know yet what he wants to be."

The eldest of her own generation of Redgraves is asked about the importance of being a member of Britain's first acting family: "I'm terribly lucky because I have never felt that. If I had, I should have probably not dared to be an actress. I suppose it's what comes from being in a professional family."

Her mother, actress Rachel Kempson, was most recently seen as Lady Manners in public TV's "The Jewel in the Crown." Vanessa's brother Corin, ever a candidate for Parliament (like Vanessa) under the banner of the Workers Revolutionary Party and a sporadic actor, was born in 1939; Lynn, in 1943.

As a child Vanessa, who drew her second Oscar nomination for her portrayal of dancer/choreographer Isadora Duncan in "Isadora" (1968), wanted to dance. "I thought I was training to be a world-class ballerina, but my father had me trained because he knew I would be an actress, and he knew I was going to be extremely tall, and he knew it would help in my theater work if I danced."

By the time she left London's Central School of Speech and Drama in 1957 and went onstage, she had already discovered politics. In 1961, after stunning London with her Kate in "The Taming of the Shrew"--one critic hailed "a performance so fiery, lovely, right and true that to applaud it seemed an insult"--she sat down in Trafalgar Square to protest nuclear weapons and spent the night in jail. In 1962, the day after she returned from her honeymoon with Tony Richardson, she stood on a soap box in Hyde Park to urge banning the bomb. When the Labor Party supported America in Vietnam, her ideological odyssey took a sharp left turn.

And the impact of her political life on her acting life? Redgrave demurs. "That's another story, just another story," she pauses. "I said all I have to say in the course of the Boston Symphony case."

In some ways she separates the two as part of her thinking. When it is noted that the roles she is remembered for are roles of strong women, Redgrave counters: "Well I know a lot of people say that, and it always surprises me. To me the important thing is not to categorize a role, or a woman for that matter, because in any case strength comes from overcoming weaknesses. I don't find it at all helpful in my work. It doesn't give you any insight into anything or anybody."

Redgrave pauses again. "Unless you've got a whole historical process in which you've arrived at definite conclusions and you can say, categorically, these are our findings."

She says she gets her insight "from the material itself. I read the script. I read the book. James Ivory ("Bostonians" director) said, 'Read the book.' I read it straight-away and I read it continually throughout film making. . . .I read so much about the women, so much of their work, their diaries and letters. I've seen so much of their paintings. The real life that is there comes forward. You have to discover them."

She also says an actress must "work against making a character what you'd like them to be . . . I just have to keep check, check, check."

Some have pointed to a curious contradiction between her free-speech position in the Boston Symphony case--"No one should have the right to take away the work of an artist because of political views"--and her repeatedly urging British Actors Equity to ban artists from going to Israel. At one point she also asked for a ban against artists performing with Israeli cultural groups, which would have included the Israel Philharmonic.

"Those are two completely different things. . . . Ask my lawyer to send you papers on the (Boston Symphony) case."

One also wonders how she could have come away from life at Auschwitz in "Playing for Time," then five weeks after the program's airing apparently call for the liquidation of Israel. "I never called for that," she said warning that she was about to end the interview.

When the interviewer tried to show her a newspaper clipping of a wire-service account of an interview she reportedly gave to Monday Morning magazine in Beirut on Nov. 3, 1980, in which she is quoted--"I don't think there is any room for a state of Israel"; she hopes to make her first visit to Israeli territory "the day the Palestinian revolution wins, and I'm absolutely convinced that the day is not very far away"--Redgrave turns her face away. She refuses to look at a photocopy of the clip.

So back to safer subjects. At the end, a final question: Did she never tell Monday Morning, "There's no room for a state of Israel?"

"I will send you or I will ring up my lawyer to send you all of the transcripts if you can give him a little few dollars for the postage," Vanessa Redgrave responds. "It's extremely expensive . . . "

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