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INTERVIEW : The Redgrave Sisters: A Theory of Relativity

<i> Rick Du Brow writes about television for The Times. </i>

It is 10 p.m. in a big, wonderfully atmospheric old house in the Hancock Park section of Los Angeles. And on this particular night, filming has just been completed on a project that is bound to raise eyebrows: an ABC remake for television of the Bette Davis-Joan Crawford Gothic horror classic, “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?”

On the spacious grounds behind the house, a wrap party has begun. But inside, in a large, paneled den, the two stars whose performances are certain to invite comparison with Crawford and Davis are seated side by side on a couch, elated by their experience of finally working together in a major project.

They are sisters: Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave.

Their lives and careers have taken them in different directions, even geographically. Vanessa, 53, lives in England; Lynn, 47, in Los Angeles. Yet as they chat warmly and study each other’s reactions during a one-hour interview, often laughing with the intimacy reserved for family, it is clear that the unlikely vehicle of a spooky cult film has had special meaning for both of them, personally as well as professionally.

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By a quirk, “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?,” which ABC plans to run during the February ratings sweeps, was just the first of two projects for the Redgrave sisters that came almost simultaneously--after their lifetime apart in show business. Shortly after completing the TV film, both left for England, where they opened on the London stage in Chekhov’s “The Three Sisters” last week, along with another member of the Redgrave theatrical dynasty, their niece Jemma.

Vanessa says it was “sheer coincidence” that the two projects “happened about the same time,” and then explains the origins of how she and Lynn finally got together:

“We were in New York and we both appeared in a concert that I produced called ‘The Wall Breaks.’ It was a celebration of the overthrow of the Stalinist regimes, and there were a lot of marvelous artists taking part. And I rang Lynn and said, would she take part? And what would she think if we did the last scene from ‘The Three Sisters’?

“So she thought about it and said, ‘Well, maybe it’s the only time we’ll ever work together, so yes, let’s.’ And our brother (Corin, also an actor--and the father of Jemma) did it. And Chris Reeve did it, and Sigourney Weaver played Irina (one of the sisters) with us.

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“And many people said it was extraordinary. And we knew it was. It was a very special evening. And it was a very special moment that we were there in this scene playing real sisters. And it was just about that time that we had word from (executive producers) Bill Aldrich and Steve White about ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’ ”

Aldrich’s late father, Robert Aldrich, had produced and directed the original 1962 movie, in which the feuding between Davis and Crawford became part of Hollywood lore. Yet it was also a film that rescued the careers of the two acting legends--and Bill Aldrich, then a teen-ager, was an assistant to his father on the production. In recent years, he had tried mightily to put together a new version of “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?,’ first in vain as a motion picture, then, finally, as a TV movie.

The story is about sisters--two aging actresses living in hate in a faded mansion in Hancock Park. Crawford played Blanche, the once-glamorous star now confined to a wheelchair because of an accident that Davis, formerly the child performer Baby Jane, thinks she caused. Blanche seems the victim, while Davis has become a boozing terror.

In ABC’s version, set in the present, Vanessa Redgrave is the confined Blanche, and Lynn portrays the grotesque Baby Jane. “I think people expected Vanessa to play Baby Jane,” Aldrich said earlier in an interview while waiting for the production to wrap. “And that’s why I wanted Lynn to play her.”

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“I thought that was absolutely perfect,” says Vanessa. “I knew Lynn would be quite extraordinary in this part. There wasn’t a question in my mind as to who should be who as soon as the idea came up.”

“Here were all those years and years when Vanessa and I hadn’t worked together,” says Lynn. “When we talked, we mentioned that fact. She never stops working. I never stop working. This was the first time we’ve had many consecutive days together probably since we were children in our parents’ house. It’s very hard to find a project, and then suddenly we found two in a row. With ‘Baby Jane,’ it was really Bill Aldrich found us.”

Aldrich says he’s “frightened” about the reception to his new production, which David Greene directed and Brian Taggert wrote--because the memory of the old one is still vivid. “I’m frightened about it because my father made it,” he says. But what makes him “comfortable,” he adds, is the performances of the Redgraves, even though “people were saying, is it gimmicky having sisters play sisters?”

For both the Redgraves and Aldrich, the casting of real sisters in the roles added a rare quality to the production of ABC’s “Baby Jane.”

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“There are things that Lynn and Vanessa do and say--and looks that they give one another--that only sisters could give, only sisters who’ve known each other for over 47 years, and have shared terrible tragedies and wonderful highs together,” says Aldrich. “At the end of some takes, they would stare at each other and then hug each other and cry. Actors don’t do that. Sisters do that.”

Informed of Aldrich’s assessment, Vanessa nods her head in agreement. Lynn adds: “I think we did feel that. We had a childhood where my relationship with Vanessa was unique in that we never fought. Vanessa was a sort of storybook sister to me. There is a bond between us that I feel very, very strongly.”

“So do I,” Vanessa says softly, staring at Lynn.

The two women sometimes seem planets apart in manner, although they are sitting inches from each other. Vanessa considers each question thoughtfully before answering, then chooses her words carefully, sometimes staring at the floor as though concentrating to get every nuance across. Lynn’s answers burst forth in a rush of exuberance.

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At one point, Vanessa gets up to help a reporter shut the door tight after a stream of people pass through and break the flow of the interview.

Although both sisters have played the classics, Vanessa’s formidable image remains that of a grand-style actress, while Lynn--who has also been splendid in such films as “Georgy Girl"--seems more outgoing and is not above plunging into such television series as “House Calls” and “Chicken Soup,” or doing commercials for Weight Watchers.

When it is suggested to Vanessa that it’s difficult to imagine her doing a television series, she laughs and replies:

“What a shame.”

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Really? Could she see herself doing a weekly series?

“Oh, yes. I certainly could.”

What kind?

“Just a good kind. I’ve never done one. I would like to do one. And I probably wonder if I could do it.”

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Would she consider one in the United States?

“Certainly I would, if I was offered one.”

Thus far, her American TV roles have principally been in strong dramatic specials.

They include “Playing for Time,” a Holocaust concentration camp drama for which she won an Emmy; “Second Serve,” in which she portrayed the transsexual doctor and tennis player, Renee Richards; “Orpheus Descending,” the recently revived Tennessee Williams play, presented by Ted Turner’s TNT cable station following its Broadway run; and “My Body, My Child,” an “ABC Theatre” production about a woman who must decide whether to have an abortion.

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Despite these heavyweight dramas and such memorable films as “Isadora” and “Julia,” for which she won an Oscar, Vanessa says that if she took the TV series plunge--in America or “elsewhere"--she’d be open to comedy as well.

“Yes,” she says. “People tend to put actresses and actors in categories, naturally, because they’ll have seen them in something they liked. But the issue isn’t the format--it’s the story.”

Vanessa Redgrave is, of course, not only perhaps the finest actress in the English-speaking world, but also has been a controversial public figure because of her outspoken support of leftist politics and the Palestinian cause. She does not like to be interviewed about such matters but, asked whether she thought her Broadway reception in “Orpheus Descending” was important in opening some doors that may have been closed to her for a while in America, she ponders the question and replies:

“Well, I can address it in one aspect, which I think is the most important--which is that times change. What people are concerned with changes. Mostly, what we all share is that we want to know more than we knew before. I think we’re living in times when, in the main, we all think that people have got a right to their own point of view.

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“We want to hear these points of view. We don’t want anybody’s point of view not to be heard, whether we agree with it or not. I stress that because, while not wanting to get into political subjects, it is so bound up with the content of the work that a writer is writing about, and how a producer and writer think it should be communicated, and who they cast in it.

“And we’re living in a very international world in which a hundred variants that have divided us from each other are breaking down one after another.”

In a separate conversation later in the night, following the joint interview with her sister, Lynn Redgrave adds her strong feelings on the matter:

“It was sort of horrifying that she was blocked from work for a long time, where her work, it seemed to me, spoke for itself. Her political beliefs are poles apart in many cases from things that I believe, though sometimes we cross paths. But I think the longer (things) went on, it was a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. And when, thank goodness, the producers of ‘Orpheus’ said, ‘We’re going to put it on because of her wonderful performance in England,’ nobody stormed the theater.

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“Certainly violence had been perpetrated in the past. But nobody did anything except say it’s a great performance. It broke the spell, and thank God it did. I don’t want to comment on her political beliefs. That’s not my thing to do. But she’s held true to what she believes in. If it’s not what somebody else believes in, it’s still a free country supposedly, but unfortunately it was proved not to be.

“And now it would appear that for the good fortune of audiences everywhere, they’re going to see her again. And I think that’s wonderful.”

“I was the child of whom nothing was expected,” says Lynn Redgrave.

She and Vanessa were both born in London to the late performer Sir Michael Redgrave and his wife, Rachel Kempson, who is still acting.

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“Vanessa,” Lynn continues, “was the child of the family--being the oldest--of whom everything was expected. And she surpassed any possible expectations. My aspirations were treated with amazement and sort of suppressed shock because basically our parents were very nice people who didn’t want to show their shock.”

“You picked it up,” says Vanessa with quiet amusement.

“I saw it,” says Lynn. “I saw the shock. And indeed, when we finally read our father’s autobiography, ‘In My Mind’s Eye,’ which came out maybe two years before his death, I discovered for the first time--since he was the great communicator on stage but not to me--the absolute depth of his shock when I announced that I was going to be an actress. I had no idea of it because his stock in trade, to me certainly, was to greet things with a noncommittal sort of look. His great communication was in his work.”

Looking at Vanessa, who continues laughing softly, Lynn recalls the special standing of her sister in the family, “including the very lavish announcement from the stage of ‘Hamlet’ by Laurence Olivier on the moment of her birth.”

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But though her own lot was “the exact opposite” and the two sisters went their “totally different ways,” Lynn adds: “Out of that we made our own lives and our own careers and had our children. And as unbelievable as it may seem, a rivalry, a hatred, a moment of wanting to kill the other one--all of which are natural to most sisters--never happened. We’re people of an advanced age now. It’s not going to happen.”

It would, of course, make for juicy viewing if the two sisters starring in “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” were at odds, as their characters are--and as Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were. In 1967, for instance, the Redgrave sisters were competing nominees for the Oscar for best actress--Vanessa for “Morgan” and Lynn for “Georgy Girl.” (The winner was Elizabeth Taylor for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”)

“The press was upon us,” says Lynn, “desperately looking for antagonism because it was so much more interesting if we hated each other. I was just amazed. We weren’t that way.”

“I felt the same way,” says Vanessa. “I saw ‘Georgy Girl’ at the time we were both up for an Oscar. And I saw it again, I suppose about two years ago. I was absolutely astounded by Lynn’s work (as a plump ugly duckling in the comedy). When I see Lynn act, I feel some of the same, I guess, as when I saw our father, Michael, act. There are times you just don’t think you know the person because they’re so surprising.

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“I think in a way we’ve been lucky. I wouldn’t have chosen it to be this way--I would have preferred that we’d had more time together. But I think that sometimes families take each other for granted a hell of a lot. Because they see each other so frequently, through all the little ins and outs of life, they lose a perspective. They think, my sister, my father, my son, my daughter. And they don’t see this extraordinary human being out there.

“Perhaps because we’re in the profession that we are, you do see something of that extraordinary human being in the work they do, and you’re astonished.”

But of course there is the flip side to show business, as epitomized by the extreme example of the twisted sisters in “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” Lynn Redgrave thinks that growing up in a theatrical family--even one far removed from the world of Blanche and Jane--brought something extra to the production and provided food for thought about the nature of the “cut-throat business.”

“Although we weren’t child actors, it’s something we know pretty well,” she says. “Yes, our knowledge of the theater from an early age probably helped.

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“It is a very curious thing to do for a living. And the reason it is so strange and corrupting, I think, is that all your life as a child, you are encouraged to overcome your emotions. You must stop being childlike. You must grow up. You know, behave like a big girl and grow up. Then you grow up--and if you become an actress, what you must recall or hang on to is all of your most primitive instincts that you’ve been taught to overcome and suppress.”

Did the Redgraves’ distinguished parents bar them from becoming child actors?

“Well,” says Lynn, “I didn’t want to act at the start, until I was stage-struck at the age of 15 1/2. Vanessa was acting before me and playing as a dancer and everything. I think you did want to be a child actor, didn’t you?”

“If they had let me, I would have,” says Vanessa.

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Lynn: “You were always just desperate to be an actress, and they didn’t think (being a child actor) was a good idea at all.”

Vanessa: “No.”

Lynn: “I recall our parents both saying that it was very detrimental to the adult actor process. If you want to be an adult actor, the one thing that isn’t going to help you is to be a child actor. Being a child actor is a whole other process. As our friend Roddy McDowall said the other night, if you want to become an adult actor, you have to start all over again, and it’s bloody difficult.”

To some, it is also bloody difficult to think of anyone but Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” Could anyone take the place of Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Boulevard"--that other nightmare of the Hollywood dream?

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Producer Steve White says “a lot of people were afraid of the original, of the risk” when he unsuccessfully tried to mount a motion picture remake of “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” while running the features division at New World Pictures.

The original film earned five Academy Award nominations, including one for Davis, who was certain she would get the statuette for best actress. Instead, she stood stunned in the wings when Anne Bancroft was announced as the winner for “The Miracle Worker.” And Crawford sailed onstage to accept for the absent Bancroft, stealing the scene.

Bill Aldrich may be frightened about living up to his father’s achievement with the 1962 “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?,” but he’s confident that nobody could give him a better shot than the Redgrave sisters.

“Some wonderful actresses were suggested to me--people such as Elizabeth Taylor and Faye Dunaway,” he says. “But I didn’t know who to put them with as sisters. There was never a pairing that I was prepared to go forward with that could come up to the quality that Crawford and Davis brought to the movie.”

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In casting Vanessa Redgrave in the less flamboyant role of Blanche, Aldrich says:

“Having worked on the first picture--and having watched it a countless number of times--I knew how really difficult it is for the actress who’s playing Blanche, because she doesn’t have many things to do. She’s paralyzed. She’s in bed most of the time, or in a wheelchair. Vanessa, for as long as I’m able to remember, has been able to do more with a look, with a glance, with her eyes, than almost any other actor I’ve ever seen work.

“That’s the actor I wanted in the wheelchair, in a bed. She can do more with emotions than most actors could do with four legs and six hands and props.”

Nor was she worried about comparisons with the past, says Aldrich: “Her answer is that, being trained in the classics, no matter what role she does in the theater, somebody has done it before and is well known for it. So she came in here and just played the hell out of this character.”

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“There is,” says Lynn Redgrave, “a physical freedom between us as sisters. That’s something you can’t learn.”

As for Vanessa Redgrave, she says that one of the prime reasons she wanted to play Blanche is her fascination with “a person who has been destroyed and perverted by image-making, in an industry that makes images.”


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