Wed, 29 Aug, 2018Basmah Qazi

Vanessa Redgrave recalls unapologetic speech at 1978 Oscars: "I had to do my bit"

Vanessa Redgrave recalls unapologetic speech at 1978 Oscars: "I had to do my bit"

Vanessa Redgrave is someone who isn’t afraid to speak her mind, and that’s exactly what the 81-year-old actress did when she sat down with The Hollywood Reporter for an exclusive interview.

The actress, who made her on-screen debut at the age of 21 in the film Behind the Mask where her father Michael Redgrave played the lead, has made a name for herself throughout her time in the industry. 

She is the proud recipient of every acting honour available, including an Oscar, Golden Globe, Emmy, Tony, BAFTA and countless more awards from Venice and Cannes.

But the successful star had other plans growing up, where she saw herself as a dancer. 

“I wanted that more than anything, but it became clear that it wouldn’t work, that I would be too tall,” she said, addressing her 6-foot tall height.

She has been at the forefront of Hollywood’s most successful films. Movies such as Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) where she speaks fondly of the Italian director saying that he “is a terrific man and a real artist. I felt he was somewhat glorious", to the Catholic drama The Devils (1971). But for Redgrave, her most memorable role, and the one she constantly revisits is Josh Logan’s musical interpretation of Camelot (1967).

“I was thrilled to bits to get that role,” she says. “It was a huge thing for me.”

Regarding her work on stage, American playwrights Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams have named her “the greatest living actress of our times” and in the UK, her name is spoken with the same level of respect as Dame Judi Dench and Sir Ian McKellen.

But the talented artist isn’t immune from criticism, as she is a proud advocate for political causes and regularly uses her platform to speak up on what she believes in. In the past, she has voiced her disagreement with the Vietnam and Iraq war. She also ran for political office in Britain as a member of the Trotskyist Workers Revolutionary Party. And, at the age of 80, she directed her first ever film Sea Sorrow, which was a documentary highlighting the conditions refugees must face when fleeing to Europe.

After congratulating the Academy for standing up “to a small bunch of Zionist hoodlums” who had criticised her for producing and featuring in a documentary regarding Palestine in her 1978 Oscar acceptance speech, she was put under intense scrutiny as many in the audience booed her off the stage.

And while her comments were directed towards extremists in the Jewish Defense League, who had offered a bounty to have her killed, the phrase “Zionist hoodlums” tarnished her image for many, even though she ended her speech with a promise to “fight anti-Semitism and fascism for as long as I live".

Fire bombings at cinemas showing her documentary and having a statue of her burned to ashes were only a few of the things Redgrave faced after saying those words, but 40 years later, she still remains unapologetic.

“I didn’t realise pledging to fight anti-Semitism and fascism was controversial. I’m learning that it is,” she says. And her political conquests have always been driven by one thing: a sense of responsibility to do the right thing.

“I had to do my bit,” she says.

“Everybody had to do their bit, to try and change things for the better. To advocate for what’s right and not be dismayed if immediately you don’t see results.”

She credits her parents as her inspirations behind her powerful personality – actors Sir Michael Redgrave and Rachel Kempson, but also writers such as Cecil Day-Lewis and EM Forster – for making her more politically aware. Her long list also features fellow co-worker and African-American actor Paul Robeson, who featured in one of Redgrave’s first acting jobs as the lead in a 1959 performance of Othello.

“He was wonderful, wonderful,” she remembers, “Paul played Othello and Tony Richardson directed it! So, I have a sackful of people to admire and look up to there!”

Redgrave recently finished shooting Matthew Lopez’s play The Inheritance and will soon be featuring in three other projects: Adrian Nobel’s Mrs. Lowry and Son, The Aspern Papers by director Julien Landais and Christoph Waltz’s directorial debut, Georgetown.

“I have a big mortgage, so I have to pay the bills!” she says matter-of-factly while remaining thankful for the opportunities she is still given. “It’s still so rare. If you have the chance, well, you have to keep going at it.”