Vanessa's Matter-of-Fact Dedication
Vanessa Redgrave, who marks the milestone birthday of 80 today, was mildly matter-of-fact in her 1994 autobiography about how she secured the role that would win her an Academy Award®. She was making her Broadway debut in the spring 1976 production of Henrik Ibsen’s The Lady from the Sea. “One night as I came into the Circle in the Square to get ready for the performance, Pam, one of the usherettes, who used to baby-sit for [Redgrave’s son] Carlo on her night off, gave me a book. ‘You must read this – it should be made into a film and you should play Julia.’ That night when I got home I read Lillian Hellman’s Pentimento from start to finish….Next day at the theatre I found a message from Fred Zinnemann. I telephoned his office the following morning and heard that he was casting for the film Julia (1977), with Jane Fonda, and wanted to meet me. Zinnemann was kind, but he was also extremely cautious. I decided to take the bull by the horns and told him I wanted to play the part of Julia. He gave me the script to take away and read. Julia’s role was very small, but that did nothing to affect my desire to play her. I rang my agent and told him that he should accept their first offer without argument….Not long before she died, Lillian also told me that her own part in the story was true, and I believed her. I did not meet her until 1984, but after I had done the film she revealed that she had insisted on my being cast as Julia. ‘You’re so like the lady in question, it’s uncanny.’” The director was also straightforward and prosaic in his 1992 Fred Zinnemann – An Autobiography: A Life in the Movies: “Logically, this part should have been played by an American actress, but movies have very little to do with logic (except for bookkeeping, of course). The person who seemed to combine all the essential qualities of style, breeding and an almost mystic dedication – Vanessa Redgrave – is English. Having worked with her 10 years earlier, when she played Anne Boleyn in A Man for All Seasons, I knew her well. Because of her politics there was strong opposition at the studio to casting her, but she was undoubtedly the right actress for the part and she kept her personal convictions pretty much to herself until a memorable moment at the Academy when, being warmly applauded upon receiving her Oscar®, she made a political speech. In 30 seconds the temperature dropped to ice while she, smiling happily, descended the steps, gave me a big kiss and sat down.” In between the images these two reminiscences conjure came the work itself, in which Fonda played Lillian, the writer-in-the-making who must battle her own doubts and fears about her talent, and Redgrave embodied Julia, a lifelong friend who would draw her into purposeful pre-World War II anti-Nazi activism by her selfless, life-endangering example. In Saturday Review, Arthur Schlesinger would proclaim: “What a marvelous pair these two are! They play off each other wonderfully, Redgrave with her exquisite and steely passion, Fonda with her tremulous self-doubt and involuntary commitment. Each performance is a triumph of professional skill and personal spirit.” And within the work came “the scene” which crystallized its effect on audiences. As Danny Peary describes it in Guide for the Film Fanatic: “Their final meeting is heart-wrenching. You see the love these women have for each other, how being politically committed has ravaged Julia’s beauty (she has lost a leg), and – I believe this is the most interesting point of the film, because it breaks with movie stereotyping – that being a leftist has not deprived Julia of her warmth, her humility, and her concern for people like Lillian who are not as politically dedicated as she is. Julia, communist or humanist, is a person with tolerance, heart, anger at the evils in the world; with thoughts about the entire world but also genuine interest in Lillian’s private life, her writing, her happiness.” Now, more reflective and more restricted in activity after surviving a near-fatal heart attack in April 2015 and being diagnosed with emphysema, Redgrave nonetheless continues working on stage (last summer’s London production of Richard III with Ralph Fiennes) and screen (narrating Call the Midwife, whose sixth season premiered in Britain this past week and will arrive here on PBS later this year, and appearing in the upcoming The Secret Scripture and three more 2017 projects in the pipeline). For those who have valued her passions and performances across the past eight decades, there’s nothing matter-of-fact about her. While watching the astonishing work on view in three-time Oscar® winner Julia on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray, be sure to access co-star Fonda’s Audio Commentary to learn what she values in her dear friend Vanessa.