When Vanessa Redgrave receives her Bafta fellowship this evening from Prince William, it will be a moment rich in theatrical potential. First, there is the pathos: the great veteran actress, still vibrant at 73, bestowed with a crowning professional accolade one year on from the death of her daughter, Natasha Richardson, in a skiing accident.
Then the dramatic irony of the revolutionary Marxist accepting the award from a prince.
Redgrave does not boast the most tactful history of acceptance speeches. Four years ago, having been recognised for her lifetime's achievement by the Transylvania film festival, she dedicated the award to a group campaigning against a gold mine in Romania owned by one of the festival's sponsors. A number of villagers then put their names to an advert that was published in the Guardian stating that they were very happy with the gold mine and wanted the development it would bring.
In 1977, she won the best supporting actress Oscar for her role in Julia and told the audience at the Academy Awards that she wouldn't be intimidated by a "bunch of Zionist hoodlums". That's the kind of sentiment that might play well in, say, Tripoli or Tower Hamlets, but it doesn't win you many friends in Hollywood.
Winning friends, however, has never been high on Redgrave's list of priorities. Saving humanity has long been her main objective, ideally through the imposition of a political programme that follows a Trotskyist understanding of dialectical materialism.
But when not giving her active support to a variety of causes, from the plight of Chechen separatists to the battle against supermarkets, she has built one of the most lauded careers in acting, both on stage and in film.
The notion that a "star is born" is most often a whimsical myth, but in Redgrave's case it is a matter of theatrical record. It was Laurence Olivier who announced her birth on stage at the Old Vic in 1937. "Ladies and gentleman," he proclaimed, "tonight a great actress has been born. Laertes has a daughter!"
Laertes was Michael Redgrave, who would go on to become a knight of the stage. His parents were also actors, as was his wife (Vanessa's mother), Rachel Kempson. The dynasty continued with Natasha and Joely Richardson, the product of Redgrave's marriage to the director Tony Richardson.
Redgrave's father was essentially homosexual, which Kempson knew and accepted. For much of Redgrave's childhood, Michael spent his time with his lover, Bob Michell, who lived in a nearby house and was like an uncle to Redgrave and her brother, Corin. A socialist in his youth, her father joined a communist front group during the war and was briefly banned by the BBC.
Despite his egalitarian leanings, her father followed class expectation and sent his daughter to private school – Queensgate. Redgrave would do the same thing with her daughters – Natasha was educated at the elite St Paul's Girls School.
As a teenager, Redgrave mingled in the debutante scene and at 23 professed her love for a man "in one of Lloyd's insurance syndicates [with] shares and that sort of thing". She maintains that she became politicised at eight years old, when she learned of the Nazi death camps, but she was not radicalised by the politics until the late Sixties.
Before that came her birthright, the stage. As Rosalind in Peter Hall's 1961 production of As You Like It at the RSC, her performance was said to have mesmerised the watching Jean Renoir. Not the least of Redgrave's paradoxes is that although she is a great Shakespearean actress, and professes a profound belief in the working class, she doesn't believe in Shakespeare. "Whoever Shakespeare was," she once said, "he wasn't a little ordinary yeoman who headed back to Stratford after he had his fun… I'm quite certain that he was a quite exceptional aristocrat who had to keep totally quiet and needed Shakespeare as cover."
Also watching that Hall production was a smitten Richardson. They married the following year and split five years later when Richardson, who was bisexual, left her for Jeanne Moreau. She then had a relationship with Franco Nero, with whom she appeared in Camelot, and gave birth to a son, Carlo.
In the Sixties, she enjoyed great critical success on stage and screen, though that could be said of the following decades as well. She took the lead role in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in the play's 1966 theatrical debut, and was Anne Boleyn the same year in the acclaimed film of A Man for All Seasons. She played the mysterious, willowy model in Michelangelo Antonioni's Blowup, not in itself a deep exploration of character, but it certainly had an iconographic impact.
For a moment, she was cool, which is not a state that comes naturally to Redgrave. There's an awkward, tangential quality to her acting in which she doesn't so much inhabit as steal a role, taking it with her to her own idiosyncratic reality. Sometimes, her instincts work to brilliant effect, in Wilde, for example, but occasionally she can also look lost or hammy.
In his New Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson says: "There is a case for her as the best actress alive." But if so, many of her film choices have made that a challenging case to argue. There is also the problem of the baggage she brings to the screen. Peter Hall famously observed of Redgrave that "in life, which is true, she is false. In art, which is false, she is true". Redgrave wouldn't recognise the distinction, and she would be right. For her politics can and does inform her acting, in her mind as well as that of her audience.
And perhaps her acting has influenced her politics, too. She has said that she took to heavy drinking in 1972 "when Ted Heath imposed statutory wage controls". It requires a unique talent for the dramatic to flirt with alcoholism as a result of industrial legislation, if you're an actor. Not even the most neurotic of her profession would try that story at the Betty Ford clinic.
But Redgrave didn't check into a clinic. Instead, she joined the Workers Revolutionary party, a cult-like organisation that even among the far left was out-on-its-own wacko. Run by a thug and serial abuser of women named Gerry Healy, the WRP was said to be financed by the Redgraves, Colonel Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein.
In 1975, one activist told the Observer that she had been interrogated by the Redgraves and two party officials when she arrived late at a meeting, demanding to know how long she had been working for Special Branch and where she had planted bombs. Paranoia was the standard mode of communication within a party that insisted upon total commitment to the cause and refused to tolerate the distraction of family obligations.
Actor Timothy Dalton is said to have left Redgrave in 1974 after she opted to attend a trade union rally rather than spend time with him. In her autobiography, Redgrave recalls explaining to Natasha, when she was a child, that she was engaged in political struggle for her and all other children's future. "But I need you now," replied Natasha. "I won't need you so much then."
There are many sadnesses in this exchange. In the end, the WRP's struggle amounted to little more than some spying on dissidents for Libya and Iraq and Healy's alleged sexual assault of 26 female party workers. In 2007, Redgrave wrote an open letter to Natasha in which she regretted her absence as a mother. Most saddening of all is that Natasha was to die two years later.
What seems clear is that Redgrave, unlike her guru Healy, is not a malicious person. She may be naive, wilful and blinkered, but she is also motivated by a genuine desire to make the world a better place. In doing so, she seems to have been compelled by a leading actor's need to be at the centre of events, even if often they are events in which she has no constructive part to play.
In her mind, that's selflessness, but to others it can appear more like solipsism. As her sister, Lynn, once put it: "Vanessa always thought of herself as Joan of Arc. A bit of the touch of a martyr."
While she lives modestly for a successful actor, it can't be said that she has suffered for her politics because her decisions and actions have ultimately been her choice. She may have suffered for her art, but again it has brought her enormous acclaim and, doubtless, joy. Yet she has indeed suffered as a mother, burying her child.
Tonight, Vanessa Redgrave will be honoured for what she has given the world, but what's bound to loom largest in her thoughts is what she has had taken away.
From The Observer