Vanessa Redgrave, the Best Actress of Our Time

05/19/2014 9:00 AM |

The cover of Vanessa: The Life of Vanessa Redgrave, a book by Dan Callahan

Last week, Pegasus published Dan Callahan’s Vanessa: The Life of Vanessa Redgrave. We caught up with the Brooklyn-based author, who’s also our senior theater critic, to talk about the legendary actress.

You also wrote a book about Barbara Stanwyck. How do you decide an actress is worth writing a book about?

I felt that Stanwyck was the best actress of her time, and I feel that Redgrave is the best actress of our current time. They are very different, but they do have one crucial thing in common: neither of them was good at selling themselves and doing colorful publicity to advance their careers. I feel like my books can help to promote the greatness of their work, whereas Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis need no such help.


Was there anything you discovered while researching Redgrave that surprised you?

Oh yes, continually. It was a real roller coaster ride. My heart sank, sometimes, when I was speaking to some of the people who had been in the Workers Revolutionary Party with her in the 1970s. I wish that she hadn’t been in that party. But I think that this is a very sympathetic book. My father, who didn’t know too much about her, just finished reading it, and he told me he admired her by the end of it.

You reviewed a play for us that she was in. What was it like to see her on stage?

Unforgettable. Great as she is on screen, it is on stage where you can feel her full greatness. Seeing Redgrave in The Revisionist was like getting hit by a huge wave at the beach and getting turned upside down in the water and then gasping happily on shore.

For people unfamiliar with Redgrave’s work, what would you recommend as good places to start?

I would tell them to go right to YouTube and watch her performance in the “1961” segment of If These Walls Could Talk 2 (2000) and then watch her performance as Olive Chancellor in The Bostonians (1984). And get Blow-Up (1966) on DVD, to see what she was like as a young woman. Playing for Time (1980) is on DVD from Olive Films, and she’s devastating in it. My personal favorite is the TV film Second Serve (1986), but that is very hard to see. I’d love to also recommend Isadora (1968) and The Devils (1971), but those are very hard to find in prints that aren’t badly cut. The Fever (2004), based on Wallace Shawn’s play, is also excellent, and very personal for her. 

Has Redgrave read the book?

Redgrave’s agents contacted us last week. She’s living in New York right now, and she saw that we were showing Blow-Up at the Museum of the Moving Image, and she requested a copy of the book. We sent it to her, along with a very impassioned letter from me. I hope that she sees it is a serious and respectful book that was primarily written to celebrate her achievements as an actress. 

Which neighborhood do you live in?
I live in Park Slope with my longtime boyfriend Keith Uhlich, who’s a film critic at Time Out New York. He was living here when I was first dating him, 13 years ago. I have lived with him for nine years. At first, I worried about leaving The City, but I fell in love with the neighborhood right away. All the beautiful buildings from the 1890s give me a lift when I’m walking to the library at Grand Army Plaza. It really feels like a sanctuary where I can create a world of my own.

Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart

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