Vanessa as Gay Icon

5.19.2014

By Jerry Portwood

The actress has played iconic gay roles, her father was a lover of Noel Coward's, and she remains a legend

Vanessa Redgrave is many things to many people: actress, political activist, sister, mother. She was proclaimed the "greatest living actress of our times" by both Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams and has starred in groundbreaking stage, film, and TV roles. She recently returned to Broadway in Driving Miss Daisy opposite James Earl Jones and, after each performance, would dilligently sign each and every Playbill for her adoring fans of all ages.

At 77, Redgrave seems to have done just about everything—but shows no signs of stopping. Author Dan Callahan has written the first biography of Vanessa Redgrave, titled Vanessa (available now), that exposes readers to her fame-making 1961 turn as Rosalind in the Royal Shakespeare Company's As You Like It, digs into her famous family (including her late daughter Natasha Richardson), and delves into her left-wing political activism. Callahan also makes the case that the iconic star of stage and screen should be seen as a gay icon. At least she is to him. We caught up with Callahan, who knows more about Vanessa Redgrave than we thought humanly possible, and asked him to highlight some of the Redgrave mythology and what she means to gay men and women around the globe.

On the gayness/bisexuality of her father Michael and her first husband Tony Richardson:

“Vanessa’s father and her first husband were both extremely influential in the development of her style as an actress. Observing as she did their own personal struggle over their sexuality informs all of her work and particularly the work where she has played gay characters.”

On her Oscar-nominated performance as the barely repressed lesbian Olive Chancellor in 1984's The Bostonians:

“This is a beautifully controlled and very suggestive performance. Just look at the way Redgrave’s Olive runs her hand down the breasts of her young charge Verena (Madeleine Potter). In a single gesture, Redgrave epitomizes a whole generation of women who loved other women with all their hearts but could not face the truth about their own sexuality.”

Watch a clip from The Bostonians below:


On her groundbreaking 1986 performance as transgender tennis star Renée Richards in Second Serve:

“To me, this is her greatest and most empathetic performance on screen. At a time when the struggles of transgender people were only beginning to be understood, Redgrave harnessed all of her own immense imaginative power to portray Richards at all stages of her life with enormous sensitivity.”

On her performance as literary agent Peggy Ramsay in the classic gay film Prick Up Your Ears:

“Redgrave gets to be a real earth mother in this picture. I love the naughty-amused way she deals with the cheerful sexual promiscuity of her client Joe Orton (Gary Orton), the acceptance she has of him, and the tender curiosity.”


On the 1991 TV remake of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? with her sister Lynn:

“This movie makes several smart choices, particularly bringing Victor Buono’s mother-dominated character from the original movie out of the closet as an openly gay video clerk played by John Glover.”

Watch 'The Haircut' clip from the film below:


On her appearance with her brother Corin in Noel Coward's A Song at Twilight in 1999:

“This is a key example of Redgrave’s boldness. She played opposite her own brother as a former lover who attempts to blackmail him about a homosexual affair in his past. What makes this even more dangerous is that Coward was one of their father Michael's major lovers. Michael spent the last night before he left to fight in WWII with Coward, which did not make their mother Rachel happy. Judging from the reviews, the risk here paid off handsomely.”

On her performance as a lesbian who loses her lover and her home in the “1961” segment of If These Walls Could Talk 2 (2000), which won her a second Emmy:

“Any person who happens to be against gay marriage for any reason should be shown this 30-minute segment about a woman who loses everything because her relationship has no legal safeguards. Redgrave plays each moment for its maximum impact. She not only illuminates the life of this one martyred woman but all of the lives of all gay and lesbian people who have been shamed and discriminated against. There are many reasons why Redgrave should be a gay icon, but there is none more potent than this.”

Watch clips from If These Walls Could Talk 2 below:

Vanessa, 416 pages, by Dan Callahan, is available from Pegasus Books.

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