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House of Redgrave weaves a spellbinding tale of acting royalty

by Mark Burger

Of the great acting dynasties, few have commanded such respect, earned such scrutiny and generated as much controversy as the Redgraves.

Assembling the disparate pieces, personalities and passions of this true acting dynasty has fallen to author Tim Adler, whose non-fiction book The House of Redgrave (Aurum Press; US distribution Quayside; 336 pages; $29.95 retail) offers a thorough and often enlightening portrayal of the famous family.

They’re all here: Sir Michael Redgrave and actress wife Rachel Kempson, their children Vanessa, Corin and Lynn, and the children of those children who have joined the “family business”: Vanessa’s daughters Natasha and Joely, and Corin’s daughter Jemma.

The Redgraves have long been regarded as acting royalty, which the title reflects. Obliquely, it also hints at how many rooms the House of Redgrave would require given its expansive number and also, indeed, some skeletons in the closet. Fortune has smiled on the family over the years, but fate has also lain in wait to strike — sometimes on devastating levels. It’s all here: the affairs, the activism and, indeed, the acting. Each member of the Redgrave family has made a significant mark.

It’s hardly surprising that Vanessa Redgrave should dominate the proceedings, as much for her lauded performances (she’s an Oscar-, Emmy- and Tony-winner) as her outspoken political activism. It’s safe to say that Vanessa Redgrave may be the most politically outspoken actress of her time — and perhaps all time. Her devotion to some of these causes may have been misguided, but they were sincere — although they cost her dearly both professionally and personally. (Her acceptance speech at the ’77 Oscars remains an incendiary moment on the history of the Academy.)

Although an unauthorized biography — the family attempted litigation to prevent it being published — The House of Redgrave is neither mean-spirited nor salacious, although it could easily have descended into either. Adler instead displays a consistent, often refreshing respect for his subject(s), though not at the expense of whitewashing the truth.

Nevertheless, there is little wonder why the surviving members of the family weren’t thrilled with the prospect its publication, not so much out of embarrassment but more so out of grief and heartbreak. Some of those memories are undoubtedly agonizing. The tragic death of Natasha Richardson in a 2009 skiing mishap was closely followed by the deaths of Corin and Lynn.

The book is as much a biography of Tony Richardson, Vanessa’s first husband and father of Natasha and Joely. An Oscar winner for his direction of Tom Jones (1963) and very much a force in Britain’s formative and fertile theater and film realms of the 1950s and ’60s, he remained very friendly with Vanessa after their 1967 divorce. Like his father-in-law Michael Redgrave, Richardson was a closeted bisexual and tragically would die of AIDS in 1991 — three years before his final feature, Blue Sky (made for financially-strapped Orion Pictures), was released to theaters and earned Jessica Lange an Oscar as Best Actress.

There are, however, a handful of nagging inconsistencies — most of which could have been avoided by consulting the internet, where the information is readily available.

Both Vanessa and Lynn were nominated for Best Actress in 1966, the latter not for Best Supporting Actress. (That Lynn was playing the title role in Georgy Girl would indicate a lead, and not a supporting, role.)

With so many characters and so much ground to cover, some omissions are perhaps inevitable. Vanessa was nominated again –— as Best Supporting Actress –— for Howards End (1992), but there’s no mention of the film at all. (Some of her lesser credits are duly ignored but, indeed, those are lesser credits.)

The book essentially comes to a close in 2010, following the deaths of Natasha (who was married to Liam Neeson), Corin and Lynn. Vanessa Redgrave, now married to longtime love Franco Nero, is now the matriarch of the Redgraves and bearer of its mantle. Although she’s worked continuously — including a Tony-nominated turn in the 2010 Broadway production of Driving Miss Daisy opposite James Earl Jones — she rarely, if ever, answers questions about her personal life. Then again, to say that Vanessa’s relationship with the media has been stormy over the years would be a gross understatement. Yet that too is part of the Redgrave mystique, which Adler has captured and conveyed well.

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