One of the many upsides of being a film star is that you get the opportunity to share your opinions with a wide audience. Those of us listening to the last 40 minutes of the Today programme on Thursday morning had the privilege of hearing the political insights of Vanessa Redgrave. It fell to Mishal Husain to conduct the interview with the octogenarian actress after she had been honoured with a lifetime achievement award at the Venice Film Festival.
Poor Mishal went to considerable effort, she really did. Her tone was unfailingly reverential as she paid homage to the grande dame of stage and screen, kicking off after the congratulations with a warm invitation to agree that the Golden Lion award must be special, given how important Venice and things Italian are to her. That got a weary ‘I’m talking about the Festival, dear.’ There was then an easy question about quality films as opposed to box-office dross that allowed Redgrave to make the irrefutable point that it’s hard for good films to get financed. It didn’t come, though, before Husain had been rebuked (‘There’s no point in discussing that’) for trying to talk about the ‘industry more broadly’.
Next up was something about whether the film world, in the wake of #MeToo, was changing as a place for women to work in, again apparently allowing Redgrave a comfortable space to reflect on Hollywood’s gender politics. That touched a nerve. Redgrave was having none of it. She said it was all the fault of the media for being interested only in the stars, rather than the acting, treating film actresses in a ‘demeaning way’. All ego, ego, ego, she sighed in the manner of one perceiving herself to be entirely free of ego. What film stars were concerned with, she insisted, was literature, music and art. Well, some are, Vanessa. Others are quite taken with massive pay cheques, doing what it takes to land the role, including spending vast amounts of time and cash on their looks, and making sure they have plenty of flesh on display for all the shimmying up red carpets, hands on hips and pouting into the cameras, before they collect their gongs.
Wouldn’t it be nice if stars, all the beautiful and glamorous, just boycotted awards galas and photo-ops for five years and said nope, these years are all for the proper recognition of make-up artists, set designers, lighting directors, runners, people who bring food to the trailers? That would surely be a way of stopping the media getting what, according to Redgrave, it feeds on. Let the behind-the-scenes crowd get their time in the limelight.
Wouldn’t work, would it? And not only because they might have to come along later fatter and having undergone more ‘work’. There are not many stars who will stay out of the limelight for too long. They like the spotlight, Vanessa, the focus on them as, yes, stars. Many of them will feel (probably rightly) they’ve done a lot to get there. Who knows? After all, not every performer has statuesque beauty as well as the skill and connections that impeccable thespian genes must afford.
Then it came, as it had to. Politics. Husain ventured, quite reasonably, that the former member of the Workers Revolutionary Party was known for her politics and her activism. That got Vanessa’s goat. Gathering herself up to her loftiest and most sanctimonious position down the line from Italy, she replied that no, in fact, she was known for her human rights. There was a withering ‘excuse me’ before she referenced her toil with UNHCR and being an ‘advocate of human right laws’. The slaughter of refugees, she claimed, was a result of the action of ‘these governments in Europe’.
We can infer from this, then, that the Rohingya crisis in Redgrave’s determinedly contorted worldview has nothing to do with the politics of Myanmar. Likewise, presumably the Syrian refugee crisis has nothing to do with one Bashar-al-Assad nor Vladimir Putin. One imagines, too, that when Boko Haram commit heinous crimes against African schoolchildren, that too can be laid at the door of administrations in London or Paris or Berlin. Redgrave then surpassed herself on the subject of the Second World War when she said that Britain just gave Hitler everything he wanted until it was too late and that people went to the gas chambers because of European governments.
Finally, Husain brought up the D-word (for Damehood) which Redgrave has turned down. ‘No, we are not going to discuss that, not appropriate,’ intoned Redgrave with fury-as-composure. Gamely, Husain soldiered on. Would she accept it if it were offered again? That got the same put-down, but with the unconvincing apology ‘Sorry to be so po-faced.’ The interview ended on Husain’s silkily gracious, ‘That’s absolutely fine.’
And in a sense, it is. No, need to apologise, Vanessa. We do understand. After all, these are difficult questions, ones which it is only really possible to duck by saying no comment. We know that for you some gongs are more equal than others. We know, too, that it’s difficult to be on the Left and to try to talk about Jews and Israel. We also know what we most feel you are famous for. And that, you’ll be happy to hear, is not as a political activist. It’s as an unforgettable Mary, Queen of Scots.