Wednesday, May 5, 2010

This Is Living

I bet Vanessa Redgrave has had a lot of memories flooding her brain the last few days. Only a year after losing her daughter in a freak skiing accident, and only a month after losing her only brother, she now has to face the loss of her only sister. This theatrical dynasty can't catch a break.

Lynn Redgrave

I have a hunch one of the memories Vanessa might be cherishing right now is of April 10, 1967. On that night, in Santa Monica, CA, she sat with her father, Sir Michael Redgrave, her mother, Rachel Kempson, her brother, Corin Redgrave, and her little sister, Lynn Redgrave, at the Academy Awards. The show almost didn't go on, or at least, almost was not televised, as AFTRA had gone on strike against ABC two weeks before. It was only three hours before the telecast began that the strike was settled. The whole Redgrave clan was in attendance because both Vanessa and Lynn had received their first Oscar nominations. The elder was up for Morgan, and Lynn was nominated for the title role in Georgy Girl.

I imagine it was a pretty special night, and not just because the phenomenon of two sisters competing for Best Actress had only happened once before (in 1941, when Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine duked it out for the award; Fontaine won). It was a rare glimpse of the theatrical family together in public; in later years, the sisters would have a major falling out over Vanessa's political mouthiness, and Lynn's devotion to her adopted country.

(By the way, neither sister won the Oscar that year; Elizabeth Taylor took it for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf).

Lynn confessed that, in her early life, she felt like the forgotten child of the family, ignored by her parents and excluded by her siblings. Vanessa had the star quality, and Corin the brains. It was only after an equestrian career ceased to be an option that Lynn joined the family business, making a splash as a company member in the first season of the Royal National Theatre in 1963. She was directed onstage by Laurence Olivier and Franco Zefferelli, and Noel Coward cast her in his own Hay Fever. Her fellow company members included Peter O'Toole, Maggie Smith, and her father. Her brother-in-law Tony Richardson gave her a cameo in the film Tom Jones, an appearance which led to Georgy Girl.

Lynn made her Broadway debut in Peter Schaffer's Black Comedy in 1967, and she returned to the stage often throughout her career. She earned three Tony nominations (losing them all), and two Oscar nods (Georgy Girl and Gods and Monsters, thirty years apart), losing those as well. But she won the Golden Globe for both those film roles, as well as kudos from various critics groups along the way. She was nominated twice for the Emmy, and once for the Grammy (for narrating the children's book The Witches; she lost to Marlo Thomas). One of those Emmy nods, for the sitcom House Calls, was bittersweet, as she had already left the show when she was not allowed to breast feed her child in her dressing room on the set. The incident resulted in a lengthy lawsuit.

Lynn did not achieve the superstar status of her sister Vanessa, but she was surely the most "American" of the Redgraves, and not just because she became a naturalized citizen. Vanessa called Americans "imperialist pigs," a slur which so angered Lynn that it caused their estrangement. Lynn loved the States, and her yeoman-like work here made her attractive and accessible to American audiences. She did Shaw on Broadway (I saw her St. Joan, and wrote about it here), and took over for Carol Burnett in Moon Over Buffalo, but she was just as likely to be seen on Fantasy Island or Ugly Betty. She was a working actress, she explained, and she needed to work. A whole generation of Americans know her from her long association with Weight Watchers in the 80s (she was open about her struggles with bulimia); the famous tagline of her numerous commercials for the diet program became a national catchphrase.

I felt very very sad when I heard of Lynn's death a few days ago. She was not only extremely talented, she was also exceedingly brave. She was diagnosed with breast cancer, and underwent a mastectomy and chemotherapy in 2003, which put her into remission for a bit. In recent years, her cancer returned as Stage IV, when cancer has moved from the original organ and metastasized throughout the body. From that point, the end is clear. Redgrave wrote a book about her medical journey, and included graphic photos of herself (taken by her daughter)undergoing treatment. I can barely look at those pictures, they remind me so strongly of my mother's battle scars.

In recent decades, Lynn turned her complicated feelings about her family into art. She became a playwright, offering several solo shows about her relationships with the other Redgraves. Her most recent, Rachel and Juliet, concerned her mother, actress Rachel Kempson, and her fascination with Shakespeare's teen aged heroine. Nightingale, which Redgrave performed in Los Angeles and New York, grew from a few snippets of information she had about her maternal grandmother. And of course, Shakespeare for My Father, which Lynn wrote and performed in the mid-90s, concerned her distant relationship with Sir Michael.

Ms. Redgrave was still working on Shakespeare for My Father when I had the privilege of meeting and working with her. Lynn loved teaching, and for several years, she offered a Master Class to the younger actors at The Shakespeare Theatre Company. This class was a bit unusual in that the major patrons and donors of the theatre were invited to watch the workshop. On a Monday night in 1995, Lynn met our gang of 8 in the green room of the Shakespeare Theatre, about an hour before the class was to take place. She glanced at the monologues we each had chosen to work on, and raised nary an eyebrow at my edited version of a Cassius speech from Julius Caesar. She understood both the fear and the exhilaration of undergoing an acting class in front of 450 strangers, and did her best to put us at our ease.

Before we moved upstairs to the stage to begin the class, Lynn gathered us all into a huddle. She produced a small book of Shakespeare which had belonged to her famous father. It was a well-worn, cloth-bound book, and she explained that she never went onstage without first handling this memento of the great Sir Michael Redgrave. She offered us all the opportunity to indulge in her own private Redgrave ritual, and, one by one, we passed the book around and stroked its textured cover for luck. Lynn is holding that very book in the photo at left, from the Broadway production of Shakespeare for My Father.

Lynn was a consummate performer and teacher, and turned what could have been an awkward evening of tentativeness into a class in which we each shined. I had a great time working on my piece with Lynn; she was an expert at making her points clear and accessible, and somehow, the presence of the audience only enhanced the experience for me. That evening remains one of the most memorable of any I have had on a stage.

In addition to seeing her in the Broadway St. Joan, I also saw her as Joanne in Sondheim's Company at the Kennedy Center. I wish I had seen one of Lynn's self-written shows (and secretly wish she had had the time or inclination to write one about her sister. THAT would have been volcanic!)

From Joan of Arc and Lady Bracknell to sitcoms and game shows, she never allowed the Redgrave name to inhibit her choices. The clip below is a great example of Lynn's sweet, down-to-earth attitude toward her work; as much as I admire Vanessa, I can't see her spending much time performing with a puppet.

At 7 PM yesterday, I was thinking about that exhilarating workshop at The Shakespeare Theatre years ago. At that moment, all the marquee lights on Broadway were dimmed for a minute, to honor the memory of Lynn Redgrave.