Although the least known of them today, Michael Redgrave was one of that great quartet of actors who dominated the English stage in the middle of the past century, the others being Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson. Their peer at the time, Redgrave today brings to mind only a few famous roles, such as his lead in Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes.” This is probably because he never had a very distinguished film career and, at one point, took nine years off from performing the great classical roles that made the others’ reputations. People who hear his last name think first of his daughter, the equally brilliant Vanessa.
Vanessa’s mother, Rachel Kempson; sister, Lynn; brother, Corin; and daughter Natasha Richardson also were actors. So is her other daughter, Joely Richardson, and her niece Jemma Redgrave. And so were her Redgrave grandparents. The majority of the family members were talented, and you can see why Donald Spoto thought they’d be a good subject for a book, “The Redgraves: A Family Epic.”
Michael was more or less abandoned by his actor parents — literally by his father, who ran off, and practically by his mother, to whose career he placed a distant second. According to Lynn, her grandmother once dispatched the 4-year-old boy to relatives wearing a luggage tag for identification. Although Natasha died young, the rest of the extended family’s story is nothing unusual in show business: getting roles, not getting roles, affairs, marriages, divorces, problems with alcohol, etc. Vanessa is involved in left-wing politics; Lynn struggled with her weight. All of Michael’s children had some difficulties with dad, who was remote and self-involved.
Unfortunately, all we have left of Michael onstage — aside from a fine film of “The Importance of Being Earnest” and a television broadcast of his haunted, high-strung, heartbreaking Vanya in “Uncle Vanya” — are reviews. Of his first Lear, age 26: “compelling . . . unimaginatively beautiful”; of his Orlando in “As You Like It” three years later, “charm . . . virility . . . power.” The most evocative description of his acting comes from the theater critic Kenneth Tynan in a passage that conveys why the actor was considered a genius:
“Mr. Redgrave is often in the predicament of a higher mathematician asked to add two and two together; he may very well hem and haw and come to the conclusion that in certain circumstances they can make five. But give him a scene . . . which is the higher mathematics of acting, and he solves it in a flash.”
Vanessa has given several extraordinary movie performances, the most recent being her steely Volumnia in “Coriolanus.” From Michael, we have that film of “Earnest” and his terrifyingly paranoid turn as a haunted ventriloquist in “Dead of Night.” Everyone else has done some good work and some forgettable work, little of which gives us an idea of what they might do on a stage. Their essential art — the reason for a biography like this — is lost to us.
In his 1992 biography of Olivier, Spoto got around a similar difficulty with Olivier’s career by concentrating on the interplay between the actor’s character and his art, the shallowness of the one, the richness of the other. With the Redgraves, however, Spoto has taken on too much — 10 actors spanning four generations. There’s little room for the analysis he brought to Olivier; he barely has time to deal with one Redgrave before another enters.
On the evidence of that Olivier biography, Spoto might have written a fine book on Michael (Spoto had access to and makes excellent use of Redgrave’s diaries). But unlike Olivier, Michael Redgrave was neither a film star nor an international celebrity. It’s possible that Spoto thought of tackling Michael alone but couldn’t interest publishers, that he needed the better-known Vanessa and her siblings and daughter for a book that would sell. A giant in his day, Michael is more lost to us with each passing decade. They don’t speak of acting as the ephemeral art for nothing.
Rose is a former theater critic for The Post.
A Family Epic
By Donald Spoto
361 pp. $26