Actress Vanessa Redgrave speaks in her London home about her forthcoming Broadway show based on Joan Didion's book 'The Year of Magical Thinking', Friday, Jan. 26, 2007. (SANG TAN/AP)
The Life of Vanessa Redgrave

By Dan Callahan

Pegasus. 343 pp. $29.95

In his new book, “Vanessa,” Dan Callahan, who proved himself an astute critic of acting in his biography of Barbara Stanwyck, has now focused on the celebrated, maddening, brilliant Vanessa Redgrave, daughter of Sir Michael, sister of Lynn and Corin, mother of Natasha and Joely Richardson.

Redgrave’s personal life is relatively tame: She’s had three serious long-term lovers. Her passionately expressed political views, subjected to Callahan’s skeptical eye, are revealed as, however offensive, mostly trivial and silly. He also shows that professionally, though sometimes stubborn and exasperating in rehearsal, she’s not an egotistical diva.

Indeed, her modesty can be a little shocking. “Men never spoke to me as someone they might like to go to bed with. Never. I was not considered a bed-worthy person, I suppose,” she said in her late 20s, with her sexy performance in the film “Morgan!” behind her, as well as her drop-dead-gorgeous appearance as Guinevere in “Camelot.” Not to mention the ruckus she had caused, at 24, as Rosalind in a now-legendary Royal Shakespeare Theatre production of “As You Like It.” Strong male critics went to pieces. In the Financial Times, Callahan reports, Nigel Andrews wrote: “The audience . . . rose ten feet from their seats and cooed and gibbered like cherubs. . . . We had discovered theater could be like falling in love. . . . Hardboiled drama critic Bernard Levin became . . . a driveling loon.”

"Vanessa: The Life of Vanessa Redgrave" by Dan Callahan. (Pegasus/Pegasus)

The last is no exaggeration. She was, Levin rhapsodized, “a creature of fire and light, her voice a golden gate opening on lapis lazuli hinges, her body a supple reed rippling on the breeze of her love. This was not acting at all, but living, breathing loving.” That’s no exaggeration either. I’ve seen clips of the performance (which was filmed for the BBC), and Levin is not being worshipful, merely descriptive.

On stage, in the right role, Redgrave has something I’d often read about in descriptions of great actresses but never really believed in until I saw her: She appears to be lit from within. Her physical presence is heroic, her emotional presence almost frighteningly open and receptive. This all-but-impossible fusion of command and fragility — and the tension it brings to her performances — is the source of her uncanny talent.

For a woman born in 1937, six feet was a freakish height. She had to abandon dreams of being a dancer and assumed, in line with the conventional wisdom of the time, that she would also have a limited stage career. John Gielgud considered her “dreadfully tall. . . . No leading man [will be] capable of topping her.” In the event, this turned out not to be a problem. She could exhibit a tremulously delicate femininity, bending toward her stage beloveds like a long-stemmed flower seeking sunlight.

Her politics, in contrast, were clodhopping. She showed a precocious empathy for the suffering of others when, as a small girl during World War II, she became distressed about children who had been evacuated from London only to end up rooming with families who abused them — in one case, a boy was beaten to death. Her idealism retained much of this innocent generosity, which never fit well with realpolitik, and the adult Vanessa quickly became disillusioned with the Labor Party. Guided by her brother, she sought political purity with a tiny Trotskyite group, the Workers Revolutionary Party, run by a cult-leader who was convinced the WRP was going to overthrow the government. (It was around this time that Redgrave explained why she had no use for the women’s movement: “It was founded by the CIA and the FBI.”

This political dopiness led her to the infamous 1978 Oscars speech, in which she denounced the Jewish Defense League as “Zionist hoodlums,” a pronouncement taken by many as a sweeping anti-Semitic statement. She compared the IRA and the PLO to partisans in occupied France during World War II.

Producer Linda Yellen, who lost relatives in the concentration camps, and Arthur Miller, who knew something about being blacklisted, both supported her playing a leading role in Miller’s television Holocaust drama “Playing for Time,” but the Boston Symphony Orchestra, reacting to criticism of her politics, fired her from the role of narrator in Stravinsky’s “Oedipus Rex.” When she did the play “Orpheus Descending,” she claimed that the script demonstrated “an extraordinary understanding of the situation of . . . the Sicilian dispossessed,” who as immigrants find themselves in the “vestiges of a feudal society” in the American South. (This was probably news to the play’s author, Tennessee Williams, who nonetheless adored her both as a friend and an actress.)

It’s pleasant to discover, however, that she also used all of her money from four big movies to build a London nursery school for poor children that is still running today.

Unsparing about Redgrave’s politics, Callahan shines in his analysis of her performances. He not only understands the technical aspects of acting but he has a romantic appreciation of its transcendent, near-magical qualities. In the end, writing of Redgrave in the film “Mrs. Dalloway,” he joins Andrews and Levin: Redgrave soars “right off of the earth . . . into a heavenly sort of ether, and so she goes higher and higher . . . like a liberated queen or goddess.”

Rose is a former theater critic for The Washington Post.