Vanessa Redgrave is widely considered one of the great actresses alive, when not proclaimed the greatest outright, even by those who object to her outspoken lefty politics. (Podium comments about Israel’s Palestinian-persecuting “Zionist hoodlums,” made when accepting the 1977 Best Supporting award for Julia, won her probably more controversy than any Oscar telecast guest before or since.) While perhaps not as conspicuously a chameleon as Meryl Streep, she’s thrown extraordinary magnetism and technique into a wide variety of roles, from ingenues to Agatha Christie, several gender-bending figures, fragile matrons and imperious rulers.
While her screen work has encompassed works adapted from Chekhov, Henry James, Tennessee Williams, Isabelle Allende and Virginia Woolf, even the obsessive viewer of over 120 film and TV appearances (excluding interviews) since 1958 is bound to feel envious of those lucky NYC and London residents who’ve seen her play myriad classic and modern stage roles over the decades. Let’s face it, the movies seldom offer parts quite so majestic as Prospero in The Tempest (a male role, but who’s complaining?) or Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night.
Currently Redgrave’s stage and screen careers are intermingling with the release of actor Ralph Fiennes’ directorial debut Coriolanus. Taken from one of Shakespeare’s least familiar plays, it’s a fierce military drama set in Roman antiquity (though the film uses modern trappings). There’s nothing more fierce here than Redgrave’s performance as Volumnia—mother to the troubled army commander Coriolanus, and his most hawkish adviser. When she has to intervene and plead mercy from the monster she’s raised, lest he destroy his own city, you can almost feel in your bones the agony this imperially proud woman suffers having to get down on her knees and beg.
Forty-odd years earlier, Redgrave played another great classical role on screen, one written very very near the same Greco-Roman era several centuries B.C. Seldom seen since its original release in 1971: The Trojan Women offers a fascinating companion piece to Redgrave’s current vehicle. In Coriolanus, she plays a warrior-mother who’s gloried in her menfolk’s conquering triumphs; in Women, she is that mother in defeat, husband, child and pride brutally taken as spoils of war.
She plays Helen, the beautiful adultress who caused this war, and whose survival enrages the women of Troy no end. Seeing Hepburn spit recriminations at this unrepentant vixen is worth the price of admission alone.
Adapted from Euripedes’ play, as translated by Edith Hamilton—considered the greatest female classicist of modern times—The Trojan Women is about as far from a celebration of battle glory as one can imagine. Indeed, as it opens, the battle is over. Troy has been sacked by the Greek Army, its men killed, its children dragged away. Only the wives remain, in mourning while awaiting news of their own fate. On the stark, sun-baked landscape outside the now empty city, four royal women lament their losses and all future degradation, a chorus of fellow widows ebbing around them like a flock of alternately berserk and watchful birds.
Redgrave doesn’t appear until nearly three-quarters of an hour has passed. Her princess Andromache has suffered the death of husband Hector, and now she is to be shipped off as mistress to the son of his killer. But there is worse, unthinkable news: A Greek herald announces that her own son, a mere child, must be executed to end the male bloodline. Hearing the unthinkable, Andromache’s mouth opens in wordless horror that begins as silence and turns into an endless, primal wail. Clutching the boy, she runs from soldiers like a panicked animal, trapped at every turn. Her mother-in-law Hecuba (Katherine Hepburn) says “Death is empty—life has hope.” In the course of nearly a half hour’s screentime, Andromache arrives at a devastated acceptance of the fact that all her own hopes are now dead.
The Trojan Women is an arresting elegy with a ritualistic air that obviously appealed to its director, native Greek Michael Cacoyannis (even if he had to shoot in Spain). Between this and an earlier Euripedes adaptation, 1962’s Electra, he’d had an enormous international success with the folksy English-language Zorba the Greek, a modern-day seriocomedy starring Antony Quinn as the titular salt-of-the-earth figure. After a disastrous “mod” farce, The Day the Fish Came Out, he returned to form with Women, then a few years later tapped Euripedes (and Electra lead Irene Papas) again for another stirring tragedy, 1977’s Iphigenia.
Cacoyannis, who died just last year, worked seldom in his remaining decades. He’d been largely forgotten outside Greece before one last feature appeared in 1999: An all-star adaptation of Chekhov’s melancholy ensemble drama The Cherry Orchard.
But The Trojan Women, along with its bookends Electra and Iphigenia, remains a potent exemplar of that comparatively rare thing, classical Greek tragedy on celluloid. Beyond Redgrave, there are towering performances by Hepburn, diverging from her late-career “kooky old lady” roles with a turn of great, wounded dignity; French-Canadian actress Genevieve Bujold as Hecuba’s daughter Cassandra, driven mad by grief and possible rape; as well as Cacoyannis favorite Papas. She plays Helen, the beautiful adultress who caused this war, and whose survival enrages the women of Troy no end. Seeing Hepburn spit recriminations at this unrepentant vixen is worth the price of admission alone.
If your taste is whet for more of the same ilk, Antigone, try a black-and-white 1961 version of Sophocles’ tragic tale—another post-battle chronicle of cruelties—with regal Grecian diva Papas in the title role. For a look at life on the other side of the Greco-Roman world way back when, there’s Louis Feuillade’s nine-minute 1911 The Roman Orgy, a none-too-explicit but ornately dressed glimpse of court decadence circa 218 A.D. On the other hand, there are plenty of orgiastics in 1976’s Sebastiane, a dreamily homoerotic reverie about the early Christian saint. Scored by Brian Eno, it was the first feature for late, great, British director Derek Jarman—a visionary at least as fond of unclad male physicality as Michael Cacoyannis was of epic female emotion displays.
In a similar if perhaps sillier—and considerably less consciously sexualized—vein, is Gladiators Seven, a 1962 “peplum” that’s among the best of umpteen sword ‘n’ scandal spectacles that flooded out of southern Europe into drive-ins and grindhouses from the late 1950s through the mid-’60s. This lively, large-scale Italian-Spanish co-production, directed by Spaniard Pedro Lazaga (surely you remember his Maniac Mansion? One Vampire for Two?…OK, neither do we), has everything you’d expect and want from the genre: Heroic musclemen in skimpy tunics, heavily painted temptresses, near-nonstop action, and dubbed English dialogue that never quite matches the performers’ lips. Shot in glorious widescreen Eastmancolor, it’s the boys-will-be-boys answer to all those weeping Women, requiring viewers pack popcorn rather than a handkerchief.
Dennis Harvey is a featured contributor to Variety.