Daily | Dan Callahan’s VANESSA


“Redgrave is the best actress of our current time”

“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,” begins Lloyd Rose in the Washington Post. “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…. 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.”

“Writing a book about an actor while she is still alive is not easy,” grants David Thomson (himself the author of a book about Nicole Kidman), “but Callahan thrives on the difficulties. It helps that he was himself a student at the Actors Studio, once ordered to see everything Redgrave had done by an acting teacher.” Writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, Thomson adds that Callahan “seems to me a leader among young writers on film. No enthusiast will pick up this deceptively modest book without going to the video resources and tracking the turbulent career of our most challenging actress.”

“Callahan also makes the case that the iconic star of stage and screen should be seen as a gay icon. At least she is to him.” For Out, Jerry Portwood talks with him about “some of the Redgrave mythology and what she means to gay men and women around the globe.”

For the L, Henry Stewart asks Callahan how he chooses his subjects: “I felt that Stanwyck was the best actress of her time, and I feel that Redgrave is the best actress of our current time. They are very different, but they do have one crucial thing in common: neither of them was good at selling themselves and doing colorful publicity to advance their careers. I feel like my books can help to promote the greatness of their work, whereas Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis need no such help.”

“For many people, the politics get in the way; in her way, too, perhaps,” writes Stephen Whitty. In the Star-Ledger, Callahan tells him: “She would pose for fashion magazines—and then the puritan in her would react violently, and suddenly you’d see her in combat boots… That’s one of the things that makes her extraordinary, though, those two sides; she’s able to be the glamor girl if she wants to, then she’ll suddenly decide it was all frivolous and slip into this much more androgynous, gender-bending style.”

“There may be those who do not know about or remember the power and grace of her image in the 1960s, her goddess-like emergence and command of Swinging London, and the huge daring of her choices as an actress,” writes Callahan at Esquire, introducing five clips “that will give you a potent glimpse of what she is capable of doing at her best.”

A couple of weeks ago, ran an excerpt from Vanessa. Here’s a taste:

Redgrave had a miscarriage of her second child by [Franco] Nero during the filming of The Devils [1971]. It would have been a boy. In one of the most touching sections of her autobiography, she wrote that she buried the dead baby under a bush that would flower in the spring. And then she went back to the set to enact her character’s huge anger and even larger longing. Sister Jeanne stares at her beloved priest Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed) and then has a hallucination where her wimple is off so that we see her long red hair as she cleans his feet with her tongue. He discovers her hump, and she screams, “Don’t look at me! Don’t look at me!” and then, “I’m beautiful! I’m beautiful!” What could be merely a camp sneer at her character, as it might have been in just about any other Russell movie, comes across as upsetting and deeply humiliating because Redgrave is so in touch with her own inner freak and so empathizes with Sister Jeanne’s cursed freakishness.

Update, 5/31: Eat Drink Films is running an excerpt from Vanessa that focuses on her performance in Simon Callow’s The Ballad of the Sad Cafe (1991).

Update, 6/7: Sheila O’Malley talks with Callahan for

Update, 6/10: Matt Prigge talks with Callahan for Metro: “Her method is very erratic. She can only get as high up as she has because she doesn’t follow a straight line. She has all these bad ideas that people have to talk her out of. The trick is to have her go with the brilliant one no one else on earth would have thought of. All the great choices start to add up to and form the whole. I like this idea of intense fragments forming a whole at the end of a career, instead of seven or eight perfect films.”

For news and tips throughout the day every day, follow @KeyframeDaily. Get Keyframe Daily in your inbox by signing in at

Did you like this article?
Give it a vote for a Golden Bowtie


Keyframe is always looking for contributors.

"Writer? Video Essayist? Movie Fan Extraordinaire?

Fandor is streaming on Amazon Prime

Love to discover new films? Browse our exceptional library of hand-picked cinema on the Fandor Amazon Prime Channel.