Vanessa Redgrave: A Lifelong Activist Who Refuses the Title
A recent 60 Minutes profile featured footage of grand dame actress Vanessa Redgrave in her cheeky heyday during the late '70s: giving a passionate speech about the plight of the Palestinians at the Oscars, running for office in England under a leftist political party and funding an anti-Zionist, pro-Palestinian documentary in which she brandished an automatic rifle (here she is in 1967).
Clearly, this was a woman who was out to change the world. So when I found myself on the other end of a telephone line with Redgrave, now 70, I had to ask: Was she disappointed that so little has changed?
"No, I’m glad we’re still having these conversations...Things did change, but, finally, there's certain things that have to have a political answer. There’s a lot human rights (groups) can do. But If governments don’t do what governments can and should do, you suddenly have a kind of explosion of those problems, because they haven’t been tackled. When the Berlin Wall came down, it opened a new era. Millions took part. I was always confident that would happen, and it happened to the amazement of everybody. However, following that, all kind of politics got in the way. A tremendous –- let’s call it an opportunity -– vanished before our eyes. We build again."
I say to her, "You sound like an optimist." She replies: "It’s nothing to do with optimism. I can see the reality of what will happen if we don’t do all that is possible. We’re in a very toxic situation in the world. I think the best thing that could happen would be quite irrespective of political parties, a government would dedicate itself to human rights- -the work that could be done at the humanitarian level – and that could change everything mightily. It is intolerable that we should allow children to die and mothers to die and not develop the enormous human potential that everyone has."
Based on a one-person play by Wallace Shawn (who knew the bald wrinkled dude who played the bad guy in the Princess Bride and The Incredibles was also a Harvard graduate and wrote My Dinner with Andre?), The Fever tells the story of a wealthy person who falls ill in a poor, war-torn country. As the illness progresses, the person reflects on the personal awakening which led them to the country -- a journey to discover the roots of inequality and oppression in the world.
In the play, Shawn refuses to give any country a name, to allow the work to be performed by anyone, anywhere. But in film, some choices had to be made. So Redgrave's character is British, and the country is some sort of unnamed European area, to avoid the obvious Africa comparisons (unfortunately, it also allows the production to avoid actors of color).
In bringing the lead character's dialog to life, producers also had to add other characters, and those are played by some intriguing actors, including modern-day activists Angelina Jolie as a freedom fighter and Michael Moore as a foreign correspondent. It's also a family affair: Redgrave's son Carlo Nero directed and helped adapt the film from Shawn's play; Redgrave's daughter Joely Richardson (shown at right) also appears as a young version of her mother's character, who decides to stop buying her family Christmas gifts in embarrassment over the waste.
There are some who will find the play's skewering of the blithe indifference of many Westerners to the plight of the world's poor simplistic and overdone. But I found the film a slow, compelling introduction to the frightening notion that, even if you are not particularly wealthy, most westerners enjoy a obscene amount of wealth balanced largely on the labor and output of those much less fortunate.
The question The Fever asks is simple and disturbing: Once you know this fact, what will you do next?
"“I think HBO has put it very well – look beyond comfort," said Redgrave, speaking over her publicist's cellphone from New York City, where the film had just had a splashy, HBO-sponsored premiere. "A personal awakening. Basically that’s the story of the film. The personal awakening of a woman...(who) could be from any country in the world and the journey she makes more or less through whim or chance, begins to awaken her. Through the course of the night as she’s ill, her brain begins to question what she’s done in her life and what is she going to do about what the terrible poverty in the world and the lack of human rights and the situation of the poor – to recognize that she has some choices. She faces some of those choices – she doesn’t come to a conclusion. The message is – this is happening in our world and each of us has some choices. It’s up to each of us to make a choice and know why we’re making it.”
ME: How did you become involved with this production?
Redgrave: “I first became involved with The Fever when I performed The Fever. I was absolutely enthralled with Wally’s play. I became convinced it could be and should be a film. Wally didn’t think it could become a film, but said write down how you think it could be done. We visited many distributors, English and American – we didn’t feel anyone was reading the true meaning of the work. At the suggestion of a really good friend, he said make a video -– Carlo did a really good job doing a eight minute film giving the idea of what we had planned. We shot some wonderful scenes with Angelina. We showed the kind of story it would be and how we would be approaching it. HBO decided to commit to financing the film and that’s how we made it.”
Are you challenging viewers to get more involved with helping the poor?
“Ethan Hawk’s foundation, which his mother founded – she gave up her New York life and joined the peace corps (after seeing Shawn's play). She had to change her life, she had to help. Everybody makes their choices, and everybody does what they can. This story (asks): Are you soothing your conscience, or in there more you can do? It’s about an individual and individual choice.”
You're from a famous acting dynasty (dad Sir Michael Redgrave was a well-known stage and film actor; sister Lynn is also a star). did you ever make a similar journey in learning about global wealth and poverty?
“My first activist work was age 4 ½ appearing in a play written by my youngest playmate. We charged everybody and the money went to the Merchant Seamen’s Fund, because the seamen were in great danger trying to get food across the water during (World War II). That’s been a thread throughout my life. It’s not only a case of the wealthy and powerful and the rich (being obligated), though I do consider myself immensely privileged. I must contribute.”
“It’s not activism. People can be awfully active. But it dozen’t mean they’re getting to the core of the problems. That’s why we have the extraordinary human rights agencies we have today. On the whole, the media dozen’t show people what they can do.They show disasters which can seem impossible to tackle. There is extraordinary work being done, and it’s not being shown. There’s a terrific work going which people don’t hear about. But that’s not the point of The Fever. The point is – whatever you are doing, are you taking on the choices that lie before you?”