Don’t Blame the Stars: The Redgraves by Donald Spoto
The Redgraves, Donald Spoto’s newest biography, is described as a “family epic.” And it is an epic story of sorts — a multi-generational band of actors, living out their lives on stage and off, with the fame and fragility that is finally, all too human. As Shakespeare’s title character in Julius Caesar predicts so aptly, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
Nobody would argue that to be a successful celebrity biographer, you need the tenacity of a treasure hunter. Spoto readily admits in his introduction that this particular endeavor took over 30 years of research and the cooperation of countless individuals, not the least being Sir Michael Redgrave, his wife, the actress Rachel Kempson, and the endorsement and encouragement of the project by their daughter Lynn Redgrave, even in the final weeks of her life. Still, he defers from calling it an authorized biography.
Spoto’s glamorous and controversial subjects — too numerous to detail here — have run the gamut, from Ingrid Bergman and Marlene Dietrich to Tennessee Williams and Grace Kelly. Telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but, is a slippery slope to tackle and if you’re looking for pure titillation here, you’d better look elsewhere. It takes a diplomat, worthy of acting out his principles on the world stage, to gain the confidences of such a list. And Spoto is, above all else, a gentleman. You could say his failings and his achievements as a biographer lay in his somewhat lofty perspective. “Our purpose,” he professed in an interview with The Writers Store, an online resource for writers, “is to set the record straight, celebrate lives, and set forth certain aspects of history and human behavior that is good for people to read about.”
You’ll have to make up your own mind on how “good” it is to share all the ups and downs of such a stellar clan as the Redgraves. It’s a prodigious account from this academician, even for the most dedicated theatre hungry reader. Even though Spoto tells us in the same interview that “we live our lives by interaction of what happens to us and the inner workings of our reactions, stirrings, and motivations” and that “these are so much more useful to understanding a character than just the bare facts,” the book is overrun with them. When he succeeds, it’s when he makes us see that the most distinguished among us still have feet of clay. Nobody better demonstrated that than Michael Redgrave himself.
Fortunately, for this book, Spoto’s work on his biography of Alfred Hitchcock provided the opportunity of meeting Michael Redgrave in 1981, when the actor was 72 and in debilitating health. That didn’t, however, prevent the two from sharing several rounds of drinks and reminiscences about the actor’s role in Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes. The 1937 film became a huge success and made Michael, heretofore a serious young stage actor with the Old Vic, internationally recognized. Spoto devotes several pages to the making of the film and it’s no surprise that descriptively, it’s one of the book’s highlights.
Paul Lukas, who played a sinister brain surgeon in the film, chastised Michael for not giving a damn about his own performance. “Listen, my dear boy, once the director has made the last shot of a scene, it’s too late to wish you could do it again.” He told him his entire future in films was dependent on how well he did in that one effort. Such advice turned the trick for a young man’s vanity.
Another chapter in the book, “A Term in Hollywood,” gives us an anticipated but too brief glimpse of Michael’s exposure to tinsel town during the heady days of 1947. Two offers, one a psychological thriller called Secret Beyond the Door, directed by Fritz Lang, and a film version of O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra with Rosalind Russell, were good enough reasons to take the plunge. Spoto describes a ride to the Bel-Air Hotel in the company of George Cukor and Greta Garbo. Garbo, all seriousness, wanted to know if there was much Buddhism in England and Michael diffidently replied that “what little we had, we exported to the States.” Her eyes evidently turned to ice and no further conversation was made on that trip.
Though he admits to meeting such luminaries as Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, Fanny Brice and many others, our appetites are whetted for more colorful descriptions than Spoto provides. It is Hollywood in its heyday, after all. The most important thing we learn is that Michael meets Bob Mitchell, a handsome young telegraph clerk known in the town’s gay circles who assumes an important role for some time in the actor’s life.
Though the reader is led to believe this is a family biography, it is really Michael’s story. His rocky destiny appears to have been firmly planted in the stars from birth. His troubled and charismatic life propels the book and whatever power Spoto achieves in the telling is through the prism of this man’s personal and professional journey. His achievements were many. If we can no longer enjoy the actor in live performances, the curious reader is encouraged to seek out his successful film roles, such as The Lady Vanishes, The Importance of Being Earnest and Mourning Becomes Electra, for which he received the National Board of Review’s Best Actor Award in 1947.
Born in Bristol, England in 1908 to a 23-year-old actress named Daisy Scudamore Redgrave and a gadabout actor named Roy Redgrave, his father was largely absent from Michael’s life. “I was always given to total strangers who were introduced as Auntie Dolly This or Uncle Fred That.” Only Daisy’s second marriage to a tea and rubber entrepreneur assured the boy of a more promising start in life. By the time he was accepted into Cambridge, his talents as an actor were becoming obvious. But something far more life-transforming was emerging.
From Michael’s early diary entries we learn about his dual sexual nature — the shame and guilt that proceeded from this reality would hound him throughout his lifetime. He and his classmates visited the Turkish baths where he was stared at and “blushed for shame.” He goes home with a young Austrian boy. “I was a fool but I could hardly help myself.”
To Spoto’s credit, he gives a compassionate overview of Michael’s sexual intrigues and how he tried, many times unsuccessfully, to live the life of a devoted husband and father. Only 30 years prior to Michael’s first homosexual forays, Oscar Wilde had been publicly disgraced and thrown into prison. By September 1939, recorded offenses for homosexuality increased fiftyfold. More British men were brought to military tribunals for these acts than for treason. Again, Spoto is aided by Michael’s own diary entries. Already married to the luminously beautiful actress, Rachel Kempton, he confesses in his diary the agony he feels he has caused her. In explaining his guilt, he returns to his split personality. “I cannot feel that it would be right, even if I had the will-power, which I have not, to cut off or starve the one side of my nature.”
It is not irrelevant to this biographer’s understanding of his subject’s plight that he is himself a gay man and has often acknowledged the constancy and devotion of his partner, Ole Larsen. Up until now, no life of Michael has been published in the United States. His son Corin was the ghost writer of his father’s autobiography and though Michael promised Corin he would deal with his bisexuality in the work, he never did. Careful authorship, according to Spoto, was not a talent of Vanessa’s or Lynn’s either. Vanessa’s own book was long on political history and Lynn’s managed to be a “massive collection of diet recipes.” This lack of a comprehensive biography is all the more surprising considering that from the end of the 19th century up to 2011, the Redgraves amassed a record of more than 2,600 plays, films, television programs and radio recordings between them.
There is no question that Michael was a supremely talented actor who could demonstrate his ability to take on a rich and varied cast of characters on stage and screen. But most telling, particularly to his children, were his singular abilities in roles closest to his own character. When he played the role of a cynical war correspondent in Thunder Rock who withdraws to a lighthouse on a tiny island on Lake Michigan, his son Corin had this to say: “It’s an enormously veiled performance — very dark, very brooding, very hollow-cheeked, rather remote and inaccessible. That was the father that for long periods of time I knew.” And what about Rachel Kempson?—who was the woman who loved him unconditionally?
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