Day 11: Michael Redgrave
Now, I love me some theatrical knights, and I love none more heartily or slightly mentally than the swooniest of all, Michael Redgrave. For some reason, despite being as talented, intelligent, magnetic and well-regarded as his stage contemporaries (Richardson, Olivier and Gielgud) he seems to have a lesser reputation, or at least be rather underrated. And this is despite the fact that of the four, putting aside his stage reputation for a moment, only Richardson can touch him when it comes to a successful and long-standing mastery of film. (Other, more coherent folk than me have insight into why Larry’s stage presence does not always work on film, and Johnny - after an early uncomfortable brush with film - only really came to master it in his fifties.)
But Michael. Oh lord. He has such a range that he sparkles in everything from comedy to serious stage adaptations to seriously unsettled individuals. As an actor he is intellectual and self-reflective; very much working outward from the inner character, and particularly brilliant at showing a brittle intensity - as in Thunder Rock (1942) or his segment (by far the best) of Dead of Night (1945). But as well as this his acting - well-researched and constantly evolving - is nonetheless understated, natural, completely unstagey. He has a warmth and charm that makes even his more commonplace characters watchable, but which he can completely repress, as with his Crocker-Harris in The Browning Version (1951). He never gives less than a great performance, and for the most part makes interesting and enjoyable choices.
One of the perils of loving (dead) theatre actors is reading biographies and crying because you will never see their most astonishing performances. This happened every chapter with Secret Dreams by Alan Strachan, partly because it’s one of the best biogs I have ever read, and I rec it highly. But at least with Michael there is consolation in that even as he continued his stage career he paralleled it with his film roles, and so there are plenty of quite fabulous performances to watch.
Favourite Role: Gilbert in The Lady Vanishes (1938). A corker of a role in my fave 30s Hitchcock film; fabulous script, perfect cast, and a hero who is tweedy, snarky, bright, understatedly kick-ass and incredibly attractive. File under: ideal men.
Another good place to start: On a similarly comedic note, his Jack Worthing in The Importance of Being Earnest (1952) is glorious. The film - deliberately stagey as it is - has a quite perfect cast, beautifully balanced. More seriously, his Vanya in the filmed stage production of Uncle Vanya (1963) is utterly remarkable. A wiser person than me (i.e. Rory Kinnear) rightly describes him as seeming to have just wandered in from 19th century Russia. While Olivier’s Astrov is a great performance, Redgrave’s Vanya is a complete inhabitation of the role.