Redgrave, Michael

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Michael Redgrave

English actor Michael Redgrave (1908-1985), a tall man with an aristocratic bearing, became a major force in British stage and screen during the mid-twentieth century. Part of the generation of classically trained actors that included Laurence Olivier, Peggy Ashcroft, Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud, Redgrave appeared in numerous films, including Goodbye Mr. Chips, Nicholas and Alexandra and the first film adaptation of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest.

Considered one of the foremost British actors of his generation, Michael Redgrave performed in 35 motion pictures over his long career, although he far preferred the many hours he spent performing in front of a live audience on the London stage. Paired with such noted film directors as Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Carol Reed and Anthony Asquith, Redgrave gained particular renown for his performance in films adapted from classic plays and literature, among them The Importance of Being Earnest and The Innocents, the latter an adaptation of American novelist Henry James's The Turn of the Screw. Redgrave was the consummate "actor's actor"; as Nigel Warrington described him in Theatre Research International, he was "passionate, literate, industrious, humorous and a model of professional ethics."

A Well-studied Thespian

Michael Scudamore Redgrave was born on March 20, 1908, in Bristol, Gloucestershire, England, the son of George Ellsworth and Margaret (Scudamore) Redgrave. Redgrave's parents were both actors, his father a wellknown Australian silent-film star who worked under the name Roy Redgrave.

A bright child, Redgrave seemed at first destined for life as an academic. Attending Clifton College until 1927, he then enrolled at Magdalene College, Cambridge, where he distinguished himself among his classmates as a poet, editor of the school magazine Venture and contributor of film reviews to the literary magazine Granta.

Having a vague idea of one day becoming a writer, after graduating in 1932 he decided to take the prescribed next step for someone who was not independently wealthy. In 1934 the 25-year-old Cambridge University graduate got a job as a modern-language teacher at England's Cranleigh School. Having been active in theatre as an undergraduate student–he directed a production of The Battle of the Book in 1930–Redgrave quickly gravitated to Cranleigh's theatre program.

Inspired to return to his acting roots when his work with young thespians won him praise, Redgrave left Cranleigh and entered the theatre in the mid-1930. He made his stage debut in 1934 in the Liverpool Playhouse production of Counsellor-at-Law, and for the next two years he performed, under William Armstrong's direction, in repertory.

He soon came to the attention of noted stage director Tyrone Guthrie, who saw promise in the young man's talent, height and aristocratic bearing. Guthrie asked Redgrave to perform with England's legendary Old Vic company. Jumping at the chance to work with such noted performers as Edith Evans, Olivier, Ashcroft and others, Redgrave moved to London in 1936. At the Old Vic he was soon cast in major roles in various Shakespeare productions, among them Hamlet. In 1937 Redgrave moved to the Queen's Theatre, working with Gielgud's repertory company.

In 1938 Redgrave left Gielgud to work with an up-and-coming film director he admired and wound up capturing the heart of film audiences with his role as an eccentric music scholar in Alfred Hitchcock's witty comedy-thriller The Lady Vanishes. From then on, films would often take precedence over his passion for the stage, even though he professed a certain highbrow disdain for movies throughout his career.

With his work for Hitchcock critically hailed, Redgrave found no trouble tracking down other film roles. Working under British director Carol Reed, he appeared in the 1939 films Climbing High and The Stars Look Down. He followed these up with the title role in Kipps, released in 1941, and as Captain Karel Hasek in the 1946 drama The Captive Heart, one of several war-related films Redgrave made after finishing a two-year stint in the Royal Navy during World War II. In 1947 he earned an Academy Award nomination for his performance, opposite American actress Rosalind Russell, in the role of Orin Mannon in the film version of Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra.

Brief Tour in Hollywood

By now a well-known matinee idol, Redgrave was tempted by Hollywood, but after arriving in 1947 to work on Electra with director Dudley Nichols, he was less than impressed. He remained for only a few more months, completing work with transplanted German director Fritz Lang on the 1948 drama Secret beyond the Door, then returned to London.

The early 1950s provided Redgrave with several opportunities to showcase his skills as a comic actor in films. He impressed audiences and critics alike in his portrayal of a repressed schoolteacher in the award-winning film The Browning Version, released in 1951. In the part of Jack Worthington (a.k.a. Ernest Worthing) in Anthony Asquith's 1952 film version of Oscar Wilde's classic play The Importance of Being Earnest, he demonstrated keen comic timing while starring opposite Joan Greenwood and the indomitable Dame Edith Evans.

While continuing to seek out roles that challenged his natural abilities, Redgrave was a serious student of the craft of acting. He paid special attention to those performers he revered and was known to devote long hours to rehearsing his roles, whether for stage or screen. In addition, he was an adherent of Konstantin Stanislavsky's classic method book An Actor Prepares. Though Redgrave stood six feet three inches and was muscular, he often used his gait, stance and body language to depict bookish, ineffectual and vulnerable character types–a testament to his acting ability.

Classified, alongside Olivier and Gielgud, as a "cerebral" actor, Redgrave was often assigned the role of reserved, preoccupied upper-class gentleman, and he performed such roles to critical acclaim in films like The Browning Version and The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, which was released in 1962. Commenting on the actor's "quite palpable sense of discomfort," a contributor to the International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers added that "few manage better to convey the anguish engendered by having strong feelings but being denied the outlet to express them than Redgrave…"

In addition to portraying a brand of constrained nobility, Redgrave was no stranger to more over-the-top performances, as in his role as a lighthouse keeper in the 1942 film Thunder Rock and in the highly praised 1945 thriller Dead of Night, wherein he took on the role of a ventriloquist driven mad by his sinister dummy. Also noteworthy was his depiction of the cruel and exploitative inquisitor in the 1956 film adaptation of George Orwell's novel 1984, and the reserved Redgrave seemed frighteningly believable as an alcoholic father in Time without Pity, released that same year.

Love of the Stage

Like many of his peers, Redgrave was most at home on the stage and viewed work in films as a necessary but less pleasant part of being an actor. Even in films, he preferred taking on roles derived from plays, such as King Lear, Hamlet and characters created by Anton Chekhov and Eugene O'Neill. In 1948 he made his first Broadway appearance, playing Macbeth.

It came as a surprise to many when he returned full time to the British stage the following year at the urging of director Hugh Hunt. Beginning with the role of Young Marlow in Hunt's 1949 production of She Stoops to Conquer, Redgrave went on to perform the lead role in Hamlet the following year. His position on the London stage assured, he continued to appear in acclaimed National Theatre productions and was highly praised for his interpretation of leading figures in Shakespearean tragedies–including Prospero, Richard II, King Lear, Shylock and Antony–and for his performances in leading roles in Chekov's Uncle Vanya and Heinrich Ibsen's The Master Builder.

One of his finest hours on stage came in 1962, in a production of Uncle Vanya; his performance in the lead was so impressive that his friend Olivier insisted on immediately directing Redgrave in a film version of the play. The following year Redgrave appeared as Claudius in the National Theatre's first production of Hamlet, performing alongside his 20-year-old daughter, Lynn, in her role as a lady in waiting.

Although he was known to the general public predominately as an actor, Redgrave also produced and directed numerous plays. During World War II he staged six plays in London's popular West End and continued to direct sporadically during the next few decades. In 1951 he brought to the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon a production of Henry IV, Part II. Later in his career Redgrave also produced and directed operas, music being one of his many interests. He even wrote and published several plays of his own, including 1936's The Seventh Man and 1959's The Aspern Papers, the latter an adaptation of a story by Henry James that Redgrave produced and starred in on the London stage.

Redgrave Dynasty

Himself the son of actors, Redgrave passed his parent's thespian leanings on. Married to Liverpool Playhouse colleague actress Rachel Kempson in 1935, he fathered three children, Vanessa, Corin and Lynn Redgrave, and all became actors–although Corin Redgrave eventually also pursued a political career. Among Redgrave's grandchildren, Natasha and Joely Richardson, daughters of Vanessa and husband, director Tony Richardson, both established careers as successful actors, as did Jemma Redgrave, daughter of Corin and former wife Deirdre Hamilton-Hill. Another grandson, film director Carlo Gabriel Nero, is the son of Vanessa and Camelot costar Franco Nero.

During the peak of his career audiences would not have accepted Redgrave's homsexuality, and it was not acknowledged until Corin Redgrave revealed it in his lovingly penned memoir Michael Redgrave: My Father.

Made a Companion of the British Empire in 1952, Redgrave was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1959 for his services to British theater. In addition to his plays, he wrote several books, including the 1959 novel The Mountebank Tale and two autobiographies: 1958's Face or Mask: Reflections in an Actor's Mirror and 1983's In My Mind's I: An Actor's Autobiography. His acting guide, The Actor's Ways and Means, collects the lectures Redgrave gave at Bristol University in the early 1950s; it has been praised as a classic introduction to stage acting since its publication in 1953 and was reprinted in a new addition in 1995, with a new introduction by Vanessa Redgrave.

A true professional, Redgrave continued to work into his sixties, acting in films such as Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969) and Nicholas and Alexandra (1971). During the early 1970s he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, a degenerative illness that made acting increasingly difficult. Redgrave's final film appearance was in a 1976 made-for-television dramatization of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's epic The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. His final stage appearance came three years later, when he played a stroke victim in Simon Gray's The Close of the Play. By then confined to a wheelchair and finding it almost impossible to memorize sentences of more than a few words in length, the legendary actor had only one line, but his presence on stage was enough. He died six years later, at the age of 77, on March 21, 1985, in Denham, England.


International Dictionary of Film and Filmmakers, Volume 3: Actors and Actresses, St. James Press, 1996.

International Dictionary of Theatre, Volume 3: Actors, Directors, and Designers, St. James Press, 1996.

Kempson, Rachel, A Family and Its Fortunes, 1986.

Redgrave, Corin, Michale Redgrave: My Father, Trafalgar Square, 1996.

Redgrave, Michael, Mask or Face: Reflections in an Actor's Mirror, Viking, 1958.

Redgrave, Michael, In My Mind's I: An Actor's Autobiography, Viking, 1983.


Films and Filming, January-March 1955; December 1955.

Theatre Research International, autumn 1995.

Redgrave, (Sir) Michael

views updated May 29 2018

REDGRAVE, (Sir) Michael

Nationality: British. Born: Michael Scudamore Redgrave in Bristol, 20 March 1908. Education: Attended Clifton College, Bristol; Magdalene College, Cambridge, B.A. in French, German and English 1930. Family: Married the actress Rachel Kempson, 1935, daughters: the actresses Vanessa Redgrave and Lynn Redgrave, son: the actor Corin Redgrave. Career: Modern language teacher, Cranleigh school; 1934–36—member of Liverpool Repertory Theatre: professional debut in Counsellor-at-Law; in the following years acted at the Old Vic, London, and with John Gielgud's company; 1938—film debut in The Lady Vanishes; 1941–42—served in the Royal Navy; 1945—directed and appeared in the stage play Jacobowsky and the Colonel; 1947—U.S. film debut in Mourning Becomes Electra; 1948—U.S. stage debut in Macbeth; 1957—formed his own production company; 1959—appeared in his own adaptation of The Aspern Papers on London stage; continued to act in films and on stage, and also on television. Awards: Best Actor, Cannes Festival, for The Browning Version, 1951. Commander, Order of the British Empire, 1952. Knighted, 1959. Died: 21 March 1985.

Films as Actor:


The Lady Vanishes (Hitchcock) (as Gilbert)


Stolen Life (Czinner) (as Alan Mackenzie); Climbing High(Reed) (as Nicholas Brooke)


The Stars Look Down (Reed) (as David Fenwick); A Window in London (Mason) (as Peter)


Kipps (Reed) (title role); Atlantic Ferry (Forde) (as Charles MacIver); Jeannie (French) (as Stanley Smith)


The Big Blockade (Frend) (as the Russian)


Thunder Rock (Boulting) (as Charleston)


The Way to the Stars (Asquith) (as Flight Lt. Archdale); Dead of Night (ep. dir by Cavalcanti) (as Maxwell Frere); A Diary for Timothy (Jennings) (as narrator)


The Captive Heart (Dearden) (as Karel Hasek); The Years Between (Bennett) (as Michael Wentworth)


The Man Within (Bennett) (as Carlyon); Mourning Becomes Electra (Nichols) (as Orin Mannon)


Secret behind the Door (Fritz Lang) (as Mark Lamphere)


The Browning Version (Asquith) (as Andrew Crocker-Harris)


The Importance of Being Earnest (Asquith) (as John Worthington)


The Green Scarf (O'Ferrall) (as Maitre Deliot)


The Sea Shall Not Have Them (Gilbert) (as Air Commodore Walty); Oh, Rosalinda! (Powell and Pressburger) (as Col. Eisenstein); The Night My Number Came Up (Norman) (as Air Marshal); The Dam Busters (Anderson) (as Barnes Wallis); Confidential Report (Welles) (as Trebitsch)


1984 (Anderson) (as O'Connor)


Time without Pity (Losey) (as David Graham); The Happy Road (Kelly) (as Gen. Medworth)


Vanishing Cornwall (Browning—doc) (as narrator); The Quiet American (Mankiewicz) (as Fowler); Law and Disorder(Crichton) (as Percy); The Immortal Land (Wright—doc)(as narrator); Behind the Mask (Hurst) (as Sir Anthony Benson Gray)


Shake Hands with the Devil (Anderson) (as Michael Collins);The Wreck of the Mary Deare (Anderson) (as Mr. Nyland)


No, My Darling Daughter (Box and Thomas) (as Sir Matthew Carr); The Innocents (Clayton) (as the Uncle)


The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (Richardson) (as Governor)


Young Cassidy (Cardiff) (as W. B. Yeats); The Heroes of Telemark (Anthony Mann) (as Uncle); The Hill (Lumet) (as the M.O.)


Assignment K (Gielgud) (as Harris); Heidi (Delbert Mann—for TV)


Oh! What a Lovely War (Attenborough) (as Gen. Wilson);Goodbye, Mr. Chips (Ross) (as Headmaster)


David Copperfield (Delbert Mann—for TV) (as Peggotty);Goodbye Gemini (Gibson) (as the MP)


Connecting Rooms (Gollings) (as James Wallraven); The Go-Between (Losey) (as Leo as adult)


Nicholas and Alexandra (Schaffner) (as Grand Duke); The Last Target (Spenton-Foster) (as Erik Fritsch)


By REDGRAVE: books—

The Actor's Ways and Means, London, 1953; rev. ed., London, 1995.

The Mountebank's Tale (novel), London, 1958.

Mask or Face: Reflections in an Actor's Mirror, London, 1958.

The Aspern Papers (play), London, 1959.

In My Mind's I: An Actor's Autobiography, London, 1983.

By REDGRAVE: article—

"I Am Not a Camera," in Films and Filming (London), January-March 1955.

On REDGRAVE: books—

Findlater, Richard, Michael Redgrave, Actor, New York, 1956.

Redgrave, Deirdre, with Danaë Brook, To Be a Redgrave, London, 1982.

Kempson, Rachel, A Family and Its Fortunes, London, 1986.

Redgrave, Corin, Michael Redgrave: My Father, 1995.

On REDGRAVE: articles—

Current Biography 1950, New York, 1950.

De La Roche, C., "Master of His Destiny," in Films and Filming (London), December 1955.

Obituary in New York Times, 22 March 1985.

Obituary in Variety (New York), 27 March 1985.

Gussow, M., "Lynne Redgrave Portrays Emotional Emptiness in Royal Theater Family," in New York Times, 27 April 1993.

Norman, Barry, in Radio Times (London), 3 December 1994.

Classic Images (Muscatine), September 1996.

* * *

Although he often gave the impression that he was only appearing on the screen under sufferance and would far rather have been treading the boards of the Old Vic, perhaps playing King Lear for Tyrone Guthrie or consorting in the dressing rooms with Dame Edith Evans, Sir Michael Redgrave had a long and varied career as a film actor, proving himself a plausible, if reluctant, leading man in his debut, the Hitchcock caper, The Lady Vanishes; displaying a stiff upper lip in a succession of war films, notably Basil Dearden's The Captive Heart and Michael Anderson's The Dam Busters; and even showing a knack for comedy as Jack Worthington in The Importance of Being Earnest.

"Earnest" Redgrave most certainly was: he generally acted briskly, with a bookish, schoolmasterly air, and was expert at conveying a sense of pained idealism. He was rather too intense to be classified with the "chaps," the tweed jacketed, pipe smoking squires/stars of 1950s British cinema, such as Jack Hawkins and Kenneth More. With Redgrave in front of the cameras, there is always the sense of a ferocious nervous energy ready to rip through the outward reserve. In Cavalcanti's segment of Dead of Night, for example, he plays the ventriloquist who becomes possessed by his own Charlie McCarthy of a dummy. Watching this performance is like seeing Mr. Chips give way to Hannibal Lecter. There is his brooding cameo as the Uncle in The Innocents, Jack Clayton's reworking of The Turn of the Screw; there is his crusading reformer of the mines in The Stars Look Down, his cuckolded husband in The Browning Version, or his political zealot of Fame Is the Spur: these are all parts that confirm that a Redgrave fueled by a sense of moral righteousness is a terrifying thing.

Basil Wright and Humphrey Jennings, doyens of the culturally respectable Documentary Movement, were his contemporaries at Cambridge, where Redgrave edited a magazine, Venture, and was film critic for Granta. His academic/high culture background perhaps goes some way to explaining his disdain for the medium that brought him popular success: "I, who believed that in good acting there must be a continual stream of improvisation, began to think that this business of hitting chalk marks, adjusting one's gaze . . . and all the rest of the paraphernalia . . . was a very mechanical, second-best thing indeed."

As a dissenting British film actor, he is in good company. James Mason, Stewart Granger, and Dirk Bogarde have also used their autobiographies to denigrate the British pictures they "graced." Nevertheless, it is surprising that Redgrave, who worked with Fritz Lang and Orson Welles, Carol Reed and Anthony Asquith among others, should still contrive to scoff at the bastard celluloid muse. Yet the key to Redgrave's acting is his quite palpable sense of discomfort: he always seems ill at ease. He was never accepted by either the theater or the film "establishment." He did not scale the heights of the holy triumvirate, Olivier/Richardson/Gielgud, on the stage. Nor was he a fully fledged film star. A quintessential Redgrave screen performance is his depiction of Barnes Wallis, builder of the bouncing bomb, in The Dam Busters. Here, he plays a nervous, stooped inventor in a mackintosh, clearly uncomfortable in a world of hearty RAF officers and their Labradors. Just as Redgrave the actor never received his due, Barnes Wallis finds that his schemes run aground on the rocks of Home Office and Bomber Command indifference. He is the boffin as outsider, the serious Stanislavskian caught in a world of West End farce. In the end, his perverse and unshakable self-belief see him triumph against the odds.

It used to be commonplace to say that British film actors were "emotionally frozen" and/or "sexually repressed." Unlike their Methodist American counterparts, they did not "explode": it is hard to think of Redgrave or Trevor Howard sweating it out à la Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire. What these consummate British stars can do is to hint at the seething turmoil of social, sexual, and political anxiety behind the carapace. They are expert at "imploding." And few manage better to convey the anguish engendered by having strong feelings but being denied the outlet to express them than Redgrave senior. In his bristling, schoolmasterly awkwardness, he remains an infinitely more interesting actor than either his children or grandchildren.

—G. C. Macnab

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Michael Redgrave

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