I have met Vanessa Redgrave a couple of times through my actor friend Rade Serbedzija. Vanessa had helped Rade when he and his family were refugees from the former Yugoslavia. I became friends with Rade when he starred in Prague Duet, a film I made with my wife Sheryl Longin. And so we came to meet Vanessa.
She was always friendly and unassuming even though she has been, without doubt, one of the finest actresses in the English-speaking world for many decades. It seems almost to have been so since Sir Laurence Olivier, who was acting in a production with her father, Sir Michael Redgrave, announced her birth on stage at London’s Old Vic in 1937.
Of course, Vanessa has another side as a (sometimes Trotskyist) political activist. This week we learn she has been helping Guantanamo suspects, including one Jamil el-Banna accused of “producing extremist propaganda for Osama bin Laden,” putting up half of a 50,000 pound bail surety for el-Banna and a Libyan named Omar Deghayes who has links to the same al-Qaeda cell. The actress commented, “It is a profound honour and I am glad to be alive to be able to do this… Guantanamo Bay is a concentration camp. It is a disgrace that these men have been kept there all these years.”
Concentration camp? Well I imagine it’s not a very comfortable place. It’s a prison for enemy combatants. But “concentration camp” is an explosive term, evoking images of Auschwitz or the Gulag where tens of millions died, many gassed or starved to death, assuming they weren’t first lined up against the wall, shot and tossed into pits.
No one, to my knowledge, has been murdered in Guantanamo. Difficult jurisdictional questions have arisen with legitimate human rights questions asked. There have been a few reported suicides, though I am not sure how well documented. But starvation has not been a problem. According to many reports, the detainees have never eaten so well (four meals a day) and obesity might be more of an issue. Of course, there was that report in Newsweek a couple of years back that, to punish an unruly inmate, a US military guard had flushed a Koran down the toilet. Only it was then discovered that there weren’t flush toilets, only chemical toilets, at Guantanamo, so such an act was physically impossible.
Vanessa probably missed the retraction in Newsweek. It didn’t exactly appear on the front page. Nevertheless, I doubt the fine points mean that much to her. The actress is of the school that anything done by the West, particularly the capitalist West, is suspect. She is able to overlook the ideology of al-Qaeda in this regard, which is a particularly rigorous gymnastic considering the misogyny and homophobia of the al-Qaeda worldview. No doubt the Islamist group would ban many of the films in which Redgrave appeared, including Antonioni’s Blow-Up, in which she performed basically deshabille, and Wilde, in which she portrayed the homosexual playwright’s mother. In fact, it’s likely they would ban all her films, except perhaps a documentary she made with some Palestinian activists, and about that I’m not sure, given the internecine rivalries between various Fatah and Hamas factions. (It gets, excuse the phrase, Talmudic.)
But no matter. What’s important is how Vanessa appears – to herself and the public. It’s a kind of narcissism mixed with epater le bourgeoisie, masquerading as defense of the downtrodden, although these particular downtrodden are locked in an ideology that ensures their own continued misfortune. And the more the West is blamed for that misfortune, the longer it continues. Vanessa is in essence part of the problem, not part of the solution.
Yet again this does not bother her or even penetrate her radar screen. We should all be grateful, however, for her acting, just as we should all be grateful for the acting of the similarly unconscious Sean Penn (perhaps not entirely coincidentally also from an eminent theatrical family).
What intrigues me in all this is the relationship, if any, between talent and ideological blindness or rigidity. It’s not as simple as it seems. It could be the development of these false separate selves, these mini-me’s, that take the extreme positions, such as a Redgrave or Penn or Sarandon or, to a lesser extent, Streisand, have done, enhances the illusion of empathy that creates their art. It is generative artistically while being toxic politically. The Sean Penn who embraces Hugo Chavez is the same Sean Penn who gave us Jeff Spicoli. It would be great if we could have one without the other, but maybe, in some cases, we can’t.