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Vanessa Redgrave - Academy Fellow in 2010

21 February 2010
Vanessa Redgrave accepts her Academy Fellowship (BAFTA/Brian Ritchie).BAFTA/Brian Ritchie

Actress Vanessa Redgrave received the Academy Fellowship from Uma Thurman and HRH Prince William at the Film Awards in 2010.

On Sunday 21 February, at the BAFTA Film Awards, actress Vanessa Redgrave was presented with the Academy Fellowship by Uma Thurman and BAFTA's new president, HRH Prince William.

Awarded annually by the Academy, the Fellowship is the highest accolade bestowed upon an individual in recognition of an outstanding and exceptional contribution to film. Previously honoured Fellows include Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg, Sean Connery, Elizabeth Taylor, Julie Christie, John Barry, Stanley Kubrick, Anthony Hopkins and Judi Dench. Last year’s recipient was Terry Gilliam .

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Vanessa Redgrave CBE looks back on her remarkable acting career with writer Quentin Falk.

FellowBAFTA/Richard KendalAt a curtain call for Hamlet in January 1937, Laurence Olivier, who’d been starring in the title role opposite Michael Redgrave, strode to the front of the stage at The Old Vic and announced: “Ladies and gentlemen, tonight a great actress has been born; Laertes has a daughter.”

Since that icy day, as a snowstorm raged around the maternity clinic in South East London,Vanessa Redgrave has nearly always been in the public eye—as a member, then perpetuator, of one of Britain’s great theatrical families; an unashamed, often courageous, political provocateur; and as a peerless performer on stage and screen. Olivier’s optimism proved to be pure prescience.

As well as all the theatrical bouquets, Redgrave has appeared in more than 60 films and countless TV dramas, winning Emmys, Golden Globes and an Oscar. There have also been, to date, three BAFTA nominations, spanning more than 40 years, starting with Morgan—A Suitable Case For Treatment in 1966.

In 1988, she received a Supporting Actress nod for Prick Up Your Ears (as the formidable agent Peggy Ramsay) and, in 2002, another for her small screen performance as Clemmie Churchill opposite Albert Finney in The Gathering Storm.

Now joining an illustrious roll call of Fellows, she is, however, just the tenth woman to receive the Academy’s most prestigious award since it was inaugurated in 1971.

I want, in whatever tiny way I can, to support directors in pursuing their passion for a film...

“I never even knew there was such a thing,” she exclaims, delightedly. “It’s such an honour.” When told that Alfred Hitchcock was the first ever recipient, she quickly responds: “Wow, now I really do feel honoured… especially as my father made his first film with Hitchcock.”

Although never tempted to go behind the camera herself—“I never thought I could; I want, in whatever tiny way I can, to support directors in pursuing their passion for a film”— she is quick to laud some of the great collaborations in her long career.

The first name she picks out is Tony Richardson, father of her two daughters (actresses Natasha, who tragically died last year, and Joely) with whom she worked before and during their five-year marriage as well as after their divorce. “I never played any really big roles in his films but I loved working with him. It was always such fun, both for the incredible casts and the crews he usually managed to assemble. I think especially of The Charge Of The Light Brigade—what an amazing film.”

Then there was Fred Zinnemann. He was a master of a different kind. I loved the spare economy of, in particular, the way he directed me and Jane Fonda in Julia.The night before we were due to do the one scene we had together, he said to us: Now, I want you both to look at this scene, go away and separately make as many cuts as you can to your own part.’ He had that kind of trust in us—and the result was a much better text.”Which, of course, helped earn Redgrave her Oscar for Supporting Actress in 1978.

From the newer crop of filmmakers, she singles out Joe Wright for whom she created a memorable cameo in Atonement. He’s great; I felt something with him pretty near how I felt with Tony. Extraordinarily intelligent and fun with a very specific take on details.”

Asked with whom she’d still like to work, she has no hesitation: Clint Eastwood…“I’d give my eye teeth,” she laughs.

Acting remains her great passion and, as if to complete a sort of Shakespearean circle which started that night just over 73 years ago, her upcoming film roles are both Bard-related. She’s to play the older Queen Elizabeth I in Anonymous, Roland Emmerich’s political thriller about who might have written Shakespeare’s plays; and there’s Volumnia, the Roman general’s mother, in Ralph Fiennes’ feature directing debut, Coriolanus.

“Every time I see an extraordinary piece of cinema—like Precious and District 9 this past year—it makes me glow.”

"That," says Vanessa Redgrave, "is what keeps inspiring you."