'The Redgraves' review: A pale family portrait

"The Redgraves: A Family Epic," by Donald Spoto

"The Redgraves: A Family Epic," by Donald Spoto (Crown Archetype, October 2012) (Credit: Handout)

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THE REDGRAVES: A Family Epic, by Donald Spoto. Crown Archetype, 361 pp., $26.

In recent years, many Americans -- or at least many New Yorkers -- have genuinely come to care about the Redgraves. The English classical-acting family used to be regarded as the distant theatrical tribe headed by Michael Redgrave and wife Rachel Kempson, whose children -- the insecure, outgoing Lynn and the introspective, politically charged Vanessa -- enhanced the family's legacy.

But the sisters, along with actor/provocateur brother Corin and Vanessa's daughters, Natasha and Joely Richardson, became a real presence in theater, movies and TV in the past decade.

Thus the deaths of Lynn (recurring breast cancer in 2010), Corin (heart attack about a month before) and especially Natasha (a freak brain injury after a skiing acci- dent in 2009) seemed to evoke a sorrow that went deeper than soap-opera sensationalism.

All the sadness -- and the accomplishments, the intelligence and, yes, the unconventional family's sexual and political divergences -- raises anticipation for Donald Spoto's self-described "family epic."

What sounds tantalizing and far-reaching, alas, is less a family epic than a comprehensive Michael (and Rachel) Redgrave biography with mere family addenda. Michael, who died of Parkinson's disease in 1985, was one of the greats of the British stage and film and his story -- from poor childhood to British knight, while enjoying and struggling with his bisexuality -- would doubtless belong on a theatrical shelf with existing bios of John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier and Alec Guinness.

But Spoto, author of more than two dozen biographies about such single-name icons as Jackie, Liz and Marilyn, offers a lopsided journey that doesn't seriously get to the children, much less to the children's children, until two-thirds of the way through more than 300 pages.

Instead we get meticulous detail about Michael's long career and background on each of the male lovers that he "pitchforked" into his home as the latest "family friend." Rachel knew of what he called "difficulties in his nature" and believed her "love for him would change him."

As Corin said years later, "My father was gay, or bisexual, at a time when you would be ashamed, humiliated, penalized and possibly put in prison." The danger cannot be overstated. Between 1940 and 1955, the number of arrests for "homosexual behavior" in Great Britain increased by 600 percent, Spoto reports. Gielgud was even the target of a "police sting."

Until Spoto finally gets to his hurried synopses of the eventful lives and careers of Vanessa, Corin and Lynn, the children appear mainly to describe the effects of their parents' behaviors. "I was in awe of him and I adored him, and I was terrified of him and I hated him and loved him, all in one go," remembered Lynn.

When at last we are rushed through all the political, psychological, sexual and artistic happenings in the lives of the Redgraves who have most touched us, the epic is over. Spoto says that Vanessa has always insisted "We are not a dynasty. We are a family." Whatever one calls these astonishing artists, mostly they remain a mystery.

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