Red­grave: ‘Any ac­tress would have given her eye teeth for that role’

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - CULTURE - By TIM ROBEY Diana & Me,

It’s 50 years since Michelan­gelo An­to­nioni’s Blow-Up won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. This daz­zling, de­fi­ant puz­zle-box of a film has stood the test of time, largely by con­found­ing every new viewer who comes to it. Whether they’re ex­pect­ing some kind of sus­pense mys­tery about a pho­tog­ra­pher who ac­ci­den­tally cap­tures a mur­der — which it cat­e­gor­i­cally is not — or a de­fin­i­tive doc­u­ment of Swing­ing Six­ties Lon­don, which it isn’t ei­ther, it’s an ex­pe­ri­ence guar­an­teed to wrong­foot the unini­ti­ated.

It was also fa­mously racy in its day. Jane Birkin be­came the first ac­tress to flash pu­bic hair in a main­stream re­lease — and the BBFC were ner­vous about a scene of nude ca­vort­ing. An­to­nioni used an as­sis­tant to bark or­ders at the young ac­tresses on set, who were for­bid­den to wear knick­ers be­neath their miniskirts in case the un­der­wear got in the way of the ac­tion.

Un­doubt­edly fu­elled by these an­tics, and the fa­mous poster of the David Bai­ley-es­que pro­tag­o­nist, Thomas, astride the su­per­model of the day, Ver­uschka, the film was a huge world­wide hit. And it re­mains a clas­sic — there aren’t many films that have in­flu­enced not only the para­noid thrillers of Brian De Palma but also Austin Pow­ers.

Driv­ing a Rolls-Royce con­vert­ible once owned by Jimmy Sav­ile, a nat­tily dressed David Hem­mings plays Thomas, the wit­ness to a murky shoot­ing, who is dis­tracted from solv­ing it — al­to­gether, one might say — by the pa­rade of non­sense and fri­vol­ity pass­ing through his fashion stu­dio. David Bai­ley was once asked whether his photo ses­sions ever got as raunchy as the one be­tween Hem­mings and Ver­uschka. His reply: “When I was lucky.”

The star billing, though, went to Vanessa Red­grave, tak­ing a role the critic David Thom­son de­scribed as akin to a “hu­man ques­tion mark”. Red­grave, then 29 and new to film act­ing, was cast as the stranger Hem­mings es­pies in a Green­wich park one morn­ing, and whose pri­vacy he in­vades with a vol­ley of shut­ter clicks. Her keen­ness to re­trieve the in­crim­i­nat­ing roll of film is later ex­plained when the corpse of her com­pan­ion, an older man, pops up in the park. But we never get a mo­tive, and the ev­i­dence, the mys­tery and even the main char­ac­ter wind up do­ing a no­to­ri­ous — to many, be­wil­der­ing — dis­ap­pear­ing act.

Red­grave, now 80, de­nies that the role was a rad­i­cal, or even an ad­ven­tur­ous, choice. “I think any ac­tress at that time, later or ear­lier, would have given their eye teeth to work for An­to­nioni — he was a ge­nius,” she says. “True, it wasn’t an act­ing­based nar­ra­tive, which is a dif­fer­ent kind of film­mak­ing al­to­gether. It has its place, but that’s not the place any of us dreamed of be­ing in. We dreamed of work­ing with peo­ple like An­to­nioni.”

Hear­ing that gooey, qua­ver­ing voice sends the imag­i­na­tion rang­ing over the ca­reer Red­grave has had. The va­ri­ety of film roles she’s ex­plored from the start is as­ton­ish­ing: ev­ery­thing from lit­er­ary bi­og­ra­phy to Greek tragedy, The Devils to Dos­toyevsky, Mrs Dal­loway to Mis­sion: Im­pos­si­ble. But her ado­ra­tion of “Michelan­gelo”, as she calls him con­stantly and fondly, knows no bounds.

At the time Blow-Up was made, Red­grave was near the end of her five-year mar­riage to Tony Richard­son. He shared her wor­ship of the great Ital­ian, who had made his rep­u­ta­tion with an ex­tra­or­di­nary tril­ogy of films about mod­ernist en­nui star­ring his own part­ner, Mon­ica Vitti — 1960’s L’avven­tura (an­other Palme d’Or win­ner), the amaz­ing La Notte (1961), and L’eclisse (1962).

“Mon­ica and Michele were so much a part of our lives,” re­calls Red­grave, “that when I was giv­ing birth to, I think it was my sec­ond daugh­ter, Joely, my hus­band Tony — who was with me, of course, in my bed­room, in the clinic — kept me go­ing by say­ing ‘You look like Mon­ica Vitti’. Which made me think, ‘Ah, hooray, it’s all OK’.”

Red­grave’s screen time in BlowUp is quite brief. Af­ter an al­ter­ca­tion with Hem­mings in the park, she stalks him across Lon­don and even­tu­ally tries to bribe him with sex to get the film back. Their one long scene in his stu­dio is dom­i­nated by her bristling body lan­guage: perched in jit­tery un­cer­tainty on his sofa, she does a jerky dance when he puts a record on, smokes with her head tilted near-hor­i­zon­tally, and keeps jump­ing to her feet in mo­ments of ex­is­ten­tial panic.

Every ges­ture and pose, says Red­grave, was ex­actly dic­tated by her di­rec­tor, but she didn’t find him con­strict­ing or dif­fi­cult at all.

“Work­ing with An­to­nioni was in a dif­fer­ent di­men­sion,” she says. “There are lots of other films where you think, ‘Why is this get­ting made? But thank God I’ve got a job.’ That’s all!”

Red­grave’s look in the role was coltish and an­gu­lar, wear­ing a tight grey skirt and black neck­tie over a later-un­but­toned plaid shirt. The hair was a sur­prise to her. “He didn’t want me in Mon­ica Vitti mould, be­cause of course she was a gor­geous blonde. But he wanted some­thing very pe­cu­liar, and what he wanted was way be­yond the Lon­don hair­dressers. Even Vi­dal Sas­soon failed, af­ter sev­eral goes.

“Much later, when it was all over, I learned that what he’d wanted was a kind of Su­san Son­tag white splash — you know, that white quiff in the mid­dle of her fore­head. I was a bit for­lorn, be­cause I never dreamed of be­ing a black-haired hero­ine for Michelan­gelo. I kind of dreamed of be­ing a blonde one!”

Sig­nif­i­cantly, Red­grave cuts a near-mono­chrome fig­ure in the film’s oth­er­wise madly colour­ful world: com­pared with the fan­tasy life Hem­mings is lead­ing, she rep­re­sents a fear­ful and sus­pi­cious re­al­ity that has stum­bled into this heady car­ni­val by mis­take.

Paul Mc­Cart­ney once di­vulged his own rec­ol­lec­tion of the film’s fa­mous house party scene: “I re­mem­ber the word around town was, ‘There’s this guy who’s pay­ing money for peo­ple to come and get stoned at some place in Chelsea’. Ev­ery­one was be­ing paid, like blood donors, to smoke pot.”

Not ev­ery­one had such a charmed ex­pe­ri­ence on set, how­ever. Peter Bowles was alarmed when a speech of his was ex­cised from the script, which he felt ex­plained the whole film — ex­actly the rea­son An­to­nioni gave for cut­ting it. Sarah Miles strug­gled with nerves and pooh-poohed the fin­ished film as a “typ­i­cal ex­am­ple of the Em­peror’s new clothes”. You won’t hear Red­grave chim­ing in. She re­mem­bers An­to­nioni’s con­trol of the shoot be­ing “very pre­cise and very philo­soph­i­cal”.

“What I’ll never for­get is we had a lit­tle mo­ment, for one cam­era setup, and he wanted the lady to be laugh­ing. The cam­era op­er­a­tor asked him a ques­tion — I can’t re­mem­ber what the ques­tion was, but I do re­mem­ber Michelan­gelo’s an­swer, which was: ‘Don’t worry, she’ll ei­ther get it or she won’t’. I thought that was won­der­ful.

“The lit­tle he said was ev­ery­thing. I felt I un­der­stood what he was get­ting at. Of course, I’m sure I didn’t un­der­stand to­tally. But I un­der­stood enough.”

Work­ing with An­to­nioni was in a dif­fer­ent di­men­sion. There are lots of other films where you think, ‘Why is this get­ting made?’” Vanessa Red­grave,

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