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