Vanessa Redgrave’s Latest Cause

As a rule, Chatterbox doesn’t think much about the sex lives of celebrities, but the news that Vanessa Redgrave has been celibate for at least one decade, and possibly two, seems too socially significant to ignore. Redgrave spilled the beans in an interview with Geordie Greig in the February Tatler. (This link, alas, takes you only to a summary of the issue’s contents, not the article itself.) Redgrave became a movie star during the period pop sociologists refer to as the Sexual Revolution and, in movies like Blowup and Isadora, exuded a brainy sexuality that left a deep impression on the more pretentious male baby boomers (click here to see Redgrave written up as a “swingin’ chick of the ‘60s” and here for photographic evidence), of whom Chatterbox was one. Chatterbox caught a bit of Camelot on television last month. At age 9, he was prepared to rate it above Citizen Kane. In fact, it’s a terrible movie with an uncharacteristically bad performance by Redgrave (and shockingly bad lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner; surely Chatterbox isn’t the first to notice the appalling redundancy of “Those are the legal laws”). Undiluted by the passage of time, though, was the power of Redgrave’s unsettling beauty.

Today, Redgrave is known less for being a ‘60s bombshell than for her considerable gifts as an actress, her hard leftism, and her combative stance toward Jews. (She was once filmed dancing with a Kalashnikov rifle at a PLO camp and, upon winning the Academy Award in 1978 for Julia, branded her Jewish critics “Zionist hoodlums.”) The leftism and, possibly, the dislike of Israel may pose a problem if the Christian right tries to use her to demonstrate the superiority of celibacy over birth control. (The fact that Redgrave is now 63 might also limit her usefulness.) Also, it’s hard to tell from the Tatler interview whether Redgrave’s celibacy is ideologically based. “I think I’ve always tended to be a sort of platonic person,” she’s quoted as saying. Camouflaging impressive reportorial tenacity with a fawning tone, the Tatler continues:

So, is this some new, life-denying chapter for the most controversial, vivacious and celebrated actress of our time? “Oh, no–I love life so much, perhaps now more than ever before,” she says, her eyebrows arching. “But that doesn’t mean that I can’t be platonic.” Her eyes narrow, just by a whisker. What, then, are the advantages? “Well, it means your ego is at a very abated level, and I don’t want to give my ego a chance. I also found I’d got too many fascinating things to do.” What’s more, she says, she now doesn’t even miss sex. …Supremely glamorous at 63, such an alluringly beautiful woman must have endless men making passes. What does she say to them? “Well, I have a bit of a tease and a laugh and try to make the person feel not put down,” she says. And does that mean not even a kiss? “Oh no,” she laughs, lighting up one of a succession of cigarettes. “You can still kiss people. A kiss is … well … a kiss is still a kiss.”

Although Redgrave doesn’t pin down exactly when she gave up sex, she says in the interview that it was long ago. A Jan. 11 follow-up by Mark Reynolds in the Daily Mail suggests that her celibacy  must go back at least to 1991. Applying the obsessive logical technique of Kenneth Starr for just the briefest moment, let’s put Reynolds’ evidence under the magnifying glass. Redgrave’s ex-husband, the director Tony Richardson, died of AIDS in 1991. Redgrave asserts in the Tatler interview that she studied up on the disease while Richardson was ill and resolved to “help and alleviate and prevent and educate.” Presumably, Redgrave had no reason to fear having contracted the disease from Richardson because they’d been divorced for decades. But their daughters, the actresses Joely and Natasha Richardson, were tested for AIDS at Redgrave’s apparent urging. Did Redgrave get herself tested as well? No, she tells Tatler, because, she explains, “I gave it all up a long time ago.” A conservative reading of this statement suggests that Redgrave has been celibate since Richardson’s death in 1991. A more liberal reading is that Redgrave hasn’t had sex since the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic in 1981 when she was 43. And if that’s true, Chatterbox has to wonder whether the Sexual Revolution itself was a massive hoax.