03.03.2014
  • Israel / Palestine
  • United States

Vanessa Redgrave at the Oscars

When an Israel boycott showed up on the red carpet.

When I was a kid, there was probably no actor more reviled among Jews than Vanessa Redgrave. This was the late 1970s, and Redgrave was an outspoken defender of the Palestinians and a critic of Israel.

It all came to a head in 1978 at the Academy Awards (this is why I’m thinking about her). Redgrave was up for an award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Julia, a film my family refused to see (boycotts run deep with me, I guess). The Jewish Defense League was out in force that night. Apparently there had been a major campaign to deny Redgrave the Oscar on the grounds that she supported a Palestinian state. She got it anyway.

Instead of offering an olive branch to her critics, or keeping quiet about the controversy, she took the opportunity of her acceptance speech to denounce the “Zionist hoodlums” who had campaigned against her nomination and possible receipt of the award.

Her speech didn’t go down so well with the audience, some of whom booed her. Later that night, the playwright and screenwriter Paddy Chayevsky used the opportunity of his presenting the award for Best Screenplay — to Woody Allen for Annie Hall (Allen, of course, has himself become the source of some controversy this year) — to denounce Redgrave for using the opportunity of her acceptance speech to make a political statement:

I would like to say — personal opinion of course — that I’m sick and tired of people exploiting the Academy Awards for the propagation of their own propaganda. I would like to suggest to Miss Redgrave that her winning the Academy Award is not a pivotal moment in history, does not require a proclamation, and a simple “thank you” would have sufficed.

Whatever you think of the protagonists, it was great theater.

Thinking back on that night, I was curious to see where Redgrave wound up landing on the issue of Israel/Palestine as it presents itself today. I did a little research and noticed that in 1986, she came out in favor of a cultural boycott of Israel. No surprise there. This position earned her no end of condemnation from defenders of Israel, including Jane Fonda, her co-star in Julia. Fonda joined Tom Hayden, her husband at the time, to say:

We are appalled at Vanessa Redgrave’s attempt to organize a cultural boycott of Israel. We urge all cultural workers to strongly oppose this vicious act and we are confident that it will be rejected by people of conscience everywhere.

In 1986, Hayden was in the California State Assembly, his eye on higher office. I have no idea if that played a role in the two making their statement.

But in 2009, Redgrave would join Julian Schnabel and Martin Sherman to issue a denunciation of filmmakers who were protesting the Toronto Film Festival’s decision to spotlight and showcase films coming out of Tel Aviv. As Redgrave and her co-authors put it in a letter published in the New York Review of Books:

These citizens of Tel Aviv and their organizations and their cultural outlets should be applauded and encouraged. Their presence and their continued activity is reason alone to celebrate their city. Cultural exchanges almost always involve government channels. This occurs in every country. There is no way around it. We do not agree that this involvement is a reason to shun or protest, picket or boycott, or ban people who are expressing thoughts and confronting grief that, ironically, many of the protesters share.

Now she was a critic of the idea of a boycott (though in truth the filmmakers weren’t calling for a boycott; they were merely protesting this one decision). Ironically, one of the most prominent voices protesting the Toronto Film Festival’s decision was . . . Jane Fonda.

Since the debate over Israel and Palestine increasingly pits parents against children in the Jewish community — the most recent Pew poll, which got so much attention last fall, documents a decreasing attachment to Israel among younger Jews — I can’t end this post without posting this clip of Redgrave and her father, Michael, doing Act IV, Scene 7, from King Lear. It’s the scene of Lear’s and Cordelia’s reconciliation. Lear had unfairly banished Cordelia from the kingdom over some perceived slight, and now, slipping in and out of madness, he recognizes the terrible wrong he has done to her. He says:

Be your tears wet? yes, ‘faith. I pray, weep not:

If you have poison for me, I will drink it.

I know you do not love me; for your sisters

Have, as I do remember, done me wrong

You have some cause, they have not.

And in one of the most heart-breaking lines, Cordelia responds:

No cause, no cause.

That murmured protest of Cordelia — “no cause, no cause” — seems especially poignant in light of the ways that Israel/Palestine has divided Jewish families and the generations.