Though Vanessa Redgrave is one of the world’s great actresses of stage and screen, and a member of the most renowned acting dynasty ever, she’s at least as well known for her politics as for her performances. The most famous moment of her career is still the speech she gave in 1978 upon winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her title role in Julia. Redgrave was already famous for her outspoken Marxism, her support for the PLO, and her hostility toward Israel, and she had just produced and narrated an anti-Israel documentary, The Palestinian, which had caused outrage among many American Jews. As a newspaper profile would point out many years later, by the time of that award ceremony her “reputation for hectoring radicalism had made her widely disliked.”
After being handed her Oscar by John Travolta, Redgrave expressed thanks for the honor and praised her co-star, Jane Fonda, and her director, Fred Zinneman. She then thanked the audience – or, at least, the Academy members present who had cast their ballots for her – for having “stood firm” and “refused to be intimidated by the threats of a small bunch of Zionist hoodlums.”
At the sound of the words “Zionist hoodlums” there were audible gasps from the audience – followed by a good deal of booing. Unruffled, Redgrave went on to maintain that by giving her the Best Supporting Actress nod, Academy voters had “dealt a final blow against that period when Nixon and McCarthy launched a worldwide witch-hunt against those who tried to express in their lives and their work the truth that they believe in.” In other words, by choosing to present that golden statuette to Redgrave rather than to one of her fellow nominees (Leslie Browne, Quinn Cummings, Melinda Dillon, and Tuesday Weld), the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had finally brought the age of McCarthyism to an end.
It was, all in all, a high point in the history of show-business vanity, self-importance, ideological hectoring, and moral posturing. And it shouldn’t have surprised anyone. Just a few years earlier, Redgrave and her brother Corin had joined a radical British faction called the Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP), and had immediately become its most famous and influential members. Corin had even bought a house in Derbyshire for the party to use as a training camp. Over the next few years, the WRP developed close ties to Muammar Gaddafi’s government in Libya, took money from him, and engaged in espionage on his behalf. The party also accepted payments from Saddam Hussein, on whose behalf its members photographed participants in demonstrations against Saddam’s regime. All this happened with the knowledge and approval of Vanessa Redgrave, who was twice an WRP candidate for for Parliament.