The Penultimate Mile: Vanessa Redgrave in Isadora

(one installment in a quick series counting down from 50 to 26!)

VANESSA REDGRAVE IN ISADORA (1968)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!):

Katharine Hepburn in The Lion in Winter

Barbara Streisand in Funny Girl

Patricia Neal in The Subject Was Roses

Joanne Woodward in Rachel, Rachel

It’s sometimes maddening to watch a film and not know what audiences made of it when it first came out.  Vanessa’s interpretation of the iconic American dancer Isadora Duncan is suffused with the most insufferably bratty, self-important tendencies of the counter-culture era.  But how much of it was deliberate, meant as a critique of the film’s famously divaesque central subject, and how much of it was the view of a different generation that could indulge her massive egotism and find her precious affectations inspiring?

Part of the trouble lies in the fact that the film doesn’t quite sell her singular prowess as a dancer.  Vanessa projects the star’s overweening self-regard well enough, but the narrative never justifies it; we seldom see much more than Vanessa’s torso and dramatically gesturing arms in the film’s few actual dance scenes, albeit with Larry Pizer’s camera moving deftly to accentuate her movements (this chest-up framing is used for great effect once, in a New York performance near the film’s end).  We get little insight into the revolutionary power of her dancing, leaving us with a woman who haughtily demands worship while giving us very little to justify it.

Regardless, Vanessa’s modern dancer skips and vaults her way from tacky beginnings in San Francisco to the Riviera, Moscow, and New York, and director Karel Reisz particularly finds his rhythms, particularly in scenes in a Soviet performance hall and Isadora’s Moscow dance school.  The film also takes an inventive approach to Isadora’s famously gruesome death, intertwining the moment of her death with the culmination of a romantic fantasy that Redgrave chases throughout the preceding two hours and fifteen minutes—marred unfortunately by an awkwardly explicit depiction of the fatal accident.  Ultimately this performance falls short of the two giants that year, Katharine Hepburn in The Lion in Winter and Patricia Neal in The Subject Was Roses, which I entitle myself to declare a tie in the spirit of the Academy’s famous split between Hepburn and Barbra Streisand’s screen debut.

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