Venice Festival Honoree Vanessa Redgrave Explains Why She Turned Down Damehood

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Vanessa Redgrave

"I would never accept an honor from someone who took our country to war on the basis of a lie," said the Oscar-winning actress and political activist.

Vanessa Redgrave was in fine — and fighting — form Wednesday at the Venice Film Festival, where the 81-year-old actress will receive a Golden Lion award honoring her life's work.

Speaking at a press conference ahead of the award ceremony, Redgrave spent little time talking about acting and her career, instead diving into the passion for political issues she has devoted much of her life to, particularly the situation of refugees in Europe.

Redgrave said even her first attempt at acting, in an amateur play when she was just 6 years old, has a political motive: She hoped to raise money to help the British Navy fight Germany in World War II.

Unfortunately, Redgrave said, she flubbed one of her lines, leading to the playwright, another 6-year-old, to take the stage and announce: “'Ladies and gentlemen, Vanessa has ruined everything. We are going to start again.' So you see,” Redgrave said, “that was my first effort to save my country. And it was quite an active effort.”

More recently, Redgrave's efforts to combine her art with her political passions resulted in her first-ever directing effort, the documentary Sea Sorrow, a very personal meditation on the global refugee crisis.

She brought up the film, the plight of refugees fleeing to Europe and the indifference of politicians in Europe and elsewhere to the problem, several times during the press conference. Asked about her feelings toward politicians who do nothing to address the problem, or even demonize refugees, Redgrave paused.

“I am trying to speak seriously without swearing because I have this rage inside myself,” she said. “Because (politicians) have lost the understanding of reality in the world, in their countries, in our countries and in the rest of the world. The have lost the sense of reality. They cannot imagine the reality of being a refugee, being a woman who loses her child at sea.”

Redgrave also cleared up a misunderstanding regarding her rejection, in 1999, of a damehood. Declining the honor, she said, had nothing to do with the British royal family, who official proffers the title, and everything to do with former Prime Minister Tony Blair and his entry into the Iraq War.

“I'm not against the royal family; they do many good things and the royal family in England is one of the red lines that can save England at certain moments,” she said. “(But) it isn't the royal family or the queen who offers the honor, it's the government of the day. So I would never say I refused an honor from the queen. But I could not and would not accept any honor form Mr. Blair, when he has taken our country, and so many people, to war on the basis of a lie.”