One function of celebrity is to alert the rest of us to hard truths, to teach us the lessons of love and grief. Among these is the cruelest jest of fate: a child’s death that precedes his or her parents. That instructive obscenity slammed home today with the death of Natasha Richardson, a distinguished British actress who was a third-generation star of the noted Redgrave acting clan, and elder daughter of the great and controversial Vanessa Redgrave. Richardson died two days after a seemingly unremarkable fall while skiing in Quebec. She lost consciousness and within 24 hours had been in three hospitals the last in New York City, her adopted home, where Redgrave and other family members, including Richardson’s actor husband Liam Neeson, stood loving watch. She was 45.
Richardson was born in London in 1963, when her mother was still a promising young actress. At the time, Natasha’s father, film director Tony Richardson, was the more famous parent; that year he directed the 18th-century caper comedy Tom Jones, winning Oscars for the picture and himself. Natasha made her film debut at the age of four in Dad’s revisionist take on The Charge of the Light Brigade. By then, Vanessa Redgrave had become the brightest new light of stage and screen . Having separated from Richardson, Redgrave had taken up with Franco Nero, her hunky costar in Camelot.
For all her solid achievements in plays and movies and on television, Richardson was first, and unfairly, thought of as Vanessa’s daughter. Though she was not blessed with Redgrave’s white-hot, almost alarming incandescence that grand stature mixed with a girlish vulnerability Richardson had her own gifts. Her public presence was spikier, more knowing and skeptical; she seemed not so much ageless as modern, less questing than questioning. She could locate the befuddlement of a brainwashed heiress , the crassness of a an old-time good-time girl , the desperation in a Tennessee Williams heroine . She was a watchful actress, and always worth watching.
Richardson’s career choice and that of her younger sister Joely seemed destined by birth. Producers, and lovers of acting dynasties, wanted Natasha to be the next Vanessa. She was usually cast in period pieces that emphasized her glamour and hauteur; often she stepped into roles made famous by earlier movie legends. In a 1987 West End musical version of High Society she was perennial debutante Tracy Lord, played in movies by Katharine Hepburn and Grace Kelly. She made her Broadway debut in 1993 as Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie, a part that Greta Garbo made famous on film and that Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullmann had done on stage.
Sometimes, through the fine lace of period propriety, fire and madness emerged. In one of her first starring roles, as the budding author Mary Shelley in Ken Russell’s loony Gothic , Richardson somehow made emotional sense of a young woman who is racked by visions of her stillborn child, and who, from the labor of her nightmares, gives birth to literature’s most enduring monster: Frankenstein. Two years later, she was convincingly Californian in Paul Schrader’s oneiric docudrama about Patty Hearst another nightmare role that she approached with the passion and, especially, the precision of a mature actress. She was also exemplary as the star of the 1990 film The Handmaid’s Tale, from Margaret Atwood’s novel , in which she is a lonely, stubborn rebel in a brutal, sterile future society.
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