Natasha Richardson: Improvising Her Best Role
Three years ago today, we were shocked to learn Natasha Richardson had died in a skiing accident. In the wake of her death, David Patrick Stearns discussed her unique brand of stardom. Originally published March 2009 on Obit-Mag.com.
Natasha Richardson's ultimate triumph wasn't her movies and plays, but a life that was her own, not wrested from the shadow of her famous theatrical ancestors, but simply lived according to its own unpredictable rhythm, unguided by outside notions of what should come next.
In this April 26, 2005 file photo, actress Natasha Richardson is shown at her opening night performance in the Roundabout Theatre Company's Broadway production of "A Streetcar Named Desire" Studio 54 in New York. Richardson, 45, died Wednesday, March 18, 2009 in New York after suffering an apparent head injury from a skiing accident in Canada on Monday. (AP Photo/Tina Fineberg, File)
When taken off life support on March 18 following a freak skiing accident in Canada two days before, Richardson, 45, left no signature role by which she was indelibly known. But she had ample recognition, including a 1998 Tony for a Broadway revival of Cabaret in which she effortlessly reinterpreted the role of Sally Bowles after Liza Minnelli’s iconic precedent. For British TV, she braved the Elizabeth Taylor role in a riveting TV version of Tennessee Williams' Suddenly Last Summer alongside Maggie Smith, and might have logically gone on to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof had motherhood not intervened. She later found her own stories to tell, such as the 2005 film Asylum, which she produced herself and starred in as a bored doctor's wife having an affair with a convicted, criminally insane murderer.
The fact that she made a place for herself in a world that had been dominated by her parents, actress Vanessa Redgrave and director Tony Richardson, her grandfather Michael Redgrave and her aunt Lynn Redgrave was only her most visible achievement. She arrived professionally in a post-modern retrospective age – one in which all the great stories were thought to have been told – that was also rife with celebrity deification. Plays that were pop hits only a decade or so before were morphing into classics, and defined by original stars thought to be artistically untouchable.
Whether because of a strong psychological institution, a good marriage to actor Liam Neeson or the leaving of her native London for the wider-open spaces of New York City, she seemed untouched by a potentially suffocating past. She didn't fight it, dominate it or trump it. You can't say she was her own person because that suggests a personality molded by reactions to outside influences. Natasha Richardson was herself, a bit more beautiful than her mother or Aunt Lynn, but happy to be an artistic middleweight who might be seen on Broadway in consecutive seasons or take a few years off.
In fact, Richardson had no ambitions to join her family's Mt. Rushmore, though she'd inherited good genes. Though she worked with her mother in the beginning of her career in The Seagull and only weeks before her death in a celebrity reading of A Little Night Music, Richardson once told the London Observer, "I don't know if I could ever put myself in the same category as [Vanessa Redgrave]. She is one of the greatest actresses of our time…."
Her own bracket was unpremeditated, seemingly without trajectory. During her marriage to Neeson, she didn't anticipate having her two sons only a year apart – jokingly calling them "Irish twins." In her film life, she badly wanted Neeson to co-star with her in Asylum, but after five years of struggling to get the green light on the film, she found he was committed elsewhere. Her other films seem like the work of three different actresses, from Disney's featherweight The Parent Trap with Lindsay Lohan to the romantic comedy Maid in Manhattan, whose primary female presence was Jennifer Lopez. That was OK, too. "While J-Lo insisted on a personal entourage of 20, a fleet of limousines and every whim taken care of at a glitzy party," wrote Tim Adams in The Times of London of the film's publicity tour, "Richardson traveled alone, took taxis and asked for nothing more daring than afternoon tea. And in the battle of sassy against classy, the class won hands down."
Richardson's motivation wasn't humility. "It has been my choice to live under the radar," she once said. "I recall, as a child, being chased with my mother by photographers after her separation from my father – and being very scared. So Liam and I fulfill our professional obligations, but don't want to take it further."
In an Oct. 17, 2008 file photo actors Liam Neeson, right, and partner Natasha Richardson arrive for The Times BFI London Film Festival in London. Published reports say actress Natasha Richardson is in critical condition after a skiing accident in Canada Monday March 16, 2009. (AP Photo/Joel Ryan/file)
There was neither rebellion nor imitation in Richardson's world. She was 3 when her parents split. She divided her childhood between a spartan lifestyle with her mother (who gave all of her money to Palestinian liberation causes and lost lucrative U.S. engagements due to the visibility of her politics) and her Los Angeles-based father, who was quietly bisexual and died of AIDS in 1991.
Amid all of this, Richardson went to Central School of Speech and Drama in London, had little to do with classical theater – the launching pads for her illustrious ancestors – and claimed that there weren't even 10 roles in Shakespeare or Moliere that interested her. Instead, she built her career on characters with more current complexities, such as the title role in the 1988 film Patty Hearst or the repressed, traumatized Kate in The Handmaid's Tale about a futuristic theocracy in which most women are sterile, or the more conventionally disturbed Zelda Fitzgerald in the TV movie Zelda.
These characterizations weren't accomplished with the eerie, go-for-broke selflessness of her mother. By the time Richardson played Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway in 2005, critics were increasingly aware of her lack of vulnerability. In truth, the solidity she projected – whether looking after the children of her first husband, Robert Fox, or acting as a guest judge on the TV show "Top Chef" – didn't show the anxiety that came with the risks she took, such as Cabaret. Neither a singer nor dancer in the strict Broadway sense, Richardson later admitted to having a huge struggle. It's here that her dynastic heritage had its advantages. Odd as it is to envision Vanessa Redgrave at a Broadway musical preview, she indeed attended an early one and gave small, key bits of advice: The economically marginal Sally Bowles should treat her fur coat as a more treasured possession – though she eventually pawns it to finance an abortion.
The next season when Richardson was back on Broadway, it was because she couldn't resist Closer by Patrick Marber, regarded as one of the best of a new generation of edgy British playwrights. "The character has to be intelligent and funny and beautiful and … slightly sad,'' Marber told the New York Times. ''That's Natasha.''
Along the way, Richardson discovered her father's memoirs after his death, had them published, and became a spokeswoman for several AIDS service and research organizations, such as the National AIDS Trust. Perhaps her ultimate personal rapprochement with her past was her 2003 return to the London stage in a role her mother played twice, the title character in Ibsen's The Lady from the Sea. By then, Richardson's plays and films often seemed like interludes in a well-lived life. "I love to eat, love to cook and love to drink wine. So I can put on 7 pounds in an instant. Then, when I have to be on camera, I hit a high-protein/low-carbohydrate diet, plus lots of exercise and no alcohol," she once said. "It's bloody agony."
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