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Natasha Richardson: An appreciation

March 18, 2009 | 10:38 pm

Natasha Richardson in 'Cabaret'Whenever an actor dies unexpectedly in the midst of a fruitful career, it’s impossible not to mourn the future possibilities that have been suddenly and cruelly foreclosed. Natasha Richardson, who died Wednesday after suffering a head injury in a skiing accident Monday, was only 45 and should have had more opportunities to show us the range of her talent, which was always surprising. One could say she made a career of overturning expectations about what she could and could not do.

The daughter of Vanessa Redgrave and Tony Richardson, she was born into theatrical royalty but refused to be burdened by her grand heritage. Perhaps this accounts for the incredible daring of her choices.

She was forever tackling roles that made you second-guess your typecasting of her. “Oh, come on, you can’t do that,” were words that I often found myself silently repeating after hearing reports of her upcoming stage plans, and time and again she proved me stupendously wrong.

This regal English actress seemed a questionable choice for Sally Bowles in the 1998 Broadway revival of “Cabaret,” yet she couldn’t have been more heartbreakingly right. Her dramatically adept portrait, tinged with genuine desperation and despair (even her purposely off-key musical numbers suggested a soul in crisis) earned her a Tony and widespread acceptance among New York’s hard-bitten musical theater stalwarts.

Who would have cast this statuesque Brit as Blanche DuBois? Yet, in an admittedly problematic 2005 production of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Richardson lent an operatic voice to the lyrical pain in Tennessee Williams’ play. Her approach may have flirted dangerously with parody, but her flamboyance accrued a poignancy that ultimately synergized with the playwright’s own.

Richardson lacked the buzz-saw intensity of her mother, but she had her own emotional hues. She could be steely and sardonic when needed, as she showed when playing Anna, the sexually mistreated photographer in Patrick Marber’s “Closer,” which she did on Broadway in 1999.

My introduction to her was through two Paul Schrader films, “Patty Hearst” (1988) and “The Comfort of Strangers” (1990). Her performances in these movies announced that the Redgrave clan had another generation of exceptional talent to share with us. But it wasn’t until 1993, when I saw her costarring with Maggie Smith in a TV version of “Suddenly, Last Summer,” that I really took notice of the radiance of her empathetic gifts and, just as important, her commitment to dramatic poetry.

Because we all know her acting family — not just her brilliant mother, but also her sister Joely, her aunt Lynn and her uncle Corin (I could continue, but you get the point) -- this tragic death seems more personal, even familial. For those of us who saw her in “Anna Christie” on Broadway in 1993, starring opposite Liam Neeson — the man who was to become her husband — it’s hard not to feel as if we’ve shared momentous joys with her, including the births of her two sons.

Those who knew “Tasha,” as she was called by loved ones and close acquaintances, can speak to her unguarded graciousness. She was undeniably privileged in her chosen field, but she earned professional respect and goodwill completely on her own. Her close-knit family and friends are not alone in their grief.

--Charles McNulty

Related material:

Natasha Richardson, actress, dies at 45

Photos: Natasha Richardson: 1963-2009

Natasha Richardson's condition likely due to delayed bleeding

Caption: Natasha Richardson in "Cabaret." Credit: Joan Marcus

Comments () | Archives (9)

Beautifully written remembrance. Thank you for mentioning two of my favorite film performances: The Comfort of Strangers and Patty Hearst. Such a loss for everyone.

She'll be missed...I always thought she should've been a big star. Great actress.

Heart breaking,my thoughts are with her family.Please hang in there.

I am so sad that Natashas died. She was a great actress and was loved by many. It is very sad to lose someone so young with a great career ahead. To think she was learning to ski and banged her head. She even thought she was ok! Its just so sad and upseting.
What a huge loss, i send my love to the family!

Fabulous classy lady. Great couple. So sad.

We have lost a truly special lady, a loss felt by many

When I first saw the internet reports, my heart sank...I just got the feeling that this was going to end tragically. This lovely, kind, talented & warm-spirited young woman took a spill on a ski slope. Something that happens hundreds of times a day across the globe. A freak, tragic accident.
My heart breaks for all those who loved her and the loss to the world of theater, live and celluloid. My husband was taken at this same age...much too soon, with so much live to live and love to give. The saying "only the good die young" rings true so many times. God bless everyone involved including all of the safety and medical personnel, as well, whose training and skill sets were ultimately powerless against the fragility of the human body.

I have always admired and esteemed the Redgrave family. How tragic that Natasha Richardson died an untimely death. I was very shocked and saddened to learn on the radio news of it.

My heart goes out to her family, especially her husband and her boys. It is unbelievably sad, the acting world has suffereed a great loss as well.

Another thing that makes one consider the good people who are gone and the evil people who are still everywhere.

There is a serious unmet need for wearing ski helmets. Please visit My condolences to Natasha's family. Perhaps we can help to save the lives of others through prevention.


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