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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

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