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Lynn Redgrave: An Appreciation

May 3, 2010 |  3:08 pm

Lynn redgrave 1 Although I never met Lynn Redgrave, the news of her death Sunday at her home in Connecticut following a long bout with breast cancer feels oddly personal, a little like hearing about the passing of a former neighbor for whom you secretly maintained an affectionate regard.

Of all the illustrious acting Redgraves, she was the most accessible, the one we could easily identify with, maybe even imagine taking out to lunch. Vanessa Redgrave, her older sister, has always been loftier, less compromising, an artist and an activist on a grave mission. To Vanessa’s tragically unbending Antigone, Lynn was the levelheaded Ismene, the sibling not built for radical extremes, who preferred everyday humanity to the glories of myth.

Redgrave came into renown with her 1966 Oscar-nominated performance in “Georgy Girl” as the ugly duckling with the fey demeanor whose laggard transformation into a swan causes her to remark how “God always has another pie up his sleeve.” This attitude of humorously making the best out of a mixed lot captivated the public, which saw in her plump and tousled freshness the glamorous heroine waiting to be released.

Trained at London's Central School of Speech and Drama, Redgrave came of age as an actor in the early ’60s on the British stage. She made her professional debut in a 1962 production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Royal Court Theatre, had an early taste of the road with Dundee Rep in "Billy Liar," and joined the National Theatre for its inaugural season at the Old Vic under the visionary leadership of Laurence Olivier.

Audiences appreciated her polish and pedigree but adored her availability as a person. Redgrave combined these qualities to greatest effect in her comedy. She had a knack for portraying women of crisp common sense who were liable to have some foible or fixation that conspicuously undercut their appearance of control.

Typically, the joke was on her characters. But Redgrave had a way of suggesting that these women were slyly in on the fun, as she memorably did in her Obie-winning performance off-Broadway as the uptight shop clerk whose middle-aged feet turn on a chiropodist in Alan Bennett's "Talking Heads."

The small screen suited her dimensions as well as the stage. She was nominated for an Emmy for her work in the sitcom “House Calls,” lit up countless TV dramas and comedies with guest appearances, and for a time regularly entered our home as the friendly face of Weight Watchers.

Nothing endears a celebrity to the American people quite like a struggle with an expanding waistline, and Redgrave’s battle with the bulge was followed by other more painful public struggles, including a humiliating soap-opera divorce from longtime husband John Clark, and the harrowing health crisis that ultimately snatched her life at 67 but couldn't dent her determination to live it to the fullest while there was still a show to perform.

In recent years, she enjoyed letting loose as blustery matriarchs. She earned a Tony nomination as the socially conscious mother with the pocketbook of paradoxical quips in “The Constant Wife” and offered up a Lady Bracknell in Peter Hall’s 2006 production of "The Importance of Being Earnest" at the Ahmanson that was all epigrammatic assault. These roles didn’t call for much interior subtlety, and Redgrave chomped at their wit with delirious abandon, as though at long last free of the shackles of polite realism.

Subtle and challenging acting opportunities for women of a certain age, of course, aren’t superabundant in Hollywood. Redgrave was marvelous in both “Gods and Monsters” (which brought her a second Oscar nomination) and “Shine," but much of her late-career energy was devoted to writing and acting in theatrical works about her distinguished lineage.

The best of these stage memoirs, “Shakespeare for My Father,” which was opened on Broadway in 1993, chronicled her relationship with her father, Michael Redgrave -- and earned her a Tony nomination for her acting. A more recent addition, “Nightingale,” which premiered at the Mark Taper Forum in 2006 and centered on her lesser known maternal grandmother, may not have been all that satisfying as a drama, but Redgrave’s tender portrayal received its share of plaudits.

The truth is that critics, by and large, were as susceptible to her appeal as her fans. As much as Vanessa Redgrave is revered, Lynn was beloved. And one of the difficult things for those of us who have felt a connection to the Redgrave clan is dealing with the succession of losses, first Natasha Richardson last year, then Corin Redgrave last month, and now, Lynn. The only consolation is the memory of how distinctively they honored their art.

-- Charles McNulty

follow him on Twitter @ charlesmcnulty

Photo: Lynn Redgrave. Credit: Will Ragozzino / Getty Images