A tribute to the talented actress, whose unpretentious presence perhaps masked how good she really was.
You don’t have to be a celebrity-obsessed culture vulture, or a movie critic, to be upset and saddened by the death of Natasha Richardson, who on Monday suffered a seemingly minor skiing accident just outside of Montreal and died on Wednesday in a New York hospital at the age of 45. The story is compelling for lots of reasons, not least because it reminds us of the always present possibility that the people we love best could be taken away from us in a heartbeat.
Most of us haven’t thought much about Richardson in recent years, largely because she hasn’t had that many starring roles in Hollywood. But anyone who’s seen Richardson perform, either in the movies or, I’m certain, on stage, knows that’s not for lack of talent or dedication on her part. The reality is that Richardson — the granddaughter of Michael Redgrave and Rachel Kempson, and the daughter of Vanessa Redgrave and director Tony Richardson, and thus part of a multigenerational show-business family — was the sort of actress who’s too good, and too unusual, for Hollywood to reckon with. For every Julia Roberts or Michelle Pfeiffer — for every gifted actress who finds her footing as a star, at least for a time — there are dozens more whose gifts are just as great if not greater, but who perhaps are too subtle for Hollywood to know how to sell. Richardson, I think, fell into that latter category, and the fact that she was such a consistently likable and unpretentious presence perhaps masked how good she really was.
The many hastily collected biographical writeups on Richardson that have been streaming out in recent days generally list the roles that are most familiar to moviegoing audiences, like those in “Nell” (1994), “The Parent Trap” (1998) and “Maid in Manhattan” (2002). They also note, as they should, that she won a Tony in 1998 for her role as Sally Bowles in the Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of “Cabaret.” (She had made her Broadway debut in 1993 in “Anna Christie,” playing opposite Liam Neeson, who would later become her husband.)
I never saw Richardson on stage, but my favorite among her film performances is that of Patty Hearst in Paul Schrader’s 1988 film of the same name. “Patty Hearst” is a challenging and difficult picture, a stylized window into a particular kind of horror story. After members of the Symbionese Liberation Army kidnapped Hearst, they locked her in a closet for days, and thus much of the movie’s first 30 minutes takes place in a closet, an enclosed space that’s hardly safe or comforting. Hearst was raped and emotionally brutalized by the SLA members who captured her, and there’s something about the fragility of Richardson’s facial features — that delicate bone structure, that gently bowed smile — that makes her character’s suffering in that closet almost impossible to bear. Of course, the young Patricia Hearst would have to be portrayed by a young actress, and Richardson was just 25 when she played the role. But she showed wisdom and depth beyond her years. Her performance is complex and sympathetic; there’s no judgment in it, only compassion.
In interviews, Richardson often spoke of how difficult it was to come from such a venerable show-business family: Her father — who died of AIDS in 1991, and whose directing credits included “Tom Jones,” for which he won an Oscar in 1964 — was particularly hard on her. (In a 1998 interview, she talked about how he critiqued one of her early performances, in a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”; he gave her a copy of the play in which he’d marked the parts to which she should pay special attention.) And her mother is, simply, one of the greatest living actresses — possibly, for my money, the greatest. Who would want to follow in those footsteps?
But when I watched a Richardson performance, I never found myself comparing her skills to those of her mother, unfavorably or otherwise. I would look at her face and marvel at how her mother’s face was now also alive in hers. Richardson resembled her mother even more than her sister, Joely, does (although of course the resemblance is there, too), and I always loved that sense of continuity and promise. Over the past few days, I found myself enraged to see that numerous celebrity gossip sites — I refuse to honor their existence by linking to them here — ran pictures of Redgrave as she arrived at the hospital to see her daughter: There’s a distinction to be made between covering a story that means something to people and intruding on a family’s private grief. But under any other circumstances, I’m happy to look at pictures of Redgrave. Now the child’s face lives on in the mother’s.
More Related Stories
- Stop what you're doing and go watch "Borgen"
- Teenage girl claims she was beaten up for looking like Taylor Swift
- Mike Judge: "Bowling for Columbine" made me pro-gun
- New York chef serves up eight-course meal around "Arrested Development" jokes
- HLN: Jodi Arias "pleading for her life" got us a ratings win!
- Michael Ian Black on Maron feud: He "considered me a poseur"
- Chekhov's story mirrors Russia's own
- Pussy Riot member Maria Alyokhina denied parole
- Joe Francis apologizes for calling jury "retarded"
- Mary Karr: David Foster Wallace and I kept each other alive
- Morgan Freeman sleeps during televised interview
- J.J. Abrams reveals deleted shower scene with Benedict Cumberbatch
- Is the anti-gay backlash on?
- Paul McCartney backs Pussy Riot
- Cannes: Ryan Gosling's new movie draws the boo-birds
- Radio host tweets rape joke, blames journalists for reporting on it
- Juror responds to Joe Francis' insults with thoughtful email
- New track from the Lonely Island features Solange Knowles, semicolons
- Amazon introduces fan fiction publishing platform
- Naomi Watts, "Argo," "Wonderstone" among bizarre Teen Choice Awards nominees
- Imprisoned Pussy Riot member declares hunger strike
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11