Natasha Richardson, 1963-2009

[19 March 2009]

By Michael Phillips

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

She began by playing an uncredited flower girl, along with her sister, Joely, in “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (1968), a film directed by her father, Tony Richardson, starring her mother, Vanessa Redgrave.

Natasha Richardson was born into show business royalty. At her best, when her uneven film career allowed it - the greatest triumphs came on the London and New York stage - her theatrical chops brought something extra to the role at hand, something that said: This is play-acting. But I’m playing it for real.

Richardson died Wednesday of brain injury complications suffered following a skiing accident that could have happened to anyone, anywhere.

On film she had not a trace of an Everywoman quality. Her regality came in many tones, and a sly sense of humor. Richardson, 5-foot-9 by most accounts but able to stare down most any costar, was best known in America for things like Disney’s remake of “The Parent Trap” (in which she’s charmingly brittle). In 1990 Richardson made her mark in the icy, often brutal and sexually charged dramas “The Handmaid’s Tale,” directed by Volker Schlondorff, and Paul Schrader’s “The Comfort of Strangers.” For Schrader she’d already played the title role in “Patty Hearst.”

Often stuck in suffocating roles onscreen, she breathed more easily in the theater. Co-starring with her future husband, Liam Neeson, in a 1993 Broadway revival of O’Neill’s “Anna Christie,” Richardson conquered a hugely difficult role, full of stereotyped Minnesota dialect and whore-with-gold-heart pitfalls. I still remember the big, whiskey-soaked rasp of a voice she brought to that portrayal. The voice was the key - the way into a nearly unplayable cliche’s beating heart.

She and Neeson fell in love on that production. Regulars that season at the late, lamented midtown Manhattan theater bar, McHale’s, often spied Richardson and Neeson in one of the booths in the back, looking like the start of something big, romantically speaking.

Richardson played Shakespeare and Chekhov in London, and returned to the New York stage, following “Anna Christie,” in Patrick Marber’s “Closer” (Julia Roberts took her role for the film version), director Sam Mendes’ landmark reinterpretation of “Cabaret” (Richardson’s Sally Bowles was a fearsomely good depiction of a touchingly mediocre talent) and, in 2005, opposite John C. Reilly, “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

She could smolder, coolly, with the best of them. In “Asylum” she played the restless wife of a mental hospital administrator, gliding through the film (I reviewed it four years ago) “in various states of fear, desire and undress, a swan among Yorkshire frumps ... she towers over her repressed lessers, a lightning rod in summer whites.”

Had she lived longer, Richardson may well have developed a career to compare to her mother’s, mixing mediums, honing her skills in all kinds of material, digging ever deeper.

She was 45. Rest in peace.

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