Natasha Richardson, of acting dynasty, dies of head injury

[19 March 2009]

By Carrie Rickey

The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

Natasha Richardson, 45, the Tony Award-winning actress and member of the fourth generation of England’s Redgrave theater dynasty, was declared dead Wednesday night at New York’s Lenox Hill Hospital.

The radiant beauty, who electrified Broadway in “Cabaret” and charmed moviegoers in “The Parent Trap,” suffered a fatal head trauma during a skiing lesson Monday in Quebec.

Alan Nierob, the Los Angeles-based publicist for her husband, actor Liam Neeson, confirmed her death in a written statement.

“Liam Neeson, his sons, and the entire family are shocked and devastated by the tragic death of their beloved Natasha,” the statement said. “They are profoundly grateful for the support, love and prayers of everyone, and ask for privacy during this very difficult time.”

Richardson initially appeared uninjured and coherent after the seemingly minor fall on the beginners slope. But an hour later, she complained of a headache and sought treatment. As her condition worsened dramatically, she was flown to the hospital near her home in New York, where her family gathered.

Richardson was the daughter of stage legend Vanessa Redgrave, and her sister is actress Joely Richardson. Richardson’s children are Michael, 13, and Daniel, 12.

Natasha Richardson was a descendant of the dynasty founded by her great-grandfather, silent-screen star Roy Redgrave. Richardson was the granddaughter of theater luminaries Sir Michael Redgrave and Rachel Kempson, and the daughter of Vanessa Redgrave and film director Tony Richardson. She made her screen debut at age 4 in her father’s 1968 epic, “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”

She was 3 when her father directed her mother as Guinevere in the 1967 movie musical “Camelot.” In an echo of the film’s plot, Redgrave left her husband for Franco Nero, the actor playing Lancelot. Soon the Richardson girls, Natasha and Joely, had a baby half-brother, Carlo, and three parents working in Los Angeles, London, and Rome.

Despite being to the stage born, the tall blonde was wary of joining the family business. “The names ‘Richardson’ and ‘Redgrave’ didn’t help,” said the actress, determined not to ride the family coattails. According to those who knew her at London’s Central School of Speech and Drama, she was a diligent - and dazzling - student.

Like her celebrated mother and grandfather, Richardson appeared in movies, but she made her reputation on stage, beginning in regional theater in 1983 at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds. On London’s West End, she demonstrated her depth and breadth with a 1985 role in Chekhov’s “The Seagull” that earned her the honor of “Most Promising Newcomer” from the London Drama Critics. In 1987, she wowed audiences in her role as socialite Tracy Lord in the musical “High Society.”

She played another American socialite in her first significant movie role, “Patty Hearst,” in 1988, making a memorable impression in an otherwise forgettable film. In 1990, she married filmmaker Robert Fox (they divorced in 1992). And in 1993, she wowed theater audiences with her role as the title figure in the dockside drama “Anna Christie,” where she met Neeson, her future husband.

They starred in “Nell” (1994), with Jodie Foster as a backwoods woman raised outside civilization. Richardson played a researcher and Neeson the doctor tending to the case. They wed that year and set up house in New York.

“When they arrived at a gala or opening night, they looked like the royal couple,” said Wendy Keys, former executive at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Devoted to her sons, Richardson chose her parts carefully after becoming a mother. “On the whole, I’d rather play a wonderful part in a movie that few people see rather than a sort of cosmetic role in a blockbuster,” she told in 2006.

She received her greatest accolades - and a Tony - for her dazzling interpretation of decadent wannabe star Sally Bowles in the 1998 Broadway revival of “Cabaret.” That same year she was refinement itself as Lindsay Lohan’s patrician mother in “The Parent Trap,” her best-known film.

Her professional heart belonged to the theater, with shattering performances as Anna in Patrick Marber’s “Closer” (1999) and Blanche in the 2005 revival of “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

The only film that let her show the emotional colors of her stage work was “The White Countess” (2005). In the undeservedly underknown James Ivory film, she is a Russian aristocrat in 1936 Shanghai, supporting her family as a prostitute, nobility refusing to drown in a sea of degradation.

It will be hard to watch that film again, with its closing strains of the song “After You’ve Gone.” Just as hard, perhaps, will be to see Neeson as the bereaved widower in “Love, Actually.”

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