Playing it cool, regally

appreciation natasha richardson

March 20, 2009|By Michael Phillips | Michael Phillips,Chicago Tribune

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 after 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 co-star, was best known in the U.S. 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 had already played the title role in Patty Hearst.

Often stuck in suffocating roles on screen, 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 McHale's, the late, lamented midtown Manhattan theater bar, 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, after Anna Christie, in Patrick Marber's Closer (Julia Roberts took her role for the film version), in director Sam Mendes' landmark reinterpretation of Cabaret (Richardson's Sally Bowles was a fearsomely good, Tony Award-winning depiction of a touchingly mediocre talent) and, in 2005, opposite John C. Reilly, in 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. I wrote in my review for The Chicago Tribune that she glided through the film "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 might 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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