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Natasha Richardson: An Appreciation of an Actress Gone Too Soon

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Photo: Eshelman/FilmMagic

I didn't know Natasha Richardson for long, but her vibrant joy in life hit me instantly. She was glamorous, gifted, deliciously theatrical, and sharp-tongued when she needed to be. Her eyes took you in, and if you passed the test, you were home. That vibrancy fueled her acting, though thinking of her right this minute is painful. Her tragic death yesterday in a freak skiing accident has left her family bereft. Their grief is inconsolable. The last time I saw her we were both speakers at a memorial service for a mutual friend who had died almost as unexpectedly. He was only 40. Natasha read a Rudyard Kipling poem with her customary eloquence and grace, fighting back tears.

Still, what struck me the most about her came later. She had invited a small group of us back to the Manhattan apartment she shared with her husband Liam Neeson and their young two sons. The group included several major names in the film industry, including Natasha's mother -- the legendary Vanessa Redgrave -- and our friend's parents and siblings. They could have been lost in these surroundings. They weren't, thanks to Natasha. She surrounded them in warmth, but there was nothing morbid about the sympathy she offered. She gently coaxed them to talk, not about death, but the life of the man we were mourning. And, suddenly, he was there again, vivid in our memories. That's the way I see Natasha now, making an exciting journey of her life, not just her career. My friend's parents didn't say goodbye after the service and never hear from her again. That wasn't Natasha's style. Loyalty was. Natasha stayed in contact, took them to dinner, continued the bond that comes with real connection. But what of our bond with her?

For those who didn't have the indelible pleasure of knowing her, Natasha leaves behind her work. I saw her 1995 triumph on stage in Anna Christie, the Eugene O'Neill play that brought her together with Neeson professionally and personally. I applauded her Tony-award winning performance in the 1998 revival of Cabaret in which she found meaning in the songs we had heard forever but never really heard until Natasha acted them and found their bruised heart. There is no film record of her performances in those plays or Closer or her startling Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire. Those productions are gone. You saw them or you didn't. That's part of the ephemeral magic of the theater. But Natasha Richardson is still there for us on screen. I saw a TV interview yesterday where somone said Natasha is best known for playing Lindsay Lohan's mother in 1998's The Parent Trap. Please God, no! She brought her usual spirit to that popcorn flick, but her best work was in small, risky movies that challenged her. I think an appropriate way to honor Natasha would be to watch some of the movies that made her proud. Here are a few of my top choices:

PATTY HEARST (1988)

The New York Times hailed Richardson's breakthrough performance as absolutely smashing." They got that right. Playing the newspaper heiress who is kidnapped and brainwashed into bank robbery by the Symbionese Liberation Army, Richardson gets inside the head of a real-life enigma. Right from the start of her career, Richardson knew how to play characters as if they had a secret only she knew. Paul Schrader's hypnotic movie lets Richardson hook us until we tease that secret out. She's mesmerizing.

THE COMFORT OF STRANGERS (1990)

My favorite Richardson performance comes in director Paul Schrader's take on the Ian McEwan novel set in nighttime Venice. Richardson plays Mary, one half of a couple -- Rupert Everett's Colin is the other. They have come to Venice on a holiday to rekindle a four-year relationship that is losing its edge. They clearly want something to happen. 
And they get their wish in the sexually sinister person of a Venetian aristocrat played with creepy perfection by Christopher Walken. It's a hugely underrated movie. And the wanton beauty of Richardson's performance draws you into the film's web.

THE WHITE COUNTESS (2002)

As Sofia Belinsky (Natasha Richardson), a Russian countess who supports her family -- exiled in China during the mid-1930s -- by working as a club dancer and prostitute, Richardson offers her soulful artistry. She finds an unlikely savior in Todd Jackson (Ralph Fiennes), a blind American diplomat determined to open a nightclub in Shanghai with the countess as his hostess and untouchable love object. This last film from the team of Merchant and Ivory -- Ismail Merchant died the year the film was released -- suffered from a convoluted screenplay. But Richardson -- acting with her mother, Vanessa, who plays her aunt, and her aunt Lynn Redgrave, who plays her mother -- finds the story's grieving heart.

EVENING (2007)

Natasha was literally her mother's daughter in this film version of Susan Minot's resplendent novel. Redgrave plays Ann Lord, an aging woman remembering her defining romance with the man who got away. The film, from Hungarian director Lajos Koltai (Fateless), doesn't always flow the way the novel did. But watching the acting duet between Richardson and Redgrave is heartrending. In 1968's The Charge of the Light Brigade, directed by her Oscar-winning father Tony Richardson, four-year-old Natasha can be spotted (along with younger sister Joely) as a member of the wedding party in which Redgrave is the bride. Natasha's beauty was evident even then. The title of a song she sang in Cabaret sums her up best: Perfectly Marvelous.

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Peter Travers

Rolling Stone senior writer Peter Travers has reviewed movies for the magazine for more than 20 years. Send your comments and questions to him here.

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