Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2009

Natasha Richardson

To be a celebrity's daughter is a challenge, greater still when you choose the same field as your famous parent. For most of her distinguished career, Natasha Richardson was primarily, and unfairly, known as the daughter of Vanessa Redgrave — that luminous, daring, willful star who was often called the finest actress of her generation. Richardson carved her own sizable niche in the family business, winning acclaim as a brainwashed California heiress in the film Patty Hearst and earning a Tony Award as Sally Bowles in the 1998 revival of Cabaret. But then she upstaged all the Redgraves in an event of lightning speed and tragic impact. After a seemingly unremarkable fall while skiing in Quebec, Richardson fell into a coma and died two days later, on March 18, in a New York City hospital.

On screen since she was 4 (in The Charge of the Light Brigade, directed by her father Tony Richardson), Richardson as a young woman was cast in period pieces meant to emphasize her glamour and hauteur. She portrayed Mary Shelley in Ken Russell's loony 1986 Gothic, and a year later played Tracy Lord — a role played in movies by Katharine Hepburn and Grace Kelly — in a West End musical version of High Society. But Richardson's public presence was spikier and more modern than her mom's. She did exemplary work in the 1990 film of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, playing a stubborn rebel in a sterile future society. In her 1993 Broadway debut, Richardson turned Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie into a battered but defiant fighter. Her hunky lover was played by Liam Neeson, who was about to vault to stardom in Schindler's List. The couple married, had two sons and settled in New York.

For the next 15 years, Richardson expertly juggled her domestic and professional duties. She brought emotional eloquence to Tennessee Williams heroines (Suddenly Last Summer on TV; A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway) and in 2003 etched a London stage triumph in Henrik Ibsen's The Lady from the Sea. Anyone who saw Richardson's best work would eagerly anticipate another 40 years of it, for she had so much more to give, as actress, wife and mother.

— Richard Corliss