Thursday, March 19, 2009

Natasha Richardson (1963-2009)

Natasha Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave. Image from

As the drama played out, in the news websites and the blogs, splashed across the cover of the tabloids with lurid red banner headlines as I passed by, as rumours and conjecture swirled, and as people began jumping the gun to call ‘death’ before time, I felt like I was living in a dream world, or a nightmare. I had only been discussing Natasha Richardson that Sunday, cleaning up the kitchen after dinner, we discussed how we often got confused between her and Miranda Richardson, how we could never remember which was a Redgrave, and which was married to Liam Neeson, and which was in The Parent Trap. We went online and confirmed it - Natasha was all three, and a lot more besides. Having finally solidified that in my head, I promptly forgot about her, until the next morning, when I checked the Huffington Post. “Actress Natasha Richardson in ski accident, situation critical”. I blinked at the screen. I hadn’t showered yet, or eaten anything, I was coming down with a bad head cold and the steaming mug of coffee beside me hadn’t been touched. Was I hallucinating this?

I’ve probably made it clear that I could never have called myself a particular fan of Richardson. It wasn’t that I disliked her - quite the opposite. I was just hazy on who exactly she was, and I can probably count the number of times I’ve seen her onscreen on one hand. But reading the obituaries, and not only the ‘important’ official ones in the main English and American newspapers but also the blog posts, which are often more detailed and profound (Nick Davis’s succinct and generous elegy is at ), I began to regret never digging into her filmography during her lifetime, never paying attention to her stage work (living where I do, it’d be nigh-on-impossible for me to actually see her perform, but that doesn’t stop me following other stage actors, through their reviews). Acting was, clearly, her dream job - with a family like hers, how could it not be? But what is making the biggest impression on me today is not her acting talent, but her talents as a person.

‘Talents as a person’. What a silly, glib way of expressing what I mean to say, which is that she seemed like a person who was as devoted to her husband and her family as she was to her craft, that she comes across as a loving, open, friendly person. A mother, a daughter, a wife, a sister, a friend, an actress, a singer, a TONY-winner, a committed AIDS campaigner. Coming from such a well known familial lineage must have been difficult at first, being the daughter of someone as fierce and talented and political as Vanessa Redgrave, and when Natasha first went to drama school, she kept schtum on the topic of her parents. But she realised, or she knew all along, that she was blessed to be born into the family she was, and she regularly acted alongside her mother. Their most recent collaboration was as a mother/daughter duo in a once-off reading of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, at the Roundabout Theatre in New York. ALNM is one of my favourite musicals, and the OBC has been climbing up the Most Frequently Played list on my mp3 player for the past three months, partly because of the witty, sarcastic lyrics and the easy accessibility it affords to those listening to Sondheim as a relative novice (almost every song from the show is in ¾, or waltz time, making it a somewhat easier listen than some of his other, more esoteric works), but also because of its depiction of human relationships: between husband/wife, mother/daughter, friends, neighbours, rivals.

I’m reminded of the most famous passage E.M. Forster ever wrote, from a book that also has a neat tie-in with Natasha herself, as her mother starred in the film version of Howard's End:

Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.

Natasha Richardson did connect. She never seemed to sacrifice one aspect in her life for another, equally important aspect. The equilibrium between art and family, between private and public life, between stage and screen, seemed perfect and wholly natural.

I said that the last few days have seemed like a kind of dream world. Since reading the initial sketchy reports of the accident, she has been in my thoughts and my prayers constantly. It was hovering in the back of my mind as I went about my ordinary day’s business; writing essays, going out with my sister, making lunch. Like everyone else, I hoped for a miraculous recovery, for the doomsday vultures of the media to be totally off-the-ball, but this morning I woke up to the bad news.

If one good thing can come out of this whole tragedy (and I hope it is not too insensitive to suggest that we can take something positive out of it), it is the prescient reminder is that life can be brutal and abrupt and shocking, and that we should attempt to live our lives, pursue our dreams and love those around us as generously as Natasha Richardson seemed to.

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