Friday, March 20, 2009

Deceased Artiste Natasha Richardson: the Actress

Natasha Richardson’s sad, premature death this week was a big story in the news, but I’m not sure that people reading the tragic tale had actually seen her in anything besides one children’s picture. Like many talented performers, her screen work had been inconsistent due to the quality of the movies she appeared in, but she had shown range and presence, and I thought I’d post just a few clips to give an idea of what she was like during her most interesting period as a film actress, in the late Eighties and early Nineties. After that, her stage work was heralded, and she was raising her children while doing “easier” parts in things like the Jennifer Lopez vehicle Made in Manhattan and, in what appears to be her best-known role among mainstream moviegoers, as Lindsay Lohan’s mom (one of the twin Lindsay Lohans) in the remake of The Parent Trap.

Thus, although the press depicted her as Liam Neeson’s wife and, for those who remember, Vanessa Redgrave and director Tony Richardson’s daughter, she did have a pretty solid movie career for at least a decade. From that period, I’ve provided three of the four clips in this montage. I decided to leave out another interesting starring role from this era, Volker Schlondorff’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1990). It’s a good, interesting film, but isn’t anywhere near as compelling as the novel it was based on, and is more of an interesting technical challenge (how to mount a modernist sci-fi “message pic” — of the sort that never sells any tickets in theaters) than a showcase for performances.

Thus we start out with Richardson’s first starring film role, in Ken Russell’s gleefully over-the-top fantasy based on the famous evening that spawned Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, titled Gothic (1986). “Uncle Ken” has worked with three of the “Redgrave girls” — mother Vanessa (The Devils), Natasha, and sister Joely (Lady Chatterley). This was the first time most of us saw Natasha, and it was apparent from the first that she was an uncommonly beautiful version of her mother — not quite equipped with Mom’s immaculate talents as a performer, but a fine actress nonetheless, and pretty sexy to boot. She never disrobes entirely, quite a surprise in a Russell feature of that time, but does spend most of her time in the film not writing Frankenstein, but running around being terrorized by primal fears in a nightgown.

From her work with “Uncle Ken” (who was
interviewed on the Funhouse), she went on to do two very challenging roles with director Paul Schrader. The first of the two, Patty Hearst (1988), is certainly the bigger tour de force, as the film is hers entirely. The only problem is that the film’s perception of Hearst’s character is muddy – motivations are cloaked or missing, and her life before the kidnapping is only referred to in passing. It was apparent that Ms. Hearst dictated how the film should view her participation in “the Symbionese Liberation Army” and their crimes (and lifestyle), and so the film was one I believe Schrader was ultimately frustrated by. Nevertheless, it is excellent on a stylistic level (with its depiction of the kidnapping from the victim’s point of view) and, even though the lead role is a mess of contradictions, Richardson did her best to “find” the character, and wound up giving a terrific performance.

Her next film with Schrader, The Comfort of Strangers(1990), is a total success, a menacingly kinky melodrama that, while based on a novel by Ian McEwan, has the feel of Sixties English movies like The Servant. This is perfectly natural, since Harold Pinter wrote the screenplays to both films. Strangers is completely and utterly stolen by Christopher Walken in his scenes, but the featured characters are the dissatisfied but still horny couple played by Richardson and Rupert Everett. The conversation included in this montage is a weird little exchange that gives a feel for the film’s toying with the viewer — it’s apparent that both members of the young couple are desirable (especially to creepy Chris), but which one is more desirable? Well, they’ll just have to argue about that, won’t they?

And, since Richardson’s career did continue up until the present day, I decided to include a later clip, but one that I think of generally as a sort of “comic relief.” She starred in the final Merchant-Ivory collaboration The White Countess (2005), which is a terribly corny evocation of Hollywood’s Golden Age that finds Ralph Fiennes as a blind American in 1930s Shanghai dreaming of opening a nightclub. He does, and has Russian Natasha work for him, as the two slowly, ridiculously circle around each other in a romantic sense. The film is camp of the finest sort (unintentional, that is), and is notable because it has scenes where Natasha interacts with the aristocratic (now poverty-stricken) family of her dead husband. The two matriarchs in the family are played by her mother Vanessa and aunt Lynn, who do their best “Rooshian” accents, and while the two are tremendous performers, the whole thing has the feel of a Von Sternberg pic, missing the savvy and style (and brevity) that old Joe would’ve brought to the project.

Richardson’s best work is supposed to have been on the stage, but she did establish herself nicely on screen in her two-decade career. The strongest British performers generally have had weird filmographies — the tremendous generation that flourished in the sixties and early Seventies (her mom, Glenda Jackson, Alan Bates, Oliver Reed) did wind up diluting their legacy in some ways, or just tainting folks’ memory of their work, by appearing in blatant crap. However, since their work ethic meant that these actors made great movies in amongst the dross (unlike, say, our own breed of great-actor-turned-multiplex star, like De Niro), they could be forgiven many, many cinematic “sins.” Natasha Richardson had a film career that was not exactly as stellar as that of her mother and aunt, but she did show herself to a seasoned, extremely talented actress in the movies she left behind.

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