I can’t stop thinking about Natasha Richardson. She died today at the age of 45 following a tragic skiing accident that apparently didn’t seem like much when it first happened on Monday. I was repulsed by the ghoulish death watch of the past two days but I kept hoping against hope that there would be an announcement that they somehow stopped the bleeding in her brain and that she was going to be fine after all. That’s how it would have happened on “ER” or “Grey’s Anatomy,” damn it. I feel ghoulish talking about her myself but it’s one of those events involving a public figure that really socked me in the gut, for some reason, like the deaths of Princess Diana and John Kennedy, Jr. You just can’t believe something so random and avoidable and so…well, human could happen to these folks and take them away in an instant. The circumstances of Richardson’s death seem even more incomprehensible when you read the reports of what the accident looked like and how she was talking and laughing afterwards and walked back to her hotel room only to come down with a crushing headache a few hours later. Horrible.
At times like this we feel bad for the real people involved, of course, and then we rattle ourselves by projecting our loved ones into the picture. My family members go skiing, my loved ones have had very bad falls. It brings up all my issues of “mother loss,” too, I almost can’t bear thinking of Richardson’s teenaged sons who I’ve seen photographed with her many times. I can still cry thinking of the image of that envelope addressed to “Mummy” that sat atop Diana’s coffin during her funeral. I can only imagine the searing pain Richardson’s sons are going through and how numbingly awful it must be to lose your mother at that age. The reports of her husband Liam Neeson holding her hand and stroking her face the whole way back from Canada and of a grief-stricken Vanessa Redgrave entering the hospital are poignant and painful. I didn’t see any of the TV coverage but I read reports of paparazzi accosting Natasha’s sister Joely Richardson as she entered the New York hospital. Is there a special place in hell reserved for people who torment the grieving?
I’ve always been an enormous fan of the Redgraves. I am fascinated by families whose members share the same career and passions (so different from my experience) and I’m especially interested in acting families. By all measures the Redgraves were the supreme royalty of that group. Only the Barrymores were in their league. One of my favorite films of all time is the 1952 version of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” starring Natasha’s grandfather Michael Redgrave. Richardson’s grandmother was the luminous Rachel Kempson, a gifted actress who worked well into her 80s. Her father was the Oscar-winning director Tony Richardson and, of course, her mother is one of the most brilliant actresses ever to take a breath, no matter what her politics are. I’ve seen Vanessa Redgrave on Broadway and on the West End and I’d go to nearly any film she’s in merely because of her presence. My favorite parts of the 2007 film “Evening,” in fact the only parts I can remember at this point are the poignant scenes between Redgrave and Natasha Richardson. They appeared together only last month in a benefit performance of “A Little Night Music.” I’m sure Redgrave never dreamed in a million years that any of her children would go before her. It is obviously every parent’s worst nightmare.
I had few personal encounters with the Redgraves, apart from seeing them on the stage. I met Richardson’s immensely talented aunt Lynn Redgrave, whom Kendall knew, during one of our first dates. In 2002, my brother-in-law scored a film that Richardson appeared in called “Chelsea Walls” but I doubt that he met her. Kendall and I were lucky enough to see Natasha Richardson in her Tony-winning performance as Sally Bowles in “Cabaret” in 1998. She was extraordinary in the role—totally different from the Sally Bowles we saw in the film and much closer to the spirit of Christopher Isherwood’s muse. Leah recently appeared in “Cabaret” so we listened to the cast recording for months on end. I appreciated the subtleties of Richardson's performance even more than I did when I saw it live.
I enjoyed so many of Natasha Richardson’s film performances as well as those of her husband, her sister, and several other Redgraves I haven’t even mentioned. I know next to nothing about her personal life but it seemed like she had a very close, loving family. How can we not feel their pain knowing this could happen to any of us at any time? This morning when I was driving Leah to school, before Richardson had died, we were talking about the tragedy. Her favorite Natasha Richardson movie, and one of mine, too, was the remake of “The Parent Trap,” a film that deals head-on with mother loss and then solves it in a preposterous but soul-satisfying way, especially for children of divorce which I am and which Leah already was at the time. I found myself talking to Leah about her frequent skiing escapades in the French Alps where her grandparents have a home. But as I nervously urged her to BE CAREFUL, I stopped myself in mid-neurosis and realized that Natasha Richardson’s death most likely had absolutely nothing to do with carelessness. Knowing that any one of us could meet with some unthinkable fate tomorrow or the next day, what else can we do but savor the present and appreciate every precious second we have with our loved ones?
Listen to the following clip that so beautifully evokes Natasha Richardson’s talent, playfulness, and spirit: